Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Wishing you L-O-V-E Love in 2015

It's now an official Art & Argument tradition to launch the New Year with Al Green's stupendous 1975 Soul Train performance of "L-O-V-E Love." In 2015, always remember that "love is a walk down main street." And wear checks and plaid when you get the chance.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Misremembered Wisdom

You know how you misremember things, or remember things that didn't happen, but that somehow these things are meaningful anyway? Years ago* I was a regular reader of the spirituality and mythology journal Parabola, and came across something that I found inspiring and insightful. The thing is, when I went back to the article to get the exact wording on the quote in question, the sentence simply wasn't there. I could see how I might have inferred it, but as far as it being real or accurate, no.

So at the risk of misquoting or misremembering, I'll go ahead and share a couple related pieces of wisdom that really speak to me. The first is something from Bryan Stevenson that a co-worker mentioned a couple weeks ago. Stevenson, who works to reduce mass and unjust incarceration, said that it's a mistake to judge someone by their worst behavior. That's certainly a standard by which I would like to be judged. And that made me remember something from the film version of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, specifically a scene in which someone says that you can't truly know a person until you love them. Or did he say you can't understand something until you see the beauty in it?

Perhaps I am guilty of Oscar Wilde Wisdom Inflation Syndrome (OWWIS), whereby every wise or witty thing gets credited to Wilde, because, well, he was so very, very witty and wise. No matter. I'll stand by the sentiments, however misremembered and/or invented they might be.

* I've got to stop starting sentences this way.

UPDATE: 12-29-14

In his autobiography, Straight Life, jazz alto sax great Art Pepper told a story along these lines. He recalled how critics responded enthusiastically to his performance of a certain standard, praising his inventive melodic inventions. Pepper said that he wasn't trying to create variations. Rather, that's just the way he thought the melody went and he got it wrong.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Albert York's Suchness

Three Red Tulips in a Landscape with Horse and Rider, 1982, oil on wood, approx 15 x 14 in.

I've spent the last couple days looking at Albert York images, knowing I wanted to post some, but trying to figure out what to say, to put my finger on source of their allure. So I thought I would ask my wife what it is about an Albert York painting. She said the way they are a sophisticated take on naive art, and mysterious too, unique in the way they get to the essence. And that made sense to me. The word that kept coming to me was the Buddhist idea of suchness, an apprehension of essence not based on the literal. Another thing that came to me was that they are what realism looks like in a dream. And there's something to that because I read somewhere later that he often painted from memory, in the very early morning. And just technically speaking the tonal range is often somewhat narrow; not at all jarring. There's a seasoned mellowness, like in Morandi. I think it's fair to take delight in the fact that they are well painted. Some Yorks are allegorical and some are depictions of the ordinary. Some mix effects, as in the tulips above, which, though ordinary, inexplicably loom large in a landscape that has a horse and rider in the background. Go figure.


The Meadow, East Hampton, 1984, oil on wood, 10 x 10 1/8 in.
Geranium in Blue Pot with Fallen Leaf and Bird, 1982, oil on wood, 18 x 17 in.
Cow, 1972, oil on board, 9 x 10 1/4 in.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Band: "Christmas Must be Tonight"

Almost out of nowhere, on their often-overlooked final album, Islands, the Band performed this unique Robbie Robertson song, a real sleeper for the short-list of great Christmas songs. This one is theological at heart.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Jeffrey Perkins: "Everything That Rises"

A cool poem from my friend Jeffrey Perkins. This one is a seamless mash-up of carnal concerns, cinematic references, and mortality ruminations. It reads offhandedly, but obviously was carefully crafted. Visit Jeff's Tumblr site to read more of his work.

At the end of the day, Z and I talk about sand:
how it took the house in Eternal Sunshine. How
the two boys eye each other in Bad Education.
Our crush on Gael Garcia Bernal. Z suggests,
“The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” I ask
about “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
A tiny car parks outside. Death Trap, my dad
would have said. Z’s friends ask about Paris
without wanting to know. I propose Contempt.
So much hope at the start, a naked Bardot
in bed asking, “do you love my neck? my feet?”
She’s betrayed by the American. Goes silent.
She shouldn’t have to say anything, I think.
Z is stunning and lost in thought. I’m Jim Carrey
watching the sand begin its slow destruction.
This piece was published online at Melancholy Hyperbole.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lee Morgan's "Ceora"

Yes, you like jazz, though you might not know it yet. Lee Morgan's "Ceora," from his 1965 Blue Note recording Cornbread, might convince you to wade in a little deeper into the big ocean that is jazz. I recommend a cut like "Ceora" as an entree, because it's very melodic and soothing and soulful, but the improvisation and performance aren't dumbed down or saccharine. In terms of whole albums, classic Blue Notes from the 50s and 60s are consistently accessible and adventurous in equal measure.

The personnel on Cornbread are: Lee Morgan (trumpet); Jackie McLean (alto sax); Hank Mobley (tenor sax); Herbie hancock (piano); Larry Ridley (bass); Billy Higgins (drums). Check out any recordings with any of these players and you'll be pleased.

Odysseus and the Rise of Behaviorist Gadgets

William Etty, 1837

Saw an interesting feature on the Newshour last week about new gadgets that help us to get the better of certain counterproductive evolutionary inheritances, or, as we laymen might put it, our propensity toward bad habits. One example featured a jar that has a lid that you set to be able to open at given times. The jar was filled with Hershey's Kisses that could only be dispensed one at a time at something like ten minute intervals. What this does is neutralize the immediate impulse to have another -- and another and another in quick succession. After the impulse passes, one might choose to just pass on more of the goodies.

The behaviorist psychology of B. F. Skinner used to irk me because it seemed to deny free will. But what I think is going on is that we don't have free will when we act out of habit or instinct but we do have moments of reason or clarity (if not free will in an absolute sense) when we can choose to create conditions that will help us to better and healthier behavior. A big example would be when someone checks themselves into rehab.

