Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

About Time and Travel

On this last day of 2011, I am preparing to leave my mountain top for an extended trip abroad, followed, I hope, by further travels in the spring.  The confluence of the New Year and my journeys seems like a natural moment to begin a hiatus from this blog.  Not that writing it is a hardship or terribly time consuming, but I want to clear the way for whatever commands my attention while I'm on the road.

Sometimes I think I'm overly fond of the format of Ars Brevis. A reader sent me a book of his poetry this week in the hope that I'd review it here, but I've never posted book reviews  before and don't know how I'd make one fit.  Perhaps when I return, I'll have some new ideas about form and content.

More people read this blog than I realized.  Google provided me with some figures and I was surprised, especially since very few visitors leave comments.  I suppose if I'm to resume this effort later in the year, I should do something to promote readership and stimulate discussion.

My first trip is to work as a volunteer teacher in Costa Rica.  I was there once before about twenty years ago and am anxious to see how it's changed.  I hope when I return that I'll have some tales to share.  If you'll send me your email, I'll let you know when I get back.  My address is:  talltchr@gmail.com.  And if you haven't already, please friend me on Facebook.

In the meantime, let me wish you a very happy and healthy 2012.

Portrait of a Young Man by Antonello da Messina; circa 1470.  This Sicilian artist's work shows the influence of both Italian painting in its simplicity and Flemish painting in its attention to detail. This portrait, like the Mona Lisa, makes me wonder what put such a wry smile upon this face over five hundred years ago.  It is the wonder of art that from the vantage of our century we can share a moment of mirth with our predecessors of auld lang syne.  Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Santa in Wartime

Our popular image of Santa Claus has evolved over the years primarily through the work of Clement Moore's (possibly plagiarized)1823 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, the nineteenth century drawings by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly, and the twentieth century paintings by Haddon Sundblom for Coca-Cola. The one shown here is the first of Nast's Santas and it was drawn at the request of Abraham Lincoln as a bit of psychological warfare.

 Santa is shown handing out gifts to Union Soldiers and children at a time in the war when the south was blockaded and suffering severe deprivation. There was no question of Confederate children receiving presents that year. Notice the soldier on the left finding a pair of socks in his package--a precious gift indeed for an infantryman. Santa's raiment displays stars and stripes to show where his loyalty lies. He is holding a puppet which is thought to be the effigy of Jefferson Davis with a noose around his neck.

Is it me, or has the Christmas spirit diminished in our time?  I can easily list all the distractions we face: the economy, the war, disasters, and  our especially vituperative political scene.  But something else is missing, and it's not just that there's no hot toy this season or that the Christmas release movies haven't caught on.  As a Jew, it's probably not appropriate for me to criticize, but I feel it nonetheless:  an absence of hope and purpose, a feeling that all we're doing is hanging onto what we've got and defending it against those who are envious.  

 2011 has been a difficult and dispiriting year.  My personal vow is to be of greater service in 2012 and this may impinge upon my ability to maintain this blog's weekly schedule.  Meanwhile, I wish everyone who drops by the happiest of holidays and a new year of restored, if not fulfilled, hope.

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1863.  Nast also created Uncle Sam.  Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


One can't speak of a tradition of gadflies because gadflies defy tradition.  Nevertheless, there's a lineage that begins with Socrates (The unexamined life is not worth living.), and continues through Dr. Samuel Johnson (Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. ),  Jonathan Swift (When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.), Mark Twain (If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you.  This is the principle difference between a dog and a man.), George Orwell (In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.),  H.L.Mencken (There is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong.), and many others.  Now let's add to that list the late Christopher Hitchens whose passing we mourn this week. 

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the 'transcendent' and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

I confess, I haven't read nearly enough of him, but I find his essays irresistible even when they irritate the hell out of me.  Hitchens identified himself as a soixante-huitard, referring to the tumultuous year of 1968 that launched his political voyage, beginning on the left, veering rightward after 9/11, but always sui generis. 

If 1968 was the year of his spiritual birth, how sadly fitting that he should leave us at the end of 2011 which saw a renascence of protest.  After decades of acquiescing,  American youth took to the streets, perhaps in emulation of this year's much larger and more violent upheaval in the Middle East.   In one of his last published essays, Hitchens had this to say about the Arab Spring and the current debate over America's destiny:

It's a strange fact, but in the present political season it is the American Right that seems to harbor the most skepticism about American power. I find this odd: Yet again the US has managed to get itself largely on the right side of a massive historical shift -- the Arab Spring, which it had not "read" very well the first time round. And yet, most of the remarks made by seekers of the Republican nomination have been sour or grudging.

...The ancients taught us to fear hubris, and the Bible teaches the sin of pride. I am always amazed that American conservatives are not more suspicious of self-proclaimed historical uniqueness. But proclaim it they do, as if trying to reassure themselves against the blasts of what looks like a very bad season.

Christopher Hitchens, illustration by Edward Sorel. The artist, a prolific caricaturist, has been honored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation,  Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Weekends Before Christmas

As a teacher, I rarely got to go to elaborate office parties. Ours tended to be homely on-campus affairs catered by a low bid Mexican restaurant whose tamales and enchiladas were crunchy at the bottom but ominously cool in the middle. There was, of course, no alcohol served, which made the principal's long iteration of thanks to those who helped deck the cafeteria all the more insufferable. My friend, the music director, was always shamed into performing gratis, and each year it burned him when his students had to sing over loud conversations. Once they changed the celebrations from a luncheon to a pre-school breakfast, I stopped going.

Nothing like the lavish party by a dot.com company that I attended before the tech bubble burst. It was held at a yacht club, and a large cabin cruiser took us in groups of thirty for rides around Marina Del Rey. The food was sumptuous and the liquor flowed. The fun of the evening, for me, was to watch geeky engineers get tipsy and apply their considerable intellects to making merry. Unfortunately, within a year, nearly all of them had lost their jobs.

Christmas parties haven't always enjoyed a good reputation. We recall their raucity when we sing about winter wassailing:

Wassail, wassail, all over the town.

The cup, it is white and the ale, it is brown.

The cup, it is made of the good ashen tree

And so is the malt of the finest barley.

There was often brawling and mischief, and by Christmas morning, the jails were filled. It was not commercialism that first profaned the season's sanctity.

What to make of this antic 18th Century painting? Thirteen women, the same number as attended the Last Supper, are seen in various states of inebriation. Two are fighting, several are toasting and guzzling, and one appears to have descended into lascivious reverie. The woman with the crucifix around her neck vomits on the one who has passed out on the floor. The two in the center have a more serious mien, perhaps engaging in earnest character assassination while they continue to dip into the bowl. Like Christmas wassails, there is something ironic in the revelers' depravity. After all, they're well dressed, the setting is luxurious, with a male servant peeking in at the door, and whatever the holiday or occasion it might be, we doubt they intended for it to get this way.

A Midnight Modern Conversation, an anonymous 18th Century oil painting in the style of William Hogarth. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Bon Voyage

As the detritus ofthe 99% occupations is swept into dumpsters, the movement appears to be sinking. No leadership or agenda emerged during the protests. Quite the contrary, the occupiers seemed to lose sightof their broader goals, and let the symbolism of seizing public parks become their actual and only consensual objective.

