Friday, January 31, 2014

Pete Seeger and that Mid-Century Look

That unique mid-century look jumped out at me as I enjoyed the coverage of the life and career of Pete Seeger. A sociological aside: In the nascent years of the folk boom the singers often wore suits and formal attire! At a certain point, Pete never wore another tie in his life. He shed that look with a vengeance, dusting off his work shirts and adding rainbow colored knit caps as the 60s blossomed. I guess being blacklisted will strip you of mainstream aspirations.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Provincetown Artists: Hans Hofmann

The great teacher and practitioner of painterly abstraction spent much of each year in P-town. I love the contrast of the hard-edged elements against the the smeared and fuzzy ones. It took some discipline to leave those edges sharp like that. (Though close inspection reveals a bit of smearing and overlap on those edges, too. I like how the red infringes onto the horizontal yellow rectangle, messing with its purity and "rectitude" just a little bit.) That's an outrageous color palette, isn't it? Learn a bunch about the master here.


Rising Moon, 1965, Oil on Canvas


Michael Mazur, Rocks and Water, monotype

Michael Mazur, Pond Edge II, oil painting

Irene Lipton, untitled oil

Mary Giammarino, impressionist oil

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Not Just the Minimum Wage

After the leak from the too-perfectly-named "Freedom Industries" plant in West Virginia, businesses were shut down for days, maybe weeks. Among these were the restaurants and fast food joints. What this meant is that workers in those places lost their wages for the duration of the shutdown. When we talk about raising the minimum wage, we should remember that that's just part of the puzzle. Most low wage workers receive no sick days or vacation days or anything of the kind. A week without work can mean the difference in being able to pay the rent. Considering that low pay, low benefits service sector jobs constitute an ever increasing share of the workforce, this is a serious matter. It's hard to accept that there's nothing that can be done about this, save from an intervention from the Invisible Hand.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Those Who Lifted Dr. King Up

Women at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Perhaps the greatest American leader and orator of the 20th century, Martin Luther King didn't create the movement that changed history. Nor did Rosa Parks kick start the movement herself. Thousands of ordinary African Americans and white allies had been laying the groundwork for years and were ready to act when things came to a boil in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Historian Vincent Harding reminds us:
"It's very important to recognize that King was not operating in a vacuum, that he was operating in a situation of ferment. In Montgomery, leadership was being taken by women — ordinary, marvelous African-American women. It was those women who were prepared to respond to Rosa Parks’ personal initiative. When she refused to move to the rear of the bus, women who had been involved in various kinds of political activism were ready. One of those women ran off 35,000 copies of a stencil by herself the night after Mrs. Parks’ arrest in order to let people know about it. And she saw to it that her students passed it out in important places. King came out of that ferment — people decided they were going to let Mrs. Parks’ arrest become a catalyst for their movement as a community and they knew they needed a spokesperson."

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Reverse Bucket List

As one ages, it's more helpful to develop what I call "a reverse bucket list" than a bucket list proper. Instead of saying, "I must go on an African safari," it's more uplifting to say, "I will never go on an African safari, or at the very least will very probably not, and I'm cool with that."

I'm not arguing for passivity, but rather for the realization that there is so much that is potentially incredible to do in this world, you're never going to do 99.9 percent of it, so don't hold hypothetical possibilities out there as judges of your actual lived experience. Neither am I arguing for self-satisfied old-fartdom, but I do acknowledge that the old farts, happy in their old-fartedness, may be on to something.

At a certain point, or maybe at any point, saying "not going to happen" is a positive affirmation. For many this is self-evident, but I'm one of those attracted by the church of human potential and possibility. In my case a little bit of negative thinking can be a needed corrective. But fear not, I shall remain young in spirit and full of anticipation for the great things to come.

Now if only the AARP would just stop trying to recruit me.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bring Back the Hays Code!

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked at as something shocking
Now heaven knows
Anything goes

Cole Porter, 1934

It started out innocently, with the indirect but shocking enough transgressions of Sex and the City -- the tea bagging and so on. It picked up steam (so to speak) with True Blood and The Tudors, and has now reached its apotheosis with Game of Thrones and Girls. I'm talking, of course, about gratuitous sex and nudity. Amused and entertained at first, I watch now and feel myself becoming a reactionary. Good god, from the vantage point of 2014, the Manhattan of Carrie and the girls looks a lot like Mayberry.