This is what Odysseus was up to when he had his crew tie him to the mast so that the song of the sirens, which he desperately wanted to hear, would not tempt him to steer his boat to ruin on the rocky shore. The crew's ears were plugged, unlike the boss's, though if Odysseus's orders to untie him broke through the wax, they were to ignore him. When you set that candy dispenser at 10 minutes you are tying yourself to the mast.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Rachel Harrison + Jessica Stockholder

There's a trend in art that builds more on Rauschenberg than on Duchamp, Warhol, and Fluxus. A welcome development. This means the idea art has texture to it. I learned about Harrison in the latest New Yorker. Stockholder works similar terrain and was featured on art21. (Her name must be a non de plum.)



Thursday, December 18, 2014

Returning to the Source

It's a pretty fair bet that very few people pursue a career in teaching because of high-stakes standardized testing. Ironically, though, such tests are the dominant reality today in public school teaching and learning. It's more likely that people go into teaching because of love — of subject matter, of young people and their potential, and for the process of learning itself.

Through my professional work I know the education scholars A. G. Rud and Jim Garrison, who edited a great book called Teaching With Reverence: Reviving An Ancient Virtue for Today's Schools. In the intro to the book they address the teachers who struggle with today's draconian educational environment.
Listen to the public rhetoric about schools and it becomes clear that the public ignores many things teachers find personally meaningful. When you listen to good teachers talk about their call to teach, the ideals that attract them, and the passions that sustain them, they almost always employ a rich moral and aesthetic vocabulary that is profoundly at odds with public discourse. Before reading further, we urge you to pause and recall what first attracted you to teaching. Seek those words within that allow you to give voice to your vocation. We believe it will open the door to an intuitive feeling for what it means to teach with reverence.
Returning to the source of your love is great advice that transcends teaching. Daisaku Ikeda has written that when you reach an impasse in life it's wise to return to your beginnings and reconstruct your path with the passion that may have been lost along the way. I certainly found that to be true professionally. A number of years ago I was struggling with finding the right employment. I didn't like the work settings where I had ended up, and well, they didn't like me much either: lose-lose. Working with a job coach I returned to the ideals and expertise that had informed my work as a graduate student studying theology and education. When those ideals and that knowledge started to blossom in me again, I was poised to do the work that I'm good at and love when the right opportunity came along. Now, those ideals burn brighter than ever, and I do consider my vocation, at long last and after so many years, with reverence. To be clear: This wasn't a magic process. There was luck involved in everything coming together just right. But I would not have ever arrived here without a return to the source.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

South Beach Skies

Sorry for the gap in posts. My goal is one post every other day, but we were down in South Beach for a few days. I know it's weird, but we don't go for the nightlife. We go for the weather, the beach, the architecture, the cafes, and the people watching. Here are some pics.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

No Perfect Devils or Victims

Last week the internet and Twittosphere lit up with the story of a Harvard Business School professor who berated and hassled the owner of a Chinese restaurant over a 4 dollar discrepancy/overcharge for his takeout food: the classic rich, entitled jerk lording over a poor immigrant with his twisted notions of "principle." The guy certainly was a jerk in this case, but he is also a person whose work sometimes focuses on consumer protection on the web, and whose family includes Marian Wright Edelman, do-gooder-extraordinaire of the Children's Defense Fund. And the poor immigrant being intimidated while just trying to scratch out a living with his little family business? He's actually a tattooed hipster who won a national cocktail competition. He easily could have been savvy enough to keep the prices on his website updated.

This kerfuffle was actually a minor, almost humorous exemplification of the dynamic at play in the larger, extremely tragic events that played out between police and citizens throughout the year, from Ferguson to Staten Island.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Dickens and the Too-Persistent Truth

Charles Dickens. He knew stuff.
I was reading a feature at The American Scholar website (surprisingly accessible and fun, with jargon kept neatly in check) called Ten Best Sentences, and came across this one from Dickens, so very apt for these days we've been going through:
There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets. (From Nicholas Nickleby)
And I got to thinking about how the super-rich must wake up each day and be a bit disoriented, wondering why no one has come for them yet, why the Lexus hasn't been stolen, overturned, burned, or at the very least keyed, why the eight bedroom, five bath monstrosity is still intact and unsullied, why they haven't been dragged through the streets, why their "work" moving abstractions around will go on as it did before. Then the reassuring thought must arise: There will be no trouble. I'm living in a beautiful dream where there are no consequences, legal or otherwise. And, well, if things go bad there won't be jail time; we've seen that. And besides, the American people suspect the alternative would look a bit like Hugo Chavez.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Because of Cigarettes?

We don't so much need a "conversation on race," as we need action on rectifying our entire criminal justice ecosystem, tragically infatuated with the "broken windows" theory, which leads it to to expend effort, and in this case lethal force, to deal with someone like now-dead Eric Garner, who had a habit of selling untaxed cigarettes. He's dead for that? *

Libertarians are pointing out that there is a thriving underground market for selling these "loosies" because of the onerous taxes NYC places on cigarettes. Apparently Garner was out on bail, having previously been busted on a "loosies" charge, and this made him touchy. It seems to me that even if Garner didn't die (and he so clearly shouldn't have) it's absurd for police to have been worried about him in the first place, however unwise it was for him to keep trying to sell underground cigarettes.

It's both stupid and unjust for our legal system to focus on minor offenses among the have-nots, ruining lives in the process. How many families of adequate means experience minor brushes with the law but don't suffer because they have the money and connections to "make it go away"? How many indiscretions get swept under the rug, as a young middle or upper class person advances through life?

Deaths at the hands of police are a real problem, but the deeper issue is the relationship of black and poor people with the criminal "justice" system, with justice placed firmly in scare quotes. Because of this problematic relationship, many people are ready to snap when confronted by the authorities. Of course, it's wiser to stay cool, but I bet even the Dalai Lama would lose it sometimes under these circumstances.

In "Sweetheart Like You," Bob Dylan sang, "Steal a little and they throw you in jail / Steal a lot and they make you king." We could talk about that.