We also learned this week that the Tea Party's popularity has ebbed and that the sixty Congressmen who identify with it may have a hard time getting reelected. The public has as dim a view of the Republican party as they do of the Democrats in the wake of a shamefully stalemated and ineffectual first session of the 112th Congress.

Meanwhile, the wayward course of the Republican Presidential race continues to reveal that the Grand Old Party is adrift. Herman Cain's support in Florida plunged from thirty four per cent to just ten in less than a month. His pitch about being an outsider and a non-politician was catchy, but now the limelight is on Newt Gingrich, the consummate Beltway insider and backroom fixer. Newt's ascendancy has energized the campaign of Ron Paul who despises Gingrich and is eagerly attacking him.

This all has the feel of the end of a cruise, when newly bonded passengers and shipboard lovers make earnest pledges to stay in touch but then don't even bother to send each other copies of their snapshots. We're just along for the ride and when the ship stops, we disembark as fast as we can.

The fact is that no candidate or movement today is realistically addressing America's challenges, all of which are international in scope. That's why the campaigns and movements that break in and out of the news have an air of unreality to them. Passionate fools lay the blame for whatever they don't like at the feet of easy targets: rich people, liberals, Muslims, illegal aliens, gays, abortionists, pot growers, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, etc. Politicians try to shield the populace from all unpleasantness: taxation, war, and the changes demanded of us over time.

The minority in the middle stands ready to support a leader who will eschew blame and chart a course of responsibility and sacrifice. We've been waiting a long time for such a favorable tide.

Poster of the Oranje by Jean Walther, 1939. This beautiful Dutch ship did not need to be repainted when it was pressed into service as a floating hospital during World War II. After the war, it was renamed the Angelina Lauro and saw long service as a cruise ship until a galley fire destroyed it. Her sister ship, the Achille Lauro, was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1985. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

No posting this week

I'm part of the throng that's jamming the freeways on this holiday weekend. Please come back next week.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Autumnal Reflections

Autumn at its most stark. My mountain has been visited by a frigid cloud and I can't see farther than a tree or two past my property line. The black oaks' leaves are yellow and they alone find something to glimmer about in the subdued morning light. Our October snow was untimely and warm days followed and melted it, but now there's no question that winter is nigh.

Thanksgiving is a harvest holiday and those are always the best. Traditionally, grain bins and smokehouses are full, the weather is not yet forbidding, and memories of summer are still fresh; indeed my tan hasn't fully faded. After Thanksgiving come the Winter Solstice holidays: Christmas, New Years, Hanukah, and Kwanza, and they'll be observed around fireplaces and with candles and colored lights. But today, it is the autumn leaves that blaze.

It is my custom at this time of year to reflect with gratitude upon my life, my family, my friends, and upon the state of the world. In this space, I've written before that I find hope in the fact that our dire economic straits are distributional and not born of famine, disease, pestilence, or want. We have food, energy, products, markets, and capital. We just need to learn to manage them better.

In the Bible, the first commandment given by God after finishing His creation is: "Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it." Thanksgiving should make us ponder how well or ill we are carrying out our charge.

Autumn Hills & My Studio by Robert Vonnoh (1858-1933). I don't know much about the artist other than that he was an avid student of French Impressionism, a beloved teacher in the US, and said to be of a gentle and melancholy disposition--a man who liked nothing more than to set up his easel in the open air. In short, a man of autumnal temperament. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

No Posting This Week

My motherboard bit the dust and now I'm consumed with recovering and reinstalling. Please come back next week.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Not-So-Silly Season

One year from now we will be voting for President. I'm reluctant to write another word.

There may have been a time that I looked forward to national races, but I can't recall when. We have a full year of punditry and predictions to look forward to, together with equivocations, clarifications, and gaffes--and all done in deadly earnest.

We'll no doubt witness a blizzard of attacks and allegations, and quite possibly an October surprise or two. It will fall to the vice-presidential candidates to cast the biggest and sharpest stones. The heads of the tickets will try to defend themselves, and defame their opponents, while still looking presidential. Absent a quick wit, it won't be a pretty sight.

And when all is said and done, very little of it will matter. Regardless of the winner, Washington will return to its horse trading over half measures.

In the past month, we've seen two Republican frontrunners rise and fall due to their vanity and ineptitude. Rick Perry wasn't prepared to debate the issues or defend his record, and Herman Cain wasn't up to scrutiny of either his policies or his character. Neither has exhibited any grasp of how complicated the world is or how far reaching a chief executive's curiosity ought to be. Perry announced a hastily conceived flat tax proposal that even conservative economists denounced as nonsense. Cain, losing his sense of humor and bonhomie, has resorted to barking at reporters, inventing strange facts about China, deriding the importance of foreign policy, and blaming Perry for spilling the beans about his harassment of female former employees.

Obama got in trouble last week when he made a joke at President Sarkozy's expense, so we may not be hearing anything funny from him again. Mitt Romney has never gotten a laugh in his life. Will no one save us from this impending gloom?

James Madison by Gilbert Stuart, 1804. Stuart painted the first six Presidents, including the Washington on our dollar bill, plus a thousand other American faces. The statesmen all appear formal and cerebral, reminding us that the United States did not begin as a populist democracy, but as a republic in the hands of an intellectual elite. Stuart himself was said to be an engaging personality who amused those who sat for him. What a waste that he didn't paint the smiles that he had evoked. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Night of the Living Chocolates

Sometimes we fly into the maw of our fears. On Halloween, we masquerade as demons. At the movies, we cry "Bring it" to those that would frighten us. And then there's trick-or-treating, when we let children forget everything we've taught them about candy from strangers.

The story of Hansel and Gretel is for a different time of year. The gingerbread home, bedecked with chocolates, sugared fruits, marzipan, and penny candies, wherein resides a cannibalistic witch, is a fine cautionary, but not for the night of October 31st. On All Hallows Eve, the kids walk right up and ring the bell, take whatever treats are offered, and soap the windows of old fools who won't come to the door.

Of course, each year the urban legends are rehearsed: razor blades in apples, maraschino cherries laced with LSD, and now, perhaps, counterfeit candy from China sweetened with anti-freeze (I made that one up). Even though the stories never pan out, they belong to the scary lore of Halloween. My uncle used to say he was going to pass out plastic bags to the kids, but he never did it.

I've saved up quarters this year in lieu of treats as I no longer allow chocolate into the house. I've also refused an invitation to watch football Monday night because I feel it's my duty to be home when the wandering sprites and neighboring goblins come to call.

Peddlers are extinct. Door to door Christmas Caroling has all but died out in the cities. Halloween is the only time I can think of when a stranger's knock is a welcome event. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Hansel and Gretel in a scene staged by Grace Coddington and photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue, 2009. The witch is Lady Gaga whose excellent duet with Tony Bennett, The Lady is a Tramp, was released this month. Click on the picture for a closer look, and Happy Halloween.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

No posting this week.

Please come back next week for a Halloween posting.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Burning Issues

Religion rears its ugly head. In Egypt, Muslims have attacked Coptic Christians. And when the latter demonstrated peacefully in protest, elements of Egypt's military regime attacked them again. In Libya, a Jew returning from twenty years of exile to restore a synagogue, was assaulted and driven back into exile. The Arab Spring, with its hoped for flowering of democracy, is fast descending into an orgy of intolerance.

