Saturday, November 30, 2013

Gee's Bend Quilts

A decade or so ago the quilts of Gee's Bend created a pretty big splash in the worlds of arts and crafts, deservedly so. Here's an intro to the quilts from Wikipedia:
The Quilts of Gee's Bend were created by a group of women who live in the isolated African-American hamlet of Gee's Bend, Alabama. "The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There's a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making," writes Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Their style is what I like to see in art. I'll post a couple images here, along with descriptions, drawn from the Auburn University website devoted to this wonderful work. Please visit there to learn more about the artists.

Mary Lee Bendolph, born 1935. "Housetop" variation, 1998;
quilted by her daughter, Essie Bendolph Pettway, in 2001,
cotton, corduroy, twill, assorted polyesters, 72 x 76 inches.

Lillie Mae Pettway, 1927-1990. "Housetop"-- twelve-block "Half-Log Cabin"
variation, ca. 1965, cotton, wool corduroy, 77 x 65 inches.

About Art & Argument

Walt Whitman, American Poet, 1819 - 1892


Many of you will recognize the phrase "art and argument" as being from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," the most influential poem in his life's work and masterpiece Leaves of Grass. The passage containing the phrase goes:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass 
all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own;
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women 

my sisters and lovers;
And that a kelson of the creation is love;

For a long time I thought that "art and argument" would make an ideal blog name but resisted it, because as presented in this passage, not just argument, but art, too, are identified as things which Whitman transcended in a moment of enlightenment, understanding, and connection, not unlike the flash of insight and awakening known in the Zen tradition as satori.

But I finally reconsidered and decided to go forward. That's because the truth is that while we are here we are embodied beings, and even when we are doing wonderful things like creating art, and maybe even in meditation, we always reside at least partially in a state of duality, which means a certain separation must prevail at all times. Recall that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve experienced a blessed state of non-duality. It was only after being tempted by Satan in the form of a snake did they "fall" into an awareness of the fundamental existential duality of Male and Female.

Heaven, Nirvana, or Paradise can wait, right?

And when I heard Leonard Cohen singing his song "There Is a War," that sealed it for me. A big mistake we make as we seek higher things is to think that spirituality exempts or separates us from life.

There is a war between the rich and poor,
a war between the man and the woman.
There is a war between the ones who say there is a war
and the ones who say there isn't.
Why don't you come on back to the war, that's right, get in it,
why don't you come on back to the war, it's just beginning. 

Though he first published Leaves in 1855, Whitman continued to revise it right up to his death in 1892. And while the original edition employed the phrase "art and argument," some subsequent versions deleted the word art, suggesting that art is the means of achieving enlightenment while we are embodied. I tend to agree, but consider that deletion a failure of nerve. Come on back to the war, Mr. Whitman!

I'm researching now to see how he worded this passage in his final "deathbed" version of Leaves of Grass. If you know, please comment. Regardless, I'm sticking with "art and argument"!

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Hospital Meditations

My apologies, dear reader, for the lack of posts as of late, a reality that has undoubtedly left you jonesing. Alas, I have a chronic medical condition that has slowed me a bit and required a couple nights in the hospital. But what a rich source of material! So I'll go all Marcus Aurelius on you here and offer some meditations -- The Hospital Meditations.

1. All discussions of the hospital experience begin and end with the gowns, or "johnnies," one is forced to wear. Why are they so heinous? Well, a few reasons jumped out me. The first is that it's just not right to have your butt hanging out there like that. It's like they got together and asked, What is the least dignified thing possible that a patient could wear? The next is that there is no way to roll over or change position in bed without the thing twisting around you like a boa constrictor or bunching up like an old stretched out pair of "tighty whities." The third point is that everyone looks sickly and ridiculous in them, especially when you're hooked up to an IV and such. Let's put it this way, put Tom Brady in one of these and even he will look like an unhealthy loser. Well, um, maybe.