* This is not to say that there isn't a strong racial dimension to our law enforcement problems. The incarceration rate among young black males is a national catastrophe -- for all Americans. The respective work of Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson on this topic is essential. The trouble with free-floating discussions of race and racism is that people end up feeling alienated, without knowing exactly what to do. I think people of all races can come to see the injustices of a number of issues that impact black people directly. (Note added 12-5)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Art of Songwriting: EBTG's "Two Star"

Everything But the Girl's "Two Star" is a perfect piece of music, with melody, lyrics, arrangement, and performance meshing almost inconceivably well. Commenters on YouTube remark that this song is both sad and beautiful in the extreme. What's not mentioned is that it captures a dimension of romantic pain rarely covered in song, i.e., self-recrimination and depression. How good is this as lyric writing? "I watch Saturday kids' TV / With the sound turned down / I leave food on the eiderdown / All my thoughts pushed underground." And you know the narrator is probably stoned too. The vocals are by Tracey Thorn; words and music by her husband Ben Watt. It's worth posting the full set of lyrics.

Well it's not for me to say,
But I can't see what you see in him anyway.
But such righteousness in me
Is not a nice thing to display,
And who am I for Christ sakes anyway
To judge a life this way

When my own's in disarray?

I watch Saturday kids' TV
With the sound turned down.
I leave food on the eiderdown.
All my thoughts pushed underground.

Maybe you're happy
Everyone says you are.
You drive around on two star,
You leave your life ajar,
And God knows you deserve it.
Bad luck follows everyone.

So go on, and stop listening to me.
Stop listening to me.
And don't ask me how I feel.
Don't ask me how I feel.

So it's not for me to say,
Because I change my mind from day to day,
And when I look at you
I only see bits of myself anyway.

So go on, and stop listening to me.
Stop listening to me.
And don't ask me what to say,
Or to judge a life this way

When my own's in disarray.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Where Did You Go?

Open up, it's me.
Yes, me.
Where did you go?
I've been here the whole time.
Why couldn't I see you?
I don't know.

M. Bogen
November 2014

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks for the Jazz Creators

Clifford Brown, American trumpet master, 1930 - 1956

I have so much to be thankful for, not least family and friends who are to a person of fine character, spirit, and intelligence, providing the foundation on which all material blessings are built and find meaning. On this Thanksgiving, I want to acknowledge my gratefulness for music in general and jazz in particular. My love for music has been steady for many decades; indeed, at this point the gifts of music appear to be inexhaustible. In this post I'll mention a few jazz-related reasons for gratitude.

1. I am grateful for the achievements of the jazz masters, for they taught me an important human lesson. When I was introduced as a teen to the music of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins it hit me,(a white middle class kid) almost immediately that racism was a lie. Here was the most sophisticated, creative, and intelligent music I'd ever heard, and it was created by Black men and women. Case closed.

2. I'll always be grateful that Clifford Brown lived among us for a short but brilliant time. With every improvised solo he showed that inspiration is real, that technique can be the vehicle for almost impossible beauty. There's a reason that his most famous composition is called Joy Spring.

3. The Great American Songbook is a great gift to the world, and its jazz interpreters speak to me in a timeless way. If I had to choose one example, I would choose Ella Fitzgerald singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It's good to live in a world where this is possible.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Chaim Soutine Expressionist Portraits

Polish Woman, 1922

Woman with Arms Folded, 1929

Portrait of Maria Lani, 1929

Portrait of Emile Lejeune, 1925

Saturday, November 22, 2014

More El Lissitzky

El Lissitzky was part of the Russian Constructivist movement that flourished in the early days of the Revolution, around 1920 to 1930, and as such is intended to have a political component. Should I apologize because I have little idea of or appreciation for what the politics is about but just love the way the artwork looks? This reminds me of Nina Simone, whose masterful singing means more to me than her politics, which I do appreciate, but . . . .

Let me take a stab at the Constructivists and their oeuvre anyway. From my recent research I see that they intended art to come down from its perch as an elite pursuit and possession. Further, the subject matter of art would be no longer be flowers, still lifes, landscapes, and portraits of the wealthy. Instead, art would be constructed out of basic formal building blocks, mostly geometric. And because art is no longer elitist, it would merge with design and architecture to create a holistic environment for all people that is aesthetically sophisticated. Constructivism did indeed go on to have a huge influence on architecture and design, especially as expressed in the Bauhaus and International styles, and even later in the New Wave of the 70s and 80s, as in this red and black propaganda poster, where the red wedge represents the victorious red army. By the 70s state socialism was on the way out, but the visual style was as big as ever.


To the extent that the Constructivists merged their style with the Social Realism more favored by the Soviets, they certainly appeared political, but that's not the part of their aesthetic that survived and thrived throughout the 20th century, nor is that the part I like. I like beautiful abstractions like this one, which had the vaguely socialist title, The New Man. What's striking to me is that for all the talk of socialism and the machine age, the tone of many El Lissitzky works is, at least to me, quite soothing.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Beyond the Backlash: Imaginative Empathy

First there was the self esteem backlash. You know, in response to awards and medals being handed out right and left for simply showing up, the preferred response became to tell kids they're worthless unless they achieve all sorts of things. Thanks, Tiger Mom. Now we're in the empathy backlash. This started, I think, when President Obama praised Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayer as being empathetic. She distanced herself from that remark, but it was too late. Now we are told that feeling someone else's pain is a waste of time. But there might be something to this.

The problem is the emphasis on feeling. I honestly don't feel pain for the various victims around the world (after all, I sleep at night). But if I employ what is called imaginative empathy, I can think my way into their circumstances and imagine what it is like to see through their eyes. I don't have to lose loved ones to a drone attack to know that I would react as people in areas of strife do, pledging fierce opposition to the perpetrators of the attack. Imaginative empathy assumes that at a fundamental level we are all pretty similar and respond to circumstances in similar ways. Employment of imaginative empathy can help us to then shape policies and pursue strategies that are more just.

Sometimes experiencing something can kick-start our imaginative empathy. Once when I was unemployed I bought generic razor blades to save money. The trouble was that they were lousy quality and as I was preparing for an interview I cut my face, thus lowering my chances, however slightly, of making a good impression. An extremely minor incident, but it only took me a little imagination to extrapolate out and see that environmental or external conditions faced by the poor actually impede their ability to compete on a level playing field.