In America, the Perry campaign has kicked over a rock. Governor Rick Perry is the most overtly Evangelical of the candidates and his supporters have been pounding the pulpits. Mrs. Perry disingenuously deflected criticism of his poor debate performances by claiming he'd been "brutalized" for his faith. Worse still was a Perry camp bigot, Robert Jeffress, who attacked Governor Mitt Romney's Mormon faith as an unchristian cult. The remarks of neither have been repudiated by the candidate.

There remains the controversy over whether America is a Christian country. It is an argument that will never be resolved and won't go away. People are free to vote by any criterion they choose, and there will always be candidates who appeal to religious affinity. But publicly avowing that only a Christian is qualified to lead this nation is bitterly offensive to any who value the Constitution's unique contribution to history.

However, we can not deny that religion has a role. It does no good to weigh the brutality and injustice that it has caused through the ages because we can not fairly assess the good that faith has done, and still does, everyday. In Egypt, some of those who tried to protect the Coptic Christians in the streets were Muslims. And those of us who support Israel as a Jewish state, even though we may be secularists, do so because it is unrealistic to think the rights of Jews in that region would be respected in any other way.

Let us pray for the day when religion once again becomes a private matter between individuals and their Creator.

Saint Dominic Presiding Over an Auto De Fe by Pedro Berruguete, 1475. The scene is slightly anachronistic since Dominic died ten years before the Inquisition began. However the order he founded, the Dominicans, was put in charge of the slaughter in Spain, and besides, Dominic murdered many a heretic in France in his time. It's my opinion that the Inquisition depleted Spanish culture permanently, consuming it with hatred while the rest of Europe was engaged in the Renaissance. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Two Wars, One Struggle

Occupy Wall Street continues and is spreading to other cities. The press has elevated it from a local act of civil disobedience to an inchoate national movement. Pundits now wonder aloud if this isn't the start of a force to countermand the Tea Party. Older pundits have likened the current protest's style and ambiance to that of Viet Nam era demonstrations at their naughtiest, with counter-culture exhibitionists hogging the spotlight but speaking gibberish in front of microphones.

It all feels much too familiar.

I've attended Tea Party rallies and been struck by the number of senior citizens who apparently haven't considered the implications of their fiscal demands vis a vis their Medicare and Social Security payments. Many have a strong religious and rural orientation and seem to identify the liberal policies they condemn with the depravities of urban life. In other words, the Tea Party wages the latest assault in the cultural warfare that has riven America since the 1960's.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, on the other hand, strikes a blow for class warfare. America is drifting dangerously toward plutocracy as the discrepancy between rich and poor, and the disappearance of those in the middle, makes our country look more and more like pre-revolutionary France.

I'm not the first to observe that the class warriors and the cultural warriors have much more in common than they care to admit. Both sides sound the alarm that middle class life in America is grievously threatened. Both demand justice and accountability. If only they could speak to each other without shibboleths and slogans. If only they didn't look at compromise and bipartisanship as perfidy. If only they didn't drag in social issues.

If only they haven't hated each other for years.

Hair lithograph, 1968. The musical was aptly named: "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical". For a decade, reproductions of this crude image on posters and record albums, with the green print on a green field, were ubiquitous. But the play never rose above maudlin in addressing the Viet Nam War, while it smugly edified its tribe, i.e. the youthful audience. The revived show that opened in 2009, I've heard, emphasizes the characters' adolescent angst over their social rebellion. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Casting Without a Hook

Thursday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. On the Hebrew calendar, this is 5772. Part of the afternoon observance is a service called Tashlikh which means to cast away. This is performed at a body of water where there are fish: in my case, Big Bear Lake. After a few prayers and meditations, the participants shake bread crumbs out of their pockets and into the water, symbolically casting away their sins for the fish to eat and bear away.

The observance is not set in stone. Rabbis have debated over the ages how, why, and even whether it is to be performed. Some have suggested it is a pagan rite to bribe the devil that resides in the deep. Others compare it to the scapegoat symbolism. Another view is to remind us that people are like fish: easily ensnared.

I had never attended a Tashlikh service before. This one, conducted on two pontoon boats tied to a fishing buoy, did not disappoint. I especially liked the liturgy, which was introspective rather than legalistic. In other words, the sins that were named are not civil offenses, but lapses in character. A sampling:

Let us cast away the sin of Deception, so that we will mislead no one in word or deed, or pretend to be what we are not….
Vain ambition, which prompts us to strive for goals which bring neither true fulfillment nor genuine contentment...
Stubbornness...Envy...Selfishness, which keeps us from enriching our lives through wider concerns, sharing, and reaching out in love...
Indifference…Pride and Arrogance.

The brilliant sky, glistening water, and late afternoon sun beat heck out of the drone of prayers in the synagogue.

Noboru Koi Large Fortune by Wu Jin Sato, a contemporary Japanese commercial artist. Paintings and prints like this are valued as apotropaic charms to ward off evil and attract good luck. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Another World

Around the turn of the century, the last century that is, the Cornish art colony in upper New Hampshire thrived. About eighty artists and notables were associated with this retreat, which was more or less organized by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the painter Thomas Wilmer Dewing. First artists and architects, next writers, and then other talented and accomplished people, along with the merely wealthy, took up residence in and around Cornish and Plainfield, New Hampshire, for either the summers or year round. The list of colonists include Maxfield Parrish, Ethel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Isadora Duncan, Frederic Remington, Daniel Chester French (sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial), legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, Judge Learned Hand, and President Woodrow Wilson.

These were not starving artists. Their presence revived the economy of this formerly hardscrabble farming area. Many built stunning residences with formal gardens, including ten designed by colonist Charles A. Platt that show Georgian and Italian Renaissance influences. Others remodeled existing farmhouses in high style.

I'm curious about how active and inclusive their social gatherings were. It was never a teaching colony, but they must have held parties and picnics, gallery openings, lectures, concerts, and the like. Was Jewish sculptor William Zorach always invited? I'm sure there were also intrigues, liaisons, fallings-out, rivalries, and many drinking bouts. Perhaps there's a historical novel lying in wait for a writer willing to do the research.

This painting, Symphony in Green and Gold by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1900, was inspired by one of the colony's amateur theatricals, staged in a garden and illuminated by Chinese lanterns. If I have any fantasy about living in such a colony, it is of being culturally self-sufficient, participating in do-it-yourself entertainments alongside creative people. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Late Summer

There's something defeatist in the prompt drydocking of the speedboats on my mountain lake. Labor Day has passed, but we have one final weekend of summer, and besides, it won't get cold for many more weeks, barring a precipitous snowfall. Can't we pretend it's summer for just a bit longer?

But the fireplaces are already ablaze, and while the mornings may not bite the earlobes just yet, there is a new insistence to the breeze that it be respected with a sweater. For the first time in many months, I am craving a bowl of soup.

Never mind. Everyone says they like autumn best, if for no other reason than because it's the time when they can layer their apparel with soft fabrics and earthy colors.

John Singer Sargent painted his friends Paul and Alice Helleu while visiting an artists' colony in the Cotswolds, a range of hills in England. I like this scene very much, with the top of Paul's straw hat as a surrogate for the sun--see how the light seems to radiate from it in the grass above--even though her straw bonnet is actually a bit brighter. Alice's evident boredom with her husband's absorption in his work, on what surely should have been an afternoon of fishing and recreation, gives a comic cast to a very intricate composition.