2. Many doctors have a kind of attractiveness that is distinguished by well balanced features and good skin and ideal body weight. It is the attractiveness of perfection. And you know they can play the hell out of some classical piano, violin, or cello.

3. The hospital is an incredibly large and hierarchical institution. God only knows how many layers exist from the sanitation staff up to the neurosurgeons. The MDs can be forgiven a little cockiness, given their place in the pecking order. What I want to know is whether there are any administrators who command as much respect as the top doctors. Going back to football again, I'd have to say that Bill Belichik is as authoritative as Brady, so maybe a similar dynamic holds in a hospital.

4. Being in hospital is like existing in a mash up of a Robert Altman soundtrack and an electronic ambient recording by Aphex Twin. Murmurs and snatches of half-heard overlapping conversation emerge from everywhere, a la Altman, and a never-ending chorus of electronic blips and beeps echoes down the halls and from room to room, engaging in constantly shifting patterns, a la the Twin. I actually like the beeps; I find them soothing.

5. Do not turn on your TV. It will make you crazy, always searching for something good that isn't there. And you don't want TV voices in your head.

6. As an editor, I know how personally one can take a difference of opinion about something as simple as the placement of a comma or employment of an em dash. Somehow, your competence or judgment as a person gets attached to these disagreements, even when that minor. So can you imagine how differences about diagnosis and treatment play out and are felt among doctors? Members of my medical team actually differed on the best discharge day for me.

7. The size of the medical equipment, supplies, and technology industry must be staggering, given the array of devices I encountered the last couple days. Just the technology around something like an IV includes a lot of parts from the plastic bags and the tubes all the way up to electronic monitoring devices. From the bedpan to the MRI machine, there's a lot of stuff that has to be supplied by somebody. The competition for these contracts must be beyond intense, and one might reasonably wonder how much corruption is involved.

8. Nursing looks like a great profession, one requiring complex technical knowledge and people skills, and one that features endless changes in patients and challenges. I'm glad to see more men doing this. Male nurses don't have to act feminine in the slightest to do their job well, which raises questions of what constitutes 'caring.' Of course, this was played for laughs in the pretty good movie Meet the Parents, in which Ben Stiller's male nurse character is played off of Robert DeNiro's old school macho father-in-law to humorous effect. The downside has to be burnout, with the nurse being caught in a cross-fire of bureaucratic nonsense and the great demands of dealing with people who are not in a great way at the time.

9. When you are put on a clear diet and get really, really hungry you can learn to love things like jello. As the old adage has it, hunger is the best cook. And you know what, I didn't think the solid food I had was bad at all.

10. Constantly combing your hair can help you feel like you're still in the game.

11. Since I rock it old school, I have chest hair. Which means that removing the EKG sensors that have been stuck to your body conjures up the epic chest waxing scene from The 40 Year Old Virgin. Pull them fast and let the F-bombs fly.

Go here to read my first set of meditations, The Hamburger Meditations.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Crikey! Some Aussie Slang

The funnest way to distinguish the variations of English language usage from country to country is to look at slang. My wife just returned from Australia and gave me a guide to Aussie slang. Here are some examples:

Crikey! = Exclamation of surprise

Dinki-di = The real Australian thing

Fair dinkum = The real or genuine thing

Drongo = An idiot or stupid person

Bludger = A lazy person

Bonza = Great. Excellent. 

Kip = A nap

Sheila = A woman

Sickie = An unnecessary sick day

Stroppy = Someone in a bad mood

Hoo Roo = See you later

Friday, November 15, 2013

Pity the Poor Wigger and Other Random Notes

1. The Dave Matthews band is decent except for Dave Matthews.

2. Joaquin Phoenix is the best purveyor of internalized angst and self loathing since James Dean. I'm thinking of Walk the Line and The Master.

3. Judd Apatow's schtick works better with 20-something bros than it does with older people. I'm thinking of This Is 40.

4. Wiggers are missing out on a lot of really good shit, like Merle Haggard, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and all sorts of really bad ass white guys, to say nothing of a whole world of amazing, diverse music. Pity the poor wigger.