The trick is to require as few kick starts as possible. I remember how Sarah Palin suddenly became a champion of special ed after the birth of her son, Trig, who has Down syndrome. Preferably one could see the value of special ed programs without the direct experience. On the left, we can envision any number of people who don't understand the burden of excessive or pointless business regulations until they experience it themselves. A non-business person, my own awareness around this was kick-started when I learned about the way the growth of the craft beer industry in Massachusetts is being suppressed by regulations that favor the large distributors.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Eric Fredine Landscapes

More great stuff from The Photography Files blog: Eric Fredine landscapes highlighting the unity of water and sky.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Abdullah Ibrahim: Zikr

In The Music of Life, the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote:
What does music teach us? Music helps us to train ourselves in harmony, and it is this that is the magic secret behind music. When you hear music that you enjoy, it tunes you and puts you in harmony with life. Therefore man needs music; he longs for music. Many say they do not care for music, but these have not heard music. If they really heard music it would touch their souls, and then certainly they could not help loving it. If not, it would only mean that they had not heard music sufficiently, and had not made their hearts calm and quiet to listen to it and to enjoy and appreciate it. Besides, music develops that faculty by which one learns to appreciate all that is good and beautiful in the form of art and science, and in the form of music and poetry one can appreciate every aspect of beauty.
The performance here is by the great South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim. Aside from being gorgeous, moving, and powerful, this song demonstrates some nice musicology. Zikr is a form of Islamic prayer, yet the melody has strong Christian tones, reminding me of the classic hymn The First Noel. And the chanting, I think, must have some indigenous roots, too. This, my friends, is globalization done right. Oh, and perhaps it goes without saying, music done right. Let the sound pour over and through you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


M. Bogen photo of graffiti, "Beauty," Washington St., Somerville, MA, Nov. 11, 2014

My Symposium

In this religion, devoid of devils
Glowing with light made of light
We receive gifts of our own giving

Listening to the sound of the tongue not burning
Wondering what’s worth being martyred for
Ruling out acts of the invisible hand

The sediment of the pond has settled
A pebble shines bright on the bottom
As children play above at skipping stones

M. Bogen
March 2012

Monday, November 10, 2014

Buddhism 101: Love Is a Rose

Years ago -- decades ago -- when I first learned about Buddhism I came up with the idea that if I had no opinions, my life would be better and more peaceful and I would cause fewer conflicts. What I misunderstood was that opinions are fine -- in fact one should have lots of strong opinions to be fully alive -- but one should not be attached to opinions. Attachment stunts growth as much as absence does.

Years and a lot of knowledge later, I was teaching Intro to World Religions at a local college. As I prepared to introduce the concept of attachment, it occurred to me that a cute stunt would be to quote Neil Young before going on to the real lesson. What happened, though, was that when I quoted Neil ("Love is a rose but you better not pick it / It only grows when it's on the vine / Handful of thorns and you know you missed it / Lose your love when you say the word 'mine'"), the students perked right up, and I realized that that wasn't the warm up to the lesson: That was the lesson.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Friday, November 7, 2014

I Want to Live in a Farmscraper

Architect's rendering for "farmscraper" project in Shenzhen, China
Writing at Treehugger.com, Kimberly Mok says:
Growing urban populations in the next few decades will mean greater pressures on agricultural production, water use and soil health. One potential solution that's been bandied around are vertical farms, though it's debatable whether they're just a pie in the sky -- or necessarily made feasible once stagnating rates of future food production, rising energy costs and soil degradation are finally factored in. Undaunted by the debate, French design firm Vincent Callebaut Architects recently unveiled another urban vertical "farmscraper" masterplan concept, this time for the expanding city of Shenzhen, China. Dubbed Asian Cairns, the project consists of six towers of pebble-like structures that have been stacked together to create a productive, mixed-use project.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

(These Are a Few of My) Least Favorite Things

I know what you're thinking: He's a pretty positive guy. He even posted an Otis Redding video on the day his preferred party was experiencing a bloodbath. And look at the great artists he spotlights. Guilty! But beneath this upbeat exterior is a guy who spends a lot of time thinking about things he doesn't like. So for the record, and in the interest of verisimilitude, here are a few of my least favorite things:

1. Russian nesting dolls

2. Flavored coffee

3. Baz Luhrman movies

4. Leaf blowers

5. Absence of the serial comma

6. People holding up John 3:16 signs at sporting events

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)

On Election Day, a song with zero political content, to remind us that there's something good in feeling good, and that great music will help us to carry on. Thank you, Otis! Your time was short but your soul was huge.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Judith Trepp Paintings and Drawings

All painting is a matter of knowing when to keep going and when to quit. The minimalist has the wisdom to quit sooner than later and the nerve to believe that a piece can be powerful without a profusion of information. The minimalist says, this is it, this is what I am saying, and I believe that this simple statement will blossom with meaning and feeling for many, many years. I first encountered Judith Trepp's work in a solo show at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum several years ago. That show featured elegant calligraphic works like the one second from the bottom here. It made a big impression on me. The two types of pieces shown here are nearly inverses of each other, with one featuring much "blank" or neutral space and the other, none. But they both share clarity and strong intent. (View new post on Trepp's work here.)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Finding Your Roots

Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard
Only Skip Gates can get away with telling a guest, in this case former NAACP head Ben Jealous, that "you're the whitest black man we've had on this show." He makes the remark as he reveals DNA evidence showing that Jealous is 80 percent European in derivation. The show is Finding Your Roots, which Gates hosts with panache on PBS. Teasing isn't easy to get right, but Gates is skilled at it, so the moment is funny rather than awkward or cringe-worthy, which, given the vexing place of race in our history, it easily could have been. So many questions are contained in the remark. How could a man that's 80 percent white lead the NAACP and isn't it pretentious for him to call himself black anyway? It could be a sore point. And it could be an exceedingly uncomfortable point since so much European blood was introduced by white slave owners, a point made disturbingly clear by the research that Gates and his staff conduct. But as we know from history, it makes sense for Jealous to identify as black because of the racist "one drop" rule and the notion that "half black is all black." What Jim Crow racists hated above all was "race-mixing," an ironically ignorant notion.