I can't help imagining the full scene, with Sargent positioned at our vantage, working on this painting. What must the sounds have been like, the birds, breeze and water mixed with the scrape of the brushes against the two canvases, and perhaps Alice humming softly to herself?

An Out-of-Doors Study by John Singer Sargent, 1889. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Nine Eleven

Everywhere people are remembering where they were on this day ten years ago. It's easy to recall how we first heard the news, but harder to think of where we were as a nation before the Twin Towers, before the second Iraq war, before the Afghanistan adventure, before our crushing budget deficits, before a six fold increase in the price of gold, before the Tsunami, before the near sinking of New Orleans, before the ascendency of Barack Obama, before the Tea Party, before this year's unprecedented string of weather related emergencies and disasters, and most of all, before the rise and fall of America's good name in the hearts of our allies all over the world.

Some things only seem new. Our disgust with Congress may be peaking, but I found kindred skepticism the other night when I watched the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Worry over the national debt has been with us ever since "that man", Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sought to combat joblessness with public works projects. And wars of choice didn't begin with George W. Bush--"Remember the Maine!"

We have felt despair before; is it worse now? What would combat it? I see three potential sources of hope. The first is dialogue. Yes, TV pundits are abrasive, and many people believe harebrained conspiracy theories rather than reputable news sources, but as we approach the next election, I think we can expect a greater audience for the exchange of political ideas and information than ever before. What will result? I have no idea, but my hope is that we will reach a consensus, or as politicians like to call it, a mandate that will enable us to effect changes.

The second is an economic rebound. The financial markets have been fluctuating by as much as 3% in a day, which is distressing. However, the fact that good news causes rallies, however short lived, is evidence of dormant faith in our economic potential. The capital is there, looking for opportunity, and the demand for our goods and services, both here and abroad, is enormous. Our economic downturn is not born of want. This gives me hope.

My third wellspring is more reflective. Our continent is truly blessed, our values are the world's highest, and our society is the most admired. We don't always respect our environment as we should, or live up to what we profess, but I place my hope in our desire to retain our leadership role. In other words, I place my hope in the fact that Americans are not given to despair.

Map, by Jasper Johns, 1961. Johns is a much heralded artist and a gray eminence among the New York art scene. Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom earlier this year. His most famous works are of the American Flag. I find his work coy, patriotic in one context and ironic in the next. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Labor Day

It's happened again. I got into a conversation with a conservative friend and found myself defending labor unions. To his credit, my friend conceded that unions were necessary in the last century to defend workers from oppressive corporations. But today, he says, they only seek to coddle the lazy and prevent social and economic progress.

Gently, I tried to remind him that unions were a partner during America's most robust growth years. Today, they're a shadow of what they were while growth has all but stopped. Of course, the unions my friend has in mind are of public servants, and specifically the teachers' unions. In fairness, conservatives don't wish to see robust growth in this sector.

My friend has seen On the Waterfront and a host of other accounts, factual and fictional, of labor racketeering. I suggested that those days are gone and that the big time corruption nowadays is to be found on Wall Street and among its D.C. enablers.

This weekend is called Labor Day, but who remembers why? Certainly not the governor of Texas who has questioned the constitutionality of child labor restrictions. Nor the average worker, 88% of whom are not unionized. Most school children could not recall organized labor's contributions to American history which are all but omitted from today's textbooks.

Perhaps unions can only thrive in a growing economy. When job creation is at zero, as in the U.S. today, there can be no leverage for collective bargaining. So Labor Day is now a relic from a bygone era, a souvenir of America's faded industrial glory.

Lee J. Cobb, Marlon Brando, and Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront, 1954. Arthur Miller wrote the original screenplay and gave it to Elia Kazan, who had directed Death of a Salesman on Broadway. But Columbia's Harry Cohen thought Miller was a communist and replaced him with Budd Schulberg. Kazan, Schulberg, and Cobb (the original Willy Loman) were all friendly witnesses before the House Unamerican Activities Committee and the film is widely seen as a defense of their naming names. Cobb's testimony all but ruined the acting career of my beloved friend and teacher, Jeff Corey, who nevertheless attended Cobb's funeral and made peace with his daughter. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Remember in The Godfather how young Michael Corleone first appears, a dignified and principled Army captain who disdains the workings of the Cosa Nostra? But when his family is threatened, Michael transforms into a ruthless Mafia don with a code of honor that, for all its rituals and sanctimony, is chaotic and evil.

A similar character-driven drama is playing out in Syria where the son and heir of the monstrous Hafez al-Assad has followed in his father's footsteps, murdering over two thousand peaceful protesters to keep his grip on power. This same young man, Bashar al-Assad, once promised reform and freedom in his country. Returning from England, where he studied ophthalmology, he briefly encouraged a free press and countenanced dissenting voices. Bashar befriended the popular Syrian political cartoonist Ali Farzat, attending a gallery opening of a collection of his gently satirical works. He expressed admiration and encouraged their publication in a new magazine...for a little while.

Bashar either changed or he dropped his façade. Everyday we read of further atrocities in Syria's streets at his behest.

The cartoons here are by Ali Farzat. The one on top is from 2007 and states a universal truth about the alacrity with which nations go to war. Last Thursday, Assad's thugs kidnapped Farzat, beat him brutally, and broke his hands. But earlier today he seems to have overcome his injuries and sketched himself in his hospital bed. Click on the picture for a closer look at his gesture of defiance. Also, more of his work is displayed on his Facebook page, but the captions are in Arabic.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Proper Study of Mankind

Where is the touchstone of memory? A friend's father had a charming quirk by which he discounted all changes to his environs. Thus the new Walmart was only squatting on Mr. Stillman's farm, and the sleek Exxon was just a mask fitted over the old general store with its hand cranked gas pump.

For people of my generation, an implanted memory abides from our first schoolbooks of Dick and Jane, Baby Sally, Spot, and Puff, and their lives on Pleasant Street. Theirs was a worriless world of temperate weather and kindly neighbors. From time to time, as I drive around Southern California, I see such neighborhoods with mature trees, wide streets, and grassy medians. For just a moment or two I can be fooled into thinking my memories are real and that the world of Pleasant Street in the 1950's is worth going back to.

But Pleasant Street is not a touchstone; it's a chimera. Post war America, despite its booming economy, was a place of great suffering. Poverty and discrimination were rampant. Conformity to narrowly defined religious and political beliefs, and social restrictions, were rigorously enforced both informally and by law. Shibboleths abounded regarding patriotism, sexual mores, race, God, and American exceptionalism.

And yet, I think we may be forgiven for hoping that one day we'll live in a demi-paradise of neighborliness and blooming gardens on shaded streets. What is unpardonable, however, is to believe that the past ever held a time when greater wisdom prevailed.

I mention this after reading Ryan Lizza's article about Congresswoman and Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann in this week's New Yorker in which he names people who have profoundly influenced her religious and political thinking, starting with the late Francis Schaeffer, who helped inspire the rise of the religious right, and who denounced the Renaissance as a time when the world ceased to be God-centered and embraced the heresy of humanism. Others include a revisionist historian who sees the Civil War as an attack by the Godless North on the Christian South, and followers of "Dominionism" which is a call for an American theocracy.

I hope that greater exposure of Ms. Bachmann's atavistic thinking will result in her greater renunciation and derision.