5. I'd be more than fine if I never heard another word about JFK or Whitey Bulger. Well, after the current discussion of JFK's assassination, that is. That truly was a cataclysmic event.

6. Alec Baldwin should just go away.

Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner

Hendrix at Woodstock, August 18, 1969

Watching the new Jimi Hendrix documentary on PBS, I was struck once again how apposite his searing, howling, distortion- and feedback-laced performance of the national anthem was at Woodstock in 1969. What was greeted then as a tasteless and unpatriotic insult to America now appears in retrospect as the only honest way it could have be played at that time of convulsive upheaval in the U.S. and around the world. The 60s were a time of explosive energy, both "positive" and "negative," and Jimi's Star Spangled Banner fused it all together into what can only be understood from this vantage point as a thing of ballsy beauty.

Watch the performance here.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Bay Area Figurative Art, 1950 - 65

Richard Diebenkorn, Still Life with Letter, 1961, approx. 20 x 25 inches

Beginning around 1950 in the San Francisco Bay Area a group of painters started moving away from abstraction -- at the very moment when the New York School of Romantic and heroic Abstract Expressionism was in full flower. Key figures associated with the West Coast movement were people such as David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Brown, and many others. In the book Bay Area Figurative Art: 1950 - 1965, author Caroline Jones writes.
The new figurative "pictures" created by the Bay Area artists were neither reactionary nor merely illustrational. Although clearly moving away from the subjective isolation and and grandiosity of Abstract Expressionism, the new work was clearly in its debt.
She goes on the quote David Park:
I believe the best painting America has produced is in the current non-objective direction. However, I often miss the sting that I believe a more descriptive reference to some fixed object can make. Quite often, even the very fine non-objective canvases seem to me to be so visually beautiful that I find them insufficiently troublesome, not personal enough.
As we know, the abstractions of Pollack and DeKooning could in fact be pretty troublesome, nor is the Diebenkorn above especially stinging, but the point is well taken. At the time there was the notion that art "progressed" through styles and forms, with abstraction being the pinnacle. Now, we know that everything sits side by side in the Eternal Now of creativity. Here are some images from the Bay Area School. Look how similar the poses of the men in the Bischoff and Wonner are. Probably not a coincidence.

David Park, Nudes by a River, 1954, 59 x 47 in.

Elmer Bischoff, Man and Lavender Sky, 1958, 41 x 59 in.

Joan Brown, Noel on a Pony with Cloud, 1963, 72 x 96 in.

Paul Wonner, Living Room at I's, 1964, 12 x 18 in.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Is Obamacare Un-American?

For the most part, I don't want this blog to be about politics, but some issues begin to occupy the mind in a way that calls for explication. Following the contentious "Obamacare" struggle, one core question keeps occurring to me, namely, what do Tea Party Republicans, and Republicans in general, mean when they say that the ACA is un-American? As far as I can tell it could mean four things.

First is that only purely market-driven solutions qualify as "American" ones. But that doesn't make sense for a couple reasons. First, there never has been and never will be a purely market-driven economy. Second, intensely American institutions like the military have no relationship to the market whatsoever.

The next is that the American way is for people to work for what they get and not to accept government handouts or subsidies. But that misses the fact that many tens of millions of people work full time (and often more) and do not receive or cannot afford any insurance at all.

Third, is the mandate aspect. This idea was actually developed by the Heritage Foundation and other conservatives to address the free-loading problem, so as recently as the 90s and early 00s, the mandate wasn't seen by conservatives as un-American. Further, everyone is required to have auto insurance. The "freedom" being compromised by ACA most significantly is the freedom to have one's life ruined by medical expenses and a lack of care.

Fourth, is the part about this being national in scope, as opposed to a decision made by each individual state, with an orientation toward state autonomy being the foundation of American success. This is probably the strongest argument, though I think the reasoning behind the ACA is that the nature and problems of health care delivery demand a national solution.