Gates' ability to handle the tonal shifts in looking at the history of slavery and immigration in this country is impressive and makes the show at once good-natured, sad, angry, informative, moving, and even beautiful. A couple things stand out for me. One is that the histories of so many our families are tied up in the anguish of the Civil War and the crime of slavery and racism. The other is that Americans are a resilient and nervy bunch. Whether the story is one of African-Americans rising from the prison of slavery or of immigrants from Europe and Asia and Mexico and elsewhere, the people that have formed (and are forming) the American character are people who were unafraid to take great risks and overcome oppressive circumstances to build better lives for their descendents.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Commonplace Is Crowded

From "The Betty Book," by Stewart Edward White (1937)
"Choose the companionship of inspiration wherever it feeds and nourishes, whether in the gift of dead poets or the sweating toil of living workers. Outside your hours of duty refresh and stimulate your thought chambers by constantly associating yourself with the aristocracy of the spirit wherever you can recognize it. There is always such a drag to the commonplace, such a vortex of it. You must continually guard yourself against it if you are going to maintain yourself above it. I am not saying there is anything wrong about it: I am only saying it is crowded. Our restricted imaginations, our semi-paralyzed wills, our spasmodic instead of habitual acknowledgement of the unknown -- by all these we keep ourselves commonplace."

Monday, October 27, 2014

For Jack Bruce, 1943 - 2014

Jack Bruce, famous for Cream, sings and plays bass on this beautiful, unclassifiable piece from one of my favorite records of the 1980s, Kip Hanrahan's Desire Develops an Edge. R.I.P., Jack.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Billy Joel and Gil Scott-Heron

You won't see those two paired together often. But both have been occupying my thoughts this week.

1. The newest New Yorker has a captivating profile of Billy Joel. I read with interest for a couple reasons. First, and foremost, he's a pug owner, and sure enough, the pugs make an appearance in the opening paragraph. Well played! Second, I've never quite understood him or liked him beyond an appreciation for his craft, so I wanted to learn more. I used to always get my back up when he was called a rock star. He's not a rocker, though some of his songs rock. I saw him as an entertainer and music pro kind of like Neil Diamond. Late in the piece, the author is hanging with Billy and tries to pick his brain about other songwriters, and he name checks Nick Drake and Townes Van Zant. These draw a blank from Billy. This is the key: Joel isn't a music writer's kind of songwriter; he's Teflon to anything hip, and I think that's just fine. He'll never be like Springsteen in that regard, but you know what? In the 25th Anniversary Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he rocked just as hard as Bruce. Fun fact: he's playing a monthly "residency" at Madison Square Garden and helicopters in from his Oyster Bay mansion in less than a half an hour. That's hip.

2. I've also been reading the Gil Scott-Heron memoir, The Last Holiday, published in 2012, a year after his tragic death. I was flipping around in the pages and nothing was sticking until I came to the part where he is interviewing to be a scholarship student at the Fieldston school on the Upper West Side., an "ethical culture" school, whose alums include notables such as Stephen Sondheim, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Diane Arbus, and way too many more to list. This bit caught my attention: During the interview, one committee member asked: "How would you feel if you saw one of your classmates go by in a limousine while you were walking up the hill from the subway?" Gil answered "Same as you. Y'all can't afford limousines. How do you feel?"

Scott-Heron is often called the Godfather of Hip Hop, or something like it. And with 1970s hits like "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" you can see why. But he didn't find that a compliment. He was really a practitioner of poetry, both spoken and sung, in jazz and soul and blues-based idioms. He called himself a "Bluesologist." He was great with a turn of phrase. One of my favorites is in the clip below, "We Beg Your Pardon," about the pardon of Richard Nixon. Nixon was famous for suffering from the medical condition phlebitus. Gil said, "Rats bite us, no pardon in the ghetto." 

So I started reading at the point when he was a teen, and learned some things, most notably how focused and socially and artistically ambitious he was from an early age. He dropped out after his first year at Lincoln College (Langston Hughes's alma mater) to write his first novel, The Vulture, which he actually got published. On returning to school he led a school-wide protest that led to the establishment of improved medical services on campus. Writing was his deepest love, and he did a masters at the John Hopkins writing program. And he became successful for his musical collaborations with Brian Jackson.

His music career peaked when he was the opening act for Stevie Wonder, when Wonder toured in support of the Martin Luther King holiday. Scott-Heron admired Wonder beyond measure for what he achieved in this regard. He was no cynic, despite the satire of his polemics. That's why I couldn't understand how he ended up a crack addict, vanished from the scene, and dead at age 62. This sent me scurrying to the shocking New Yorker profile from 2010, where Gil just goes ahead and smokes in front of author Alec Wilkinson. Maybe there's no other reason than that the drug got its claws into him and he couldn't get free. This reminded me, sadly, of the Philip Seymour Hoffman tragedy. Too soon gone, again.

Friday, October 24, 2014

John Marin: Forever Fresh


John Marin, Deer Isle, 1921, Watercolor and charcoal, 14" x 17"

John Marin is one of the great New England artists. His work is sketchy but never indistinct. Similarly, he communicates power even when using watercolor. On the other hand, his oils weren't ponderous. The offhanded feeling (no doubt quite consciously achieved) keeps his works ever fresh and alive, kind of like jazz. Why did I post Marin? Well, I felt it was time for more images on the site after a couple wordy pieces. Then I scanned my memory, asking: Who do I like whenever I go to an art museum? Answer: John Marin!

Marin, Mark Island and Light from Deer Isle, watercolor, crayon, graphite, approx. 14" x 17"

John Marin, Bathers, 1932, oil on canvas, 22" x 28"

John Marin, White Mountains, NH, 1924, watercolor and charcoal, 13" x 18.5"

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

About Tony Bourdain

I saw a very interesting feature in Fast Company magazine about Anthony Bourdain and his mini media empire. I've watched his shows for years, so why not weigh in?