The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, 1793. In this neo-classical work, David appropriates the style of religious art (think of Michaelangelo's Pieta) to depict a secular martyr: radical journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat. The painting was grandly reproduced onstage in Peter Weiss' inspired 1963 play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade , or Marat/Sade for short, which was embraced by radical chic audiences of the Viet Nam era.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Angry, Abandoned, Radicalized Middle

If I were a political creature, I'd be tempted to start a new movement, or perhaps a party, and call it AARM: Angry, Abandoned, Radicalized Middle.

This week saw two strong rebukes to our political system, first by the historic downgrading of American debt, and next by a resounding market slump. Both have been attributed to the recent debt deal in Congress that came up short of its goals and settled nothing. Not a cent has been cut from the budget; we have merely a promise to reduce spending while the country borrows enough to tide us over until after the next election.

A committee of twelve has been named, evenly divided between the parties and the Houses of Congress, to negotiate just 1.2 trillion dollars (down from 4 trillion) in budget cuts. The party leaders named the members and it appears that on the hill, it's business as usual. There are no mavericks in the bunch.

Meanwhile we centrists, who we're told comprise a majority of the voters, are unrepresented.

The polarizing issues are taxes vs. entitlements. The Republicans oppose any tax increases, or "revenue enhancements" in the parlance of the euphemizers, whatsoever. The Democrats are defending Social Security and Medicare, plus a host of social programs, against all cuts.

The A.A.R.M. sees clearly that both sides are wrong.

Taxes were foolishly lowered under the Bush administration and should be put back where they were. Entitlements have been overpromised through the years; modest adjustments in them today may prevent drastic cuts, or even elimination, later on.

But there is no time to waste. And so far as this writer can see, that's all Washington is doing or wants to do: kill time until the next election when each side hopes to effect a sweep so that it won't have to compromise. In other words, the once coveted middle ground has been abandoned and neither party wants to answer to the nation's centrist majority.

Are you feeling as angry, abandoned, and radicalized as I am?

Solitude by Marc Chagall, 1933. The worried rabbi represents the Jewish people, outcast from the darkened city at the onset of the holocaust. The Torah scroll, the small and innocent looking cow, and the violin that's been set aside, recall the shtetl life that is no more. An angel flies unnoticed through ominous skies. Solitude decries the people's abandonment and isolation. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

No posting this week.

Please come back next week.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know"

Until the word "serenely", Lord Byron's poem seems to prophesy Amy Winehouse. Perhaps the last eight lines are also apt, if we read them as what lies beneath her shadows. Certainly Amy and her art present a nocturnal beauty.

She was a flawed creature who thought herself ugly and who wrote "You Know I'm No Good." She was wrong.

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o'er her face,
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek and o'er that brow
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,—
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent.


Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) left us two distinct and impeccably produced albums, with a dozen or more songs yet to be released.

Girl Smoking by Wilhelm Sasnal, 2001. Sasnal is a realist not in the way he paints, but because he only paints what he has seen. When I came across this, I spent a long time studying her shocks of hair and the defiant turn of her neck. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Weakness of Solidarity

Among the more memorable things that President Ronald Reagan said is his Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican." The irony is that he didn't need to say it because the GOP has long been loathe to air its laundry in public.

Their solidarity has not always served them well. George W. Bush received near unanimous party support as he cut taxes while waging a war of choice. Since then, many have regretted that more Republican voices weren't raised in challenge.

In the current debt-limit crisis, which most of us are thoroughly sick of, Republicans are again presenting a solid front. However, it's only a front. Behind the scenes, we are told, Speaker Boehner is warding off a challenge to his leadership by Congressman Cantor. His walking out of negotiations with the president makes us wonder if he isn't afraid that he can't deliver his caucus once a deal is reached.

Senior Republicans, especially in the Senate, are prepared to reach an accommodation with the Democrats over tax increases but are being shouted down by Tea Party members, mostly freshmen Congressmen, who are implacably opposed. And all the while, declared GOP presidential candidates are contributing no visible leadership on this issue. I suggest that the Republican party is not so much solidified as stalemated from within.

Is it a stretch to say that the Republicans are paying a price for cozying with the Religious Right? The party that should be the wellspring of economic wisdom and legislative prudence is now in the thrall of people whose economic convictions are as dogmatic as their ideas about abortion, creation, climate change, and the rights of gays.

I've often said that if America had a truly conservative party, I'd join it. But right now, I remain a social liberal/fiscal conservative without a home.

Perhaps the last generally admired Republican to occupy the oval office was Theodore Roosevelt. But as a trust-buster and an ardent conservationist, he might not have been a Republican today. Here is a campaign poster from 1900 that is marvellously detailed except that it neglects to identify the candidates. TR ran as the progressive William McKinley's new pick to be vice-president. McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by an anarchist. Click on the picture for a closer look and note the "bug" at the bottom of the page indicating that the poster was printed in a union shop.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Beaux Arts

In Lyon, across from the Musée des Beaux Arts, stands this fountain by Frederic Bartholdi. If his name rings a bell, it's because he sculpted the Statue of Liberty. It depicts France as a woman riding a chariot and driving four hard charging horses. They represent the four great rivers that flow through the nation, which are, I think, the Seine, Rhone, Garonne, and Loire, but I'm just a tourist and a wine drinker.

The picture doesn’t do the whole setting justice, for next to it are some outdoor cafes that sprawl out onto the square. The fountain is passionate and alive with its horses galloping amid powerful water sprays, while the people sit leisurely drinking their boissons and reading or chatting, either with each other or on their cell phones.

Since my return to America, I've heard nothing but debate about government budgets. Not only is Washington stalemated, but nearly every state is in crisis. Minnesota just reopened its government after shutting down altogether. Here in California, seventy state parks are going to be closed, leaving them vulnerable to irreversible damages and losses. For it is a sad fact of American life that public art and open spaces are invitations to vandalism: the revenge of the weak upon the society they despise and that despises them.

No one builds fountains like this anymore. Indeed, resources for all civic amenities are drying up, and opportunities to wile away time in a public place, with ease, beauty, and grace, are fast disappearing.

La Fontaine Bartholdi, 1889. Click on the picture for a closer look, and see if you can find where he engraved his name.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Notre Dame

Watching the Tour De France these day brings back my own just concluded bicycle trip in France, past similar beige colored stone buildings in immaculate little wine villages in Burgundy. It was a wonderful vacation, although I almost wish I hadn't extended it for three days in Paris. This is the high season which means a large share of the twenty six million tourists who visit Paris each year were ahead of me in line at every museum and historic site I wanted to see. Next time I go to the Louvre or the Musee d'Orsay, it better be raining.

I did manage to brave the crowds at Notre Dame Cathedral. After the wait, I'd hoped at least one chapel would be set aside for meditation, but the church actually isn't big enough to afford that.

Notre Dame is not only a great example of Gothic architecture, but the site of many historic events, including the crowning of Napoleon. One of my favorite stories, however, is the elimination of vicious wolves that plagued Parisians in 1450. The pack was lured to the square in front of the church and then attacked with rocks and spears.