All of this is not to say that Obamacare is a good idea. The challenges of even attempting it, at this scale and without bipartisan support (indeed with partisan attempts at sabotage), are immense. But it does seem to me that most of the opposing arguments based on the notions of what is properly American simply don't hold water.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Today's Assignment: The Virgin Birth

Today, class, I would like you to consider the question: What is the meaning of the virgin birth? The only answers off limits are either that it's a load of superstitious BS or the entering of God into the world in the form of Jesus. Rather what does it mean as a myth, as a story that has proven immensely powerful for humankind? What does it tell us about existence and consciousness? I've got my ideas, but I'll skip those for now and offer this text strictly as an example of what we in the education field call generative content. Actually, now that I think of it, the whole darn Bible is the biggest source of generative content the world has ever known, that is, as long as it isn't being treated as a source of dogma or doctrine.

Friday, November 1, 2013

My Lou Reed Post

Lou Reed, 1942 - 2013

Lou Reed is gone, and he deserved every drop of the considerable ink he has received over the last few days. Most of the stories, though, relied on a couple of leads to explain him, both of which were a bit limited: one was that he was surly with journalists and the other was that the person writing the story was hugely influenced by the Velvet Underground during his or her's formative years. The first mostly seems relevant for other writers, who can be touchy, understandably, when their brethren are dissed. I would be more curious about how he treated the people in his life, but that's not something we know much about, which is fine with me.

The second is fairly interesting, since the VU was indeed influential. As many stories noted, Eno or someone like him said that the VU only had 30,000 fans, but all of them started bands. In a way, Reed was like Dylan in this regard. How many heard Dylan and said, "I can do that!" Learn some folk and blues chords and then spray some poetic images all around them, and voila. In Reed's case, people saw they could come up with a chugging, minimalist rock groove seasoned with distortion, talk-sing some lyrics about life as it is, especially for denizens of our moral and social fringes, and deliver with attitude and supreme assurance: a nice recipe for a lot of the new wave and punk that followed.

My favorite instance of Reed's stripped down genius is his song about copping drugs, "I'm Waiting for the Man," with its pitch perfect snatch of dialogue, "Hey white boy, what you doin' uptown," and the incisive couplet, exploding with verisimilitude, "He's never early, he's always late / First thing you learn is you always have to wait." Indeed. How many people heard that and decided to try their hand at writing, too? I mean, how hard is that? Hard enough.

What's really cool about both Dylan and Reed is that even with so many legions of followers, no one else ever sounded quite like them. That's because both are geniuses. They express themselves in ways that are at once universal and sui generis.

As for me, well, I wasn't one of those hip seventeen year olds obsessing over the VU with friends. No, all the way through college my friends and I listened mostly to stuff like the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, and so forth, along with some country-rock, prog-rock, and jazz-fusion. We were the template for that movie Dazed and Confused (and, yes, we did inhale). To the extent that we listened to Lou Reed, we got it through Rock and Roll Animal. Curiously, one of my roommates was into the New York Dolls, so there was that.

As fortune would have it, my true entry into Reed's work commenced at the time of his great mid-career purple patch that began in 1982 with The Blue Mask and extended through New Sensations and the album New York. This was the time for Reed's identity as a musician as opposed to a transgressive, cross-dressing figure to come to the fore. So that's how I really got to know Reed. At this point his band included the guitar virtuoso Robert Quine and the bassist Fernando Saunders, who would perform with Reed for the rest of Reed's career. Saunders' tone is so musical and melodic, not like anything you would associate with punk. He sounds a bit like a mix of Jaco Pastorius and Paul McCartney, actually.

So if you are interested in Lou Reed, understand that long after the transgressive Lou vanished from the scene, the musical Lou remained, which is who he was before the scene as well, I think.

UPDATE: 11-5
Reed's musicality, of course, includes his excellent guitar playing, distinguished by the sculpting of feedback. He also worked as a professional Tin Pan Alley type of songwriter for a while, too, in the early 60s, which means that his transgressiveness was often grounded in sweet melodies and doo wop chords: a nice combo.