1. No one has been that drunk that often on camera since Dean Martin. And I heard Dino was faking it sometimes, so Tony wins. We're talking blotto and 'faced. But he's a fun drunk, so it's entertaining. I read somewhere that he barely drinks at all when he's home for a few weeks between shows, so what he does is clean out, binge, clean out, binge, and repeat. Seems to work for him. He appears pretty healthy.

2. As much as I would like to think of myself as a bad boy in Bourdain's mold, the truth is that my wife and I travel more like Rick Steves: We go to interesting places, catch some culture, history, and art, then explore the city on foot with plenty of time for shopping, cafe sitting, and people watching. Not so hip, but it's the truth.

3. Bourdain's bad boy act has earned him a lot of viewers, though many people can't stand the sight of him and avoid his shows like an airborne virus. Certainly, he's a bit impressed with himself, with frequent takes, often shot from below and in slow motion, showing him strolling through an exotic land- or city-scape modeling his Ray Bans.

4. For a chef and food expert his critiques when eating surprisingly often amount to nothing more than "Wow, that's good." That's preferable, though, to his celebrity-chef voice-over voice. "This is chef so-and-so, and no one in the world right now is doing more interesting things with baby turnips, and he's doing it right here in his foodie stronghold outside of Portland, Oregon, where staggeringly hip people with ink and beards have raised food snobbery to high art." And, yes, we've heard 75 times that Tony likes meat on a stick.

5. It's actually when he's on the streets where the vendors and small shops sell that meat on a stick, that Bourdain is at his best. He's not a food snob himself, and he really gives a good sense of what street life is like around the world, especially in Asia. He also goes on these adventures with a variety of non-food people, which is also good.

6. His interactions with non-food people really make his shows interesting and successful. He talks to artists, writers, journalists, musicians, business people, and in those conversations you can learn more about the strengths and troubles of a region than you will ever learn on most news shows. Bourdain is a true humanist and an empathetic listener, which is a nice contrast or complement to Punk Bourdain.

7. And finally, he really is a good writer, even if some of his shtick is formulaic. I find the formula amusing, so I'm on board.

8. And one more thing. His energy and industry are impressive. I thought for sure after No Reservations he would quit the travel game and do things closer to home. But, no, then he showed up on CNN. You go, Tony!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Falling Leaves, Fall

Some snapshots of falling leaves.

1. Why do some memories stand out, even if nothing dramatic happened? I often picture myself running home from elementary school (maybe I was in the 5th grade) down a sidewalk on one of those gusting autumn days when the leaves fall thick and fast, and I was trying to dodge the leaves as they fell. I don't remember how well I succeeded. I do remember that the route I was taking home that day was not my usual route.

2. Just a couple days ago I was walking on a side street off of Harvard Square and three young men, most likely cross country runners, came running up the street toward me, laughing as they tried to snatch falling leaves out of the air. Their strides were effortless, but it's pretty hard to catch falling leaves since they fall in zigzags.

3. Once, many, many years ago, I was walking in one of Denver's beautiful city parks in autumn, and experienced a sort of vision. The leaves were falling heavy this day, and I thought to myself, heaven must be a place where the leaves fall steadily, and without end. I saw the trees replenishing even as they "died" their seasonal death. In heaven, motion and stillness are one, time and timelessness are one, life and death are one.

4. At Walden Pond I like to catalog the types of leaves, twigs, and branches that fall but get caught up in other branches and don't make it to the ground. Some lodge so securely I imagine they remain suspended for years. They will hit the forest floor eventually, thus contributing to the life-giving detritus that mixes into humus.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Marc Ribot's "Meds"

No, it's not played for laughs (She must be off her meds!). It's played for poignancy, with a gorgeous melody and beautiful vocal from Lee Ann Womack. Country used to be just drinkin' and cheatin' songs, and so on. Not anymore, thanks to Marc Ribot, Buddy Miller, and like-minded compatriots. Actually, going back on the meds can be a tough decision. The narrator here sounds resigned, but not distraught. I don't think Hank done it this way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Kinks: David Watts

Sorry for the lack of posts the last few days. Out out town traveling by car. Heavy in the audio rotation was a collection of Kinks songs. Always worth sharing the Kinks I figure, and the school year is well underway now, so why not post the classic, David Watts. Many of Ray Davies' songs are none-too-subtle satirical slams, like Mr. Pleasant, Well-Respected Man, and Dandy. You figure when this one starts that it will be the same, especially since the narrator is "a dull and simple lad" who "cannot tell water from champagne." And also because leading "the school team to victory" was not exactly a 60s ideal. Yet, in the end, it seems like a nice presentation of adolescent idol worship. The music is a ska-influenced precursor to the New Wave music that developed 10 to 15 years later.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Islam in the News

OK, I'll wade in, but just up to my ankles.

1. So the prisoner in Arkansas, a convert to Islam, claims it is a violation of his religious freedom that the prison doesn't allow facial hair. This is one of those cases where most people's first reaction is, please. My reaction anyway. It does seem, though, that he has a pretty good case, since the beard doesn't represent any kind of security threat. That said, it seems to me almost preposterous that facial hair is essential to someone's religious practice. But I was raised a Protestant, so I have an ingrained bias against externals in religion. So let me be a bit more generous and say that religious practice defined thusly is simply not limber enough to meet the needs and challenges of the 21st century.*

2. OK, next, the Ben Affleck - Bill Maher flap about the nature of Islam. I'll just say that it's not helpful or accurate to define a religion only by its most generous and beneficent interpretation (nor by its most negative). Violent jihadis who claim to be following Islam deserve to be taken at their word. No religion can be interpreted just one way. And the jihadis can certainly back up their point of view with scripture. Islam is indeed a "religion of peace" for those who practice it that way. They can back up their interpretation with scripture, too. At this point in history, and on the whole, Islamic fundamentalists do appear to pose a bigger threat than fundamentalists in other religions. My preference is that all the fundamentalists across all the religions evolve into more inclusive worldviews.