Inside, the rich color saturation of the stained glass windows is the highlight and I have some pictures of them. But I can't resist posting this snap of Saint Denis from the Western facade. I first thought it was John the Baptist, but the shepherd's staff prompted me to dig a little deeper: Saint Denis' mission, when he was martyred in the third century, was to expand the Church's flock. Legend has it that he walked about after being decapitated, preaching a sermon. Saint Denis is one of Paris' patron saints, a fact that is sadly ironic considering its notoriety for beheading people during the French Revolution in, another irony, the Place de la Concorde.

In art, the word for depicting headless saints and the like is cephalaphore. Notice that the sculptor put Saint Denis' halo where his head used to be, not where it is now. One final note, Saint Denis is invoked to cure headaches.

Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


My former colleagues at Huntington Park High School, will find out Monday if they've been rehired. The rest will have to pack up and clear out. My heart grieves for these fine people who've been bulldozed by a system that values the appearance of sweeping reform above the hard, incremental work of actual achievement.

As for me, I am leaving for France and I'm not sure whether I'll be able to make any further posts to this blog until July 9th. I hope you'll remember to drop by.

Untitled by Apostoles Georgiou, a contemporary Greek painter. I've seen a number of his untitled paintings that depict little frozen moments before indistinct backgrounds. He thereby gives us liberty to project our own associations, which in my case, is that of waking a sleeping student. Metaphorically I can think of no more powerful image. As proof, allow me to challenge you to role play both of these figures: in what way are you the awakener? In what way the sleeper? Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

On a Lake at Sunset

The winter, my first real one in many years, was magical in the mountains, with trees and hillcrests clad in heavy snow and framed by deep blue skies. But now the trees are in full leaf and my dog finds the sun on the deck well to her liking. Summer's almost here at Lake Arrowhead and I'm thinking of getting a little boat.

This artist is new to me: Theo Booth. Here he's spun a fantasy that may almost be within my reach, and calls it For You. Look how he tells this romantic and naughty tale with circles and lines. Is her bonnet translucent, or is that a halo? Would that all saints had such bountiful cleavage. Her beau proffers the bouquet of what appear to be not flowers, but ripe berries, with his head and arm aligned in phallic urgency. Indeed, his other arm, the tip of the oar, and the oarlock that squeezes it, along with the tilt of the Champagne bottle toward the orb of her knee, are all so suggestive that I can write no more about them.

Booth used to restore boats. His artistic influences, among others, have been Modigliani and Tamara de Lempicka. He's lived in many countries but is currently based in Barcelona. Others have written that he celebrates the escapist possibilities of travel. Again the fantasy seems created especially for me as I'm leaving for France later this month. Perhaps there I'll find a little lake where I can rent a boat and row out at sunset with a comely passenger and a bottle of bubbly. Pour moi? Thank you, Theo.

For You by Theo Booth. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Apocalypse Postponed

This month we did not witness the predicted rapture, but we did see the fall of some transgressors. From mere boors, like the braggart Arnold Schwarzenegger and the insufferable John Ensign, to monsters like the genocidal Ratko Mladic and the sanctimonious Osama Bin Laden, May brought a welcome breath of justice.

But justice can be a meager dish. None of these downfalls improves our lot. From none of them may we assume that successor culprits will be chastened. The propensity of megalomaniacs, once in power, to believe they are above common decency, remains undiminished. Indeed each of these four, along with dozens of other leaders recently disgraced, imprisoned, or eliminated, still has followers who believe in his virtue.

Tolstoy argued that the role of a leader, either hero or villain, tends to be overstated in our histories. It is not emperors and generals, but the efforts of the masses and the current of the times, mixed with chance and changes in the weather, that determine events. We should not believe that merely removing a foe or a hypocrite will thwart our enemies abroad or restore good governance within our shores. This lesson is especially pertinent today in the Middle East.

Our struggle is not against obnoxious individuals--that would be too easy-- but against much more formidable horsemen: ignorance, greed, hatred, and want.

The Four Horsemen by Albrecht Durer, 1498. This is the most famous of fifteen woodcuts that Durer published as a book called The Apocalypse. It may have been the first printed picture book published by an artist and it was a great success. Durer's Four Horsemen are, left to right, Death, Famine, War, and Conquest, or if you prefer, Pestilence. Note that one of the fallen beneath Death's pale horse wears a crown. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

No posting this week

I'm on the road, visiting friends in Oregon, and unable to post. Please come back next week.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fast Reshuffle

The school where I taught for nearly twenty years, Huntington Park Senior High, is being reconstituted. This means that everyone--the administrators, the teachers, the clerical, maintenance, cafeteria, and security personnel, every one of them--has been given notice. If they want their jobs back, they must reapply, and the rules state that only half of them can be rehired.

Disruption for the students will be dire, especially those preparing for college. The Los Angeles School Board has apparently not considered what happened the year following a similar reconstitution imposed upon nearby Fremont Senior High. Many of its best teachers chose not to reapply, in some cases taking their expertise, programs, even grants, to other campuses. Sixty per cent of the classes wound up being taught by substitutes and temporary volunteers.

A former colleague told me yesterday that hiring interviews will be handled by four panels, each consisting of district officials, a parent, and a student. I don't know how evaluations can be performed fairly and uniformly by four separate panels, but apparently time pressure necessitates a decentralized approach. Huntington Park's new school year begins in just six weeks.

Of course most teachers will land on their feet. The district can't actually fire them without cause, so they'll either be reshuffled to other campuses or they'll stay home and collect their full salaries.

My greater concern is for the lower paid classified workers, many of whom live in the neighborhood and walk to work. If they must transfer to remote campuses, some will have to take buses, lengthening their day and perhaps turning their kids into latch-key-students, who are, almost by definition, at risk.

I don't wish to hyperbolize, but I think it is fair to say that reconstituting is a top-down attempt to force change upon a school's culture. There can be no line of argument for replacing the man who cuts the grass, vis a vis raising student achievement, other than desperate faith in authoritarianism.

All my life, I've been suspicious of anyone who utters such phrases as crack-down, no-nonsense, zero-tolerance, and across-the-board. Ignorance of nuance, indifference to root causes, and refusal to refine priorities, is hardly a virtue. In other postings I'll continue to share my experiences and comment upon the educational challenges we face, but let me say for now that executive petulance will solve nothing.

Smiling Tom by Robert Henri, 1924. Henri, an Ashcan School luminary, painted lots of children, often smiling, and of all races and ethnicities. It's evident that he genuinely liked them. I've rarely heard school board members, educators, or government officials speak of children except in the aggregate. By the way, this painting is to be auctioned at Christies next week with an estimated price of between three and five hundred thousand dollars. Click on the picture for a closer look...and let me know if you decide to bid.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Springtime for Bin Laden

At times our public discourse feels empty. Osama Bin Laden was killed late Sunday night, and since then very little print or air time has been given to any other story. And yet, the content of these articles and pronouncements has largely been trivialities, cavils, and conspiracies. Very few have ventured into the deeper water of the historical significance of his life and death.

His demise has come during the Arab Spring, a season of immense historic potential. For example, two weeks ago, the rival Palestinian powers, Fatah and Hamas, resolved to bury the hatchet. The former was prompted by the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, the latter by the instability of Assad in Syria. Even before Bin Laden's death, many commentators recalled their failed attempt at rapprochement begun in Mecca in 2007, and predicted the alliance would not be consummated. Bin Laden's death may prove them right. Hamas has condemned the killing of this "Arab holy warrior" as "a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood." The Palestinian Authority, however, says that his death is "good for the cause of peace."