* I see online that: "the Arkansas’ brief in the case noted that Holt is allowed access to a Muslim counselor, the ability to pray in the direction of Mecca and food options that allow him to observe Muslim dietary law." It sounds like this guy is just being a royal pain.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Provincetown Artists: Richard Baker

What we have here are two forms of mid-century irreverence, one G-rated, the other, not, but both quite formative for boomers like me. Richard Baker lovingly paints cultural touchstones in all their declining glory, having been worn away from use. These images conjure up for me that feeling of excitement as one goes about one's education. Okay, maybe nostalgia plays a part, but is that bad?


Blanche Lazzell, white line woodcut

Hans Hofmann, abstract oil

Michael Mazur, Rocks and Water, monotype

Michael Mazur, Pond Edge II, oil painting

Irene Lipton, untitled oil

Mary Giammarino, impressionist oil

Lillian Orlowsky, abstract oils

Fritz Bultman, abstract collage

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ofili, Guiliani, and Elephant Dung

"Mouini Thi," 1995-96, oil paint, polyester resin, map pins, elephant dung on linen, 6' x 4'

This week's New Yorker has an article by the always-readable Calvin Tompkins updating us on the life and progress of Chris Ofili, the London (and now Trinidad-based) artist most famous for being at the center of the 1999 Brooklyn Museum showing of works from the Saatchi Collection that so offended then-mayor Rudy Giuliani that he tried to cut off city funding for the show. A couple thoughts about that flap.

1. As you will recall, Ofili's contribution to the controversy was a painting of the Virgin Mary in which a clump of elephant dung coated in resin was incorporated into the work as one of the subject's breasts. This set off the Catholic Giuliani's blasphemy sensors big time. But in a way, the dung is a positive symbol, connecting the regenerative powers of waste and detritus with the miracle birth. The more shocking aspect of the piece is actually the collage of cutout porn images floating around Mary like so many fallen angels. Shocking, yes, but also apt, as it points to the shame that has resulted from the severing of body and spirit in Western religion. Oh, and to up the outrage factor, this Blessed Mother is black, adding another hint of reclamation to the piece. Despite all this, I don't think the work is gratuitous. As idea art goes, it's pretty swell, if a tad overloaded. I maintain some decorum here at Art & Argument, so I invite you to view the work at the Saatchi site. Some of the other paintings in the dung series are actually pleasing to the eye (see above). Note how the paintings rest on clumps of dung, again suggesting the power of compost.

2. Rudy Giuliani of course is merely an opportunistic populist. Apparently it didn't offend his Catholic morals to move in with a gay friend and his life partner when his marriage was on the rocks. His shameful playing of the war-mongering 9-11 card during his run for the Republican nomination was just one more example of his tone deaf posturing. But, still, I've got to give the guy credit. He can be quite funny in a New York kind of way. At the time of the Brooklyn Museum dust up he said (referencing perhaps the sliced-in-half pig floating in formaldehyde), "If I can do it, it's not art." I've quoted that one for years. Marcel Duchamp might even agree.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Farther Along: What Religion Is For

The dream of an afterlife is a powerful one that takes many forms. In one version, Heaven is the reward for those who have thus escaped the fires of Hell. This reward and punishment model has never appealed to me. But if we set aside the punishment part, we can see the appeal of an afterlife where those good people who struggled in this life, and there are so many whose circumstances seem so undeserved, experience a place beyond death where their suffering will end and where they can enjoy a peace commensurate with their character. And it's not just that good people suffer, but also that this world seems to be one in which, as the old gospel song "Farther Along" puts it, "others prosper / living so wicked year after year." When my father died several years ago, I listened to this Flying Burrito Brothers version of "Farther Along" a lot. My dad didn't have a mean or aggressive bone in his body, he was above all a good and caring man, so this song speaks to me. And who of us doesn't hold out the hope that "We'll understand it all by and by"? Johnny Cash has a powerful version of this, too.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


There's only one real reason to get famous. It's to have the necessary clout to publish a best-selling children's book. Christ, even Keith Richards has one out now. Who's next? Please tell me it's not Mick. The one I'm looking forward to, is the one from Dick Cheney.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Poet Genine Lentine

The 2014 issue of Provincetown Arts features, along with many other poets, the poet Genine Lentine, of San Francisco. I really loved her style, with words, phrases, and images sidling up to each other, sometimes bouncing off each other. It used to be more common, I think, that poets would use spacing on the page to define rhythm and emphasis, etc. In this one, I like how she uses brackets and slashes. Do I know what the poem "means"? No, thank God. But I do have an inkling about certain passages. (I hope she doesn't mind that I put this up here. Buy one of her books!)

Read "The World"

For [you], I cast [the world]

—eye level          agave
has its own wrapping / is its own wrapping 
between the wrapping and itself, nothing but itself
groove the blades make \ embossing self with self
plums jostle clean in a glass bowl of water
leafblade or plum—yes, closer, like that

pale green crown, glass bowl
I don't care what form you take this time press
here on my shadow
I like it when you touch me there

everywhere casting

Would you mind standing here, where the planet would be?
where reality would be      if I let it?

let me list the ways I'd like to [    ]
let me list
let me
and now I've disappeared.
(what I've been wanting all along)
saying it, I'm back
(all along what) I've (been wanting)

let me list                    rustle
your chapparal
divebell your vents

where I was standing—reality to be there
where I am standing—reality to be here

come here, speculative and spinning
come here, you flooded, burning rock

Copyright © 2009 Genine Lentine All rights reserved
from Mr. Worthington's Beautiful Experiments on Splashes
New Michigan Press

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rouhani's Thought Bubble

One of the big stories last week was Iran's President Rouhani speaking at the UN in New York. His address was equal parts high-flown rhetoric, mild defiance, and pure BS. In other words, a "statesman-like" performance. But you know what he was actually thinking?
"The hell with it. I'm movin' here. The Ayatollah is a world-class prick, and, hey, I'm not getting any younger. Maybe get a loft in Tribeca, furnish it Mid-century Modern. Brooklyn is over anyway. Open a gallery in Chelsea and staff it with ingenues from those over-priced New England liberal arts colleges. Yes, that's what I'm going to do as soon as I get back. I mean it this time."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Boomer Bliss Out: Up on the Roof