The Arab Spring took both the US and Al Qaeda by surprise and neither has formulated a response. I believe Bin Laden was eclipsed before he was killed. His jihadist and anti-democratic, anti-Western, philosophy was tacitly rejected by people brave enough to venture into the streets, unarmed, to demand empowerment and an end to tyranny. The problem is that these tyrants were nominally friendly to the United States. So the question now is whether Bin Laden's death will make him relevant once again.

Untitled by Ismail Gulgee, 2006. This beloved Pakistani artist trained as an engineer in the US but was self taught as a painter. He received many royal commissions for portraits, but turned to abstract art which, in his hands, is spiritual and expressive of his deep Sufi faith. Gulgee, aged 81, his wife, and their maid, were strangled in Karachi in 2007. The crime remains unsolved. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Spin Zone

Meteorologists work with models whereby they factor in variables to project consequent effects. But tornadoes, like earthquakes, defy prediction, so the models don't work, at least not well.

Scientists, unlike their critics, prefer not to say things they can't substantiate, and therefore they are reluctant to attribute this season's terrible spate of tornadoes to global climate change. As Andrew Revkin put it in his New York Times science blog: "...a combination of imprecise records and deep complexity in the mix of forces that generate killer tornadoes has clouded any link to global warming. Anyone implying such a connection is in the spin zone."

About the truest thing we can say of tornadoes is that they are mysterious. For those who haven't experienced one, they often happen on sultry days for which the initial winds come as a relief. The rain may not be heavy, but the clouds gather as if to make an assault, and then the sky turns green, an effect so eerie as to turn the earth itself into a stranger. As for the noise, I don't know whether Doppler effect is an accurate description of what happens next, but the crescendo and its approach are more prolonged than the diminuendo. And once it's gone, the day can seem incongruently mild and calm.

I have been spared a direct hit by a funnel cloud. This month, tens of thousands of people in the southern states were not so fortunate, and over three hundred lost their lives.

California artist John Brosio has made a specialty of painting tornadoes. They touch down outside of villages in which Edward Hopper might have felt at home. In Brosio's paintings, the incongruence that I spoke of is present, as people seem blithely unaware of what is happening a mile or two away, perhaps not even questioning why their lights shine so brightly in the daytime.

It's hard not to think of tornadoes metaphorically, remembering that God appears as a column of smoke leading the Hebrews through the desert and speaks to Job from the whirlwind. But why stop at metaphor? If global change is right, the earth is trapping too much energy, leaving us with a malevolent force that resides on our landscape whether we notice it or not.

Island 2 by John Brosio, 2002. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Foul Territory

This week, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig wrested control of the Los Angeles Dodgers from owner Frank McCourt because of the team's shaky finances occasioned by the latter's messy divorce.

There are many Southern Californians who can't connect with the Dodgers anymore. Indeed, season ticket sales have plunged. The stadium, inconveniently located and poorly designed, has grown old before its time. Its restrooms are vile. Parking and refreshments are priced exorbitantly. Worst of all, the fans have grown crude to the point of wanton violence, as we saw on opening day.

Perhaps the time has come for the Dodgers to find a new stadium, a new owner, and perhaps even a new city. Down the road in Anaheim people watch the Angels in a cleaner and better designed venue that is convenient to the freeway. Parking costs half what the Dodgers charge. Refreshments are far more varied and prices are fair. Most of all, the ambiance is cheerful and family friendly.

If the Dodgers can not provide a safe and clean stadium for an outing at a reasonable price, then both the team and the city might be better off without each other.

Baseball Players Practicing by Thomas Eakins, 1875. I find an industriousness and a brooding quiet in many of Eakins' works. Here, only a handful of spectators, barely sketched, presents no distraction to the players. The crowds will return with their adulation, but in this moment, late in the season and after the game, as evidenced by the yellow turf and long shadows, the athletes are joined in wordless diligence. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Bully Pulpit

This month, an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found that while sixty one per cent of us say we want a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, most of us change our minds once we're told of the personal sacrifices that it would entail. It drops to just twenty seven per cent who still wish to pay the piper.

Ever since Lyndon Johnson's "guns and butter " politics, our leaders have competed to shield us from reality. Nixon cancelled the draft so now only professional soldiers are sent to war--over and over again--while the rest of us are at liberty to pretend the nation is at peace. Congress has repeatedly voted to lower taxes and raise the debt ceiling rather than reconcile our revenues with our expenditures. And leaders who should know better countenance Sophistry in assessing the toll we are exacting upon our environment.

This week President Obama addressed the American budget deficit. I can not fault him for his partisan approach--he was fighting fire with fire. But he needs to mount the bully pulpit and educate the public. I hope that a detailed proposal along with a series of dutch uncle speeches will follow. Obama's tendency to entrust Congressional horse trading will simply not suffice.

"Bully Pulpit", by the way, is a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt. It is well to remember that Roosevelt, a Republican when he was president, was firmly committed to free enterprise. However, he was a trust-buster and the author of the "Square Deal", (precursor of FDR's "New Deal"), which sought to protect workers and to regulate capitalism's excesses.

Official Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent; 1903. This painting hangs in the White House. The story goes that Sargent and Roosevelt, as they traipsed from room to room looking for the right place and pose, became impatient with each other. While climbing the stairs, the subject gripped the newel post and turned on the painter to express his pique, and Sargent had his pose. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

No posting this week.

Please come back next weekend.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Madding Crowd's Ignoble Strife

Two senseless attacks, within hours of each other, 7500 miles apart. A mob of religious fanatics in Afghanistan, incensed over the burning of a Koran by a publicity seeking crackpot in Florida, attacked a United Nations compound, (apparently unable to distinguish the UN from the US), and killed everyone they could lay their hands on. In Los Angeles, two Dodgers fans attacked some Giants fans leaving one in a coma. The Afghanistan incident is not over; there was more violence today. The Los Angeles perpetrators are still at large, but it is likely they will be caught.

Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel Cat's Cradle, gave a name to the false associations people make with one another: granfalloon. The example he gave was "Hoosiers" as if people from Indiana shared some exclusive insight or destiny. Using a Calypso riff, he wrote: "If you wish to study a granfalloon, just remove the skin of a toy balloon." At their most benign, granfalloons are nothing more than fan clubs or Facebook friendships. At their worst, they're mobs.

Among the many features the two current examples have in common is that each dishonors the values the perpetrators claim to espouse. Mob violence is the self-aggrandisement of people who are otherwise empty, insignificant, and impotent.

Hieronymous Bosch felt the same way about the mob that rejoiced in the Crucifixion. How did the death of an obscure rabbi enhance their lives? What wrong were they righting? Bosch painted this scene twice before, but with less vitriol. We don't know much about him or his life, but clearly he was no stranger to cynicism in his later years.

With America at war in three countries that hate us, it's harder not to give in to such cynicism each passing day.

The Carrying of the Cross by Hieronymous Bosch, ca. 1510. Note Saint Veronica holding the cloth bearing Christ's visage. This incident, while not mentioned in the Gospels, is the Sixth Station of the Cross. Veronica, (aka Berenice), wiped the spit and mud from Jesus' face with her veil, cleansing him of the filth and depravity of mankind. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Winter Light

On paper, it's spring, but we've had snow off and on for a week. No complaint. The transformation of the landscape that I see upon awakening after a night of snowfall is magic, pure and simple. I can no longer ski, so shoveling has become my winter sport of choice. Again, no complaint.