I didn't know until now that Gerry Goffin, co-writer of this (with Carole King) and so many other indelible hits, died over the summer. Thank you, Gerry!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gillian Ayres

Gillian Ayres, Sundark Blues, 1994, Two panels 8'h x 7'w


I've been seeing lots of articles about the current Helen Frankenthaler exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York, and that got me thinking about the great women abstractionists of the late 20th century. Of course, Joan Mitchell comes to mind. Then I remembered the British painter Gillian Ayres, whose work my wife and I saw at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven back in 1997. I'll never forget my initial impression, which was that of the smell of oil paint. Her works are huge and the layers of paint are thick, so they must take eons to dry. I guess the paintings were still alive, rather like a wheel of cheese. Or not. I also remember thinking how wonderful white paint is in the company of bold colors. I think her work might qualify as action painting, which doesn't mean that a painting is created in a quick burst of action but rather that the act or process of painting is evident in the brushwork and layering. (De Kooning was famed as an action painter, but although his abstractions look like they were spontaneous, they were slowly created and composed.) It's really something to see large paintings in person. One becomes immersed in the color and energy and composition of a piece. Also showing at the Yale Museum at that same time was was an exhibition of William Blake's work. My analysis is this: Blake was one trippy dude.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Robert Creeley, "Some"

M. Bogen, Crane Estate, Ipswich, Mass., 2:00, 9-17-14

You have not simply
insisted on yourself
nor argued
the irrelevance

of any one else. You
have always wanted
to be friends, to be
one of many.

life even
in its largeness
might be brought

to care, you
tried to make it
care, humble, illiterate,
awkward gestured.

So you thought,
as inevitable age approached
some loved you,

You waited for 
Some wind
to lift, some
thing to happen

proving it finally,
making sense more
than the literal,
still separate.
From Robert Creeley, Just In Time: Poems 1984 - 1994

Friday, September 19, 2014

Nick Cave's Wondrous Creatures

UPDATE: 9-20-14
No, not that Nick Cave. This Nick Cave, a brilliant American artist whose work blends fabric art, sculpture, and costuming to create a world of characters that are at once playful, creepy, tribal, expressionistic, and, well, you get the idea. I think we can say sui generis. Improbably powerful, the works need to be seen in person. We first encountered his work at the Boise Art Museum, of all places. The whole space was dedicated to showing dozens of his towering creatures. We know they are creatures because they have arms and legs, but beyond that the mind starts to reel wondering what the hell a creature actually is. The thrill of the work comes from its blend of pleasure, discomfort, and mystery. If you get a chance, go.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Relativism, Absolutism, & Procrustes' Bed

Give American conservatives some credit: They know what they are against. And more than that they get their talking points together and employ them consistently and broadly. Who among us hasn't heard the allegation of "relativism" hurled at liberals. Probably no one, at least no one who follows politics and culture with any interest at all. You know about relativism. It's where value judgments or beliefs are weighed on a situational basis. Situation ethics. This happens when there is no timeless, or indeed supernatural, source of right and wrong. When this is the case, it is said, the logical conclusion is the acceptance of humans wishing, yes, to marry animals. More seriously, one might imagine an extreme case in which a cultural relativist might condone female genital mutilation since that is the norm in a given culture.

On its face, the argument against relativism is somewhat compelling. However, what is rarely mentioned is that what is being defended is something called absolutism, where experience is judged by and made to fit the abstract, absolute authority of a source that is often supernatural, or, as a sympathizer would frame it, "divine" in nature. Homosexuality is decreed by a sacred text to be a sin? No problem, pretend someone isn't gay or send them to a "conversion therapy" program. Theologically, dogma is the absolutists' enforcer.

To illustrate, William James and others have cited the Greek myth of Procrustes' "magic" bed. The Mythweb site relates the story like this:
Procrustes, whose name means "he who stretches", was arguably the most interesting of Theseus's challenges on the way to becoming a hero. He kept a house by the side of the road where he offered hospitality to passing strangers, who were invited in for a pleasant meal and a night's rest in his very special bed. Procrustes described it as having the unique property that its length exactly matched whomsoever lay down upon it. What Procrustes didn't volunteer was the method by which this "one-size-fits-all" was achieved, namely as soon as the guest lay down Procrustes went to work upon him, stretching him on the rack if he was too short for the bed and chopping off his legs if he was too long. Theseus turned the tables on Procrustes, fatally adjusting him to fit his own bed.
One might reasonably hold any number of absolutist principles. For example, we all agree on the prohibition of slavery. We don't need an appeal to outside authority for that, but rather to our shared humanity. The abortion debate is so difficult because absolutist positions on both sides make some sense.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lou Reed: September Song

"And the days grow short / As you reach September." Yes, it's September now and we can really feel the change of season here in New England. And, yes, I'm in the September of my life, about two-thirds done, God willin' and the creek don't rise. The peerless Lou Reed made this Kurt Weill song his own. It was born to be a Lou Reed song. Dig the trademark chugging rhythm that launches us out of the intro at about 0:41 (with the band kicking in a few seconds later). Dig the trademark deadpan vocals. Dig how it's good to be alive at the age you are.

A little history: This record was the brainchild of producer Hal Wilner, who in fact invented the now ubiquitous concept of the tribute album where incredibly diverse musical artistes interpret the work of a single composer. Look at the line up here: from John Zorn and Charlie Haden to Sting and Marianne Faithful. Such beautiful eclecticism, which actually represents the spirit of the times back then, in 1985, when this LP came out. I have the original vinyl somewhere at home.

Fun fact: I did a songwriting workshop with Hal and Marianne at the Naropa Institute in Boulder during the summer of '87 or so. The cool thing was that Marianne Faithful, former lover of Mick Jagger in Swinging 60s London, and creator of emotionally lacerating music, was quite warm and even maternal in "real life." And she praised highly my songwriting effort from our class, something I'll always treasure.