George Wesley Bellows is associated with The Ashcan School of early twentieth century American art. He painted street urchins, derelicts, and teeming slums. I suppose his signature works are his dark paintings of long-limbed prize fighters, battling before louche crowds in smokey air. But there was another side to him--perhaps several other sides. He left the grit of New York City to live in Woodstock where he got back to nature and painted landscapes.

In Love of Winter, the realist turns impressionist. Bellows again depicts a large crowd of people, but out in the open, skating a frozen river beneath blue mountains, and not jammed into a tenement. Their faces are blanks; indeed only two seem to have eyes. But there's energy in their body language, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that some recall to us the sinewy strength of Bellows' boxers.

I don't know the back story. Why are they all skating in the same direction? Are they heading to a winter gathering, where a bonfire and hot chocolate await? Is there a set route for them, like that of a marathon? Or is the artist, a socialist, telling us that in this healthy and natural setting, the progress of humanity is united as opposed to the conflict and chaos of the cities?

Perhaps it's best not to speculate too much. I've done my shoveling for the day.

Love of Winter by George Wesley Bellows, 1914. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women

This weekend is Purim, the raucous celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from Persian slaughter in Biblical times. The story begins with King Ahasuerus reasserting male dominion over women throughout his vast kingdom, and in his own palace, by issuing a decree and by banishing his recalcitrant queen, Vashti.

The heroine of the tale is Esther, his new queen who hides her Jewish identity. When her people are threatened with genocide, she bravely intervenes. This entails approaching the king unbidden, an act that could cost her life.

The rest you should read for yourself because it's a well constructed short story until the last two chapters where there are textual problems: contradictions, repetitions, and a shift from a celebratory tone ("The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honor") to a vindictive one ("...the other Jews...slew of their foes seventy and five thousand...").

The painting is by another heroine, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656?). She was one of the first woman painters to achieve fame and acceptance in her own time. However, she suffered rape and torture along the way, and was generally deprived of the more lucrative commissions despite her acknowledged skill. Artemisia is a great favorite of feminist art critics, not least because of her many depictions of strong women in conflict with men.

I like this painting because Artemisia has internalized the story. While it is true that Esther makes herself beautiful before approaching the king, it's also true that she fasts for three days beforehand. In Artemisia's interpretation, Esther does not just prostrate herself before the king, but swoons, no doubt from hunger and fear. Her attendants support her tenderly, bound to their queen in sisterhood.

The king is shown as young and handsome. His sympathy is aroused, not his lust. He rises from his throne. Artemisia omits the golden sceptre that he extended for Esther to touch. He is not a frightening figure; she might even love this man. Esther's fear is for her people, rather than for her own life.

Feminist, but still romantic.

Ester e Assuero by Artemisia Gentileschi; ca. 1621-1630. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Vehicle of Suffering

I have a vague memory of sitting at the feet of a very old black man at the YMCA long ago to listen to his memories of the previous century when he was born into slavery somewhere in the deep south. He was bald, wrinkled, and tiny, but his eyes were alert and his sense of humor had not been diminished by the years. That's all I can remember; none of his stories have abided in me. The fault is mine.

We don't know anyone who remembers anyone at the giving of the tablets at Sinai or at the Crucifixion on Golgotha. We've never looked into the eyes of a single Concord Bridge or Gettysburg veteran. And a week ago, the last of World War I's doughboys passed away. The memory of that terrible war has receded toward the horizon.

As a teacher I observed a sea change among students. Whereas I grew up longing to embrace history, feeling warmed by every sign that the past was still alive--the occasional horse drawn wagon on the streets of Chicago, the intact village of Salem, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln was a store clerk, the German Luger that my uncle took from a Nazi officer after the surrender--my students condescend to previous ages because of their primitive technology and quaint values.

We know why we need to study the past. History provides context without which nothing makes sense. And today, with revolution sweeping the Middle East, with Japan reeling from both natural and man-made disasters, with the long, proud history of American organized labor heading for the ash can, and with little but clamor to chart the course of our economy, context is very precious indeed.

WW I Ambulance, illustration by Elisa Chavarri for Michigan History Magazine, 2008. The late Corporal Buckles drove one of these. It's hard to paint war effectively. Here the artist uses restrained color and uncluttered composition to contextualize rather than dramatize this vehicle of suffering. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

No posting this week.

Please come back next week.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Snow Man

I've waited for a day like this, four thousand feet above the snow line, to feel the cold that I came to the mountains for. Fog wrapped my house from high on the slope to the valley beneath, swirled by a noisy wind. Then the flakes began to fall as though the fog had grown too cold to hover any longer. Color drained from the world leaving only shape to distinguish between pine needle and branch or sky and snowbank. Almost as a rite, I turned to Wallace Stevens' haunting poem The Snowman:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

This poem has inspired long, (but not heated), debate about its meaning. Does it bemoan, (a most wintry word), the misery of winter, or does it say that there can be no suffering in emptiness? Or both? Or more?

My answer is this painting by Alexey Savrasov. The spare beauty of its winter scene, using hardly any color and no presence of life at all, is like the eloquence of tragedy, comforting us somehow with its dignity and timelessness.

Winter by Alexey Kondratyevich Savrasov, 1870. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Just Kids

This week I read Patti Smith's Just Kids. It's a memoir of when she and her lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, were starving and directionless artists in New York City. It's a remarkable book and I recommend it.

I don't wish to review it and I'm not prepared to write a consideration of either her music or his photographs. I just want to share a few impressions and some quotes.

When they met, they had not yet found their respective media. Both were filling up the walls of their various apartments and lofts with drawings while Robert made jewelry and dabbled in collages. At one point he stripped off a canvas and wrapped its stretcher with erotic pictures from gay men's magazines. It was only later that he took up photography with a borrowed Polaroid camera capable of little more than snapshots. He had a superb eye, but no interest in darkroom work.

Patti was a poet and an actress before she sang rock. As a child of the seventies, she was imbued with vague rebellion which she expresses in this passage about her developing band: "We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands..."

A fitting sentiment from the same person who praised Picasso because he: "…didn't crawl in a shell when his beloved Basque country was bombed. He reacted by creating a masterpiece in Guernica to remind us of the injustices committed against his people." Similarly, she rejected Andy Warhol: "His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it."

Quite naturally, the book presents far more of her interior than his, but in one late passage she migrates all the way into his soul: "He would be a smothering cloak, a velvet petal. It was not the thought but the shape of the thought that tormented him. It suspended above him, then mutely dropped, causing his heart to pound so hard, so irregularly, that his skin vibrated and he felt as if he were beneath a lurid mask, sensual yet suffocating."

Her elegy continues with words I wish I had written: "Finally, by the sea, where God is everywhere, I gradually calmed. I stood looking at the sky. The clouds were the colors of a Raphael. A wounded rose. I had the sensation he had painted it himself. You will see him. You will know him. You will know his hand. These words came to me and I knew I would one day see a sky drawn by Robert's hand."

"Two Tulips" (1984), and "Patti Smith" (1986) by Robert Mapplethorpe. Click on the pictures for closer looks.