There's only one thing to be done, I think: Bring back the Hays Code, the set of moral guidelines for the movies instituted in the 1930s and enforced in varying degrees until the 60s came and the ratings system was created. I jest of course. Take a look at the code and you can see it's as useful and realistic as prohibition was. But as many have pointed out, those movies of the Golden Age featured no explicit sex but tons of witty innuendo. Who ever watched a Cary Grant movie, a Hepburn and Tracy movie, a Astaire and Rogers movie, and thought, wouldn't it be great if they took off their clothes now? No one. Not even Lena Dunham.

The Art of Robert De Niro Sr.

Little known fact: Robert De Niro's father, who died in 1993, was an accomplished artist, part of the mid century New York scene. Here's an image of De Niro with his wife Grace Hightower and Christian Estosi, the mayor of Nice. The elder De Niro's work was being shown there in 2010 at the Matisse Museum. It looks to me like Matisse must have been his greatest influence. Here's an interesting article on De Niro Sr's art, and his son's relationship to it.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The American Balancing Act

Jasper Johns, Map, 1961

It's rarely mentioned by today's Tea Party constitutional originalists, or by anyone else for that matter, that the Preamble to the Constitution indicates that, among other things, our task is to "promote the general welfare" and "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

These two notions -- not just liberty or freedom -- are at the heart of the American experiment. Both are essential, but both will always be in tension. So with every issue we face, we must always ask, what is the proper balance to be struck? However, with our adversarial approach to politics, what you will often see is Republicans arguing for liberty and dismissing, for the most part, the general welfare, and Democrats doing, in varying degrees, the opposite. I think that the positions that are taken are more polarized than the actual beliefs of those arguing their positions. This is because, while we know that a balance makes the most sense, we fear what will happen if the other side wins.

I think every issue we face should be discussed explicitly in the context of the tension between the general welfare and individual liberty, with partisans acknowledging the importance of both as they argue for a different balance. This way we won't delegitimize our opponents as much as we do now. Is this possible within our current adversarial system? I don't know. And it might even be that the adversarial method is the best way to achieve balance, though it doesn't look that way these days.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Truth & Beauty #3: Snowflake Macrophotography

Have you seen the amazing, highly-magnified snowflake photos by Alexey Kijatov that have been making the rounds? They seem impossible, right? I'll post one here. See more here.


Previous installments of Truth & Beauty featured brainbows and dying stars.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Today's Affirmation

I shall resist all click bait.
I shall resist all click bait.
I shall resist all click bait.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Phil Everly Is Gone

I just saw that Phil Everly, the younger of the two Everly Brothers, left our world last week. When you can say you've been a core influence on both the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkle, as the Everly Brothers were, you know you've made a great impact. Here's a clip of their transcendent hit When Will I Be Loved. It's from their 1983 reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Terry Teachout's "Duke"

I just finished Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. It was a great read; crisp and lively with plenty of forward momentum. In other words, some nonfiction to not be afraid of. James Gavin's review in the NYT nails it:
The facts and stories he relates aren’t new, but rarely have they had such a compelling narrative flow or ring of reliability. As in his last book, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” Teachout keeps his psychoanalyzing within safe limits; he contextualizes historically without sounding contrived, and honors his subject’s musical achievements through just the right amount of close analysis. 
Two main themes stood out for me. The first is Ellington's somewhat failed attempts to create long form compositions that would rival Gershwin and other "serious" composers. Teachout describes how Ellington never put in the time and work needed to learn how to and create complex, coherent longer works. All of his formal and sonic innovations found their best expression in three minute songs. I think that instead of comparing against classical composers we should say that Ellington was like other giants of 20th century popular music: He developed his sound by working within the limitations of the recording technology of the time, as well the demands of being on the road all the time. No need to judge against Stravinsky. Compare with the Beatles, great artists whose masterpieces were also discrete three minute pieces.

The other is that Ellington was a "race man" of the type that existed before Malcolm X, the 60s, and the Black Power movement. Nothing signifies this more than the fact that Ellington wore his hair straightened in a conk, a look that was to become taboo for men in the new era of Black consciousness. Born in 1899, he grew up in the Washington D.C. black middle class of the early 20th century, which had its own notions of internal hierarchy, sometimes even based on skin color.

Ironically, while Duke's early music was promoted as "jungle music," Duke himself was ever vigilant in being seen as a "credit" to the African American people. To this end, he hired the powerhouse manager Irving Mills to craft his public image as a serious artist, which he was. He was also a serious womanizer and hedonist, unfaithful to his wife who he married young and never divorced, to say nothing of the other women he cohabitated with over the years. In that day and age such things could be kept out of the media. As with JFK, it was the public persona, not the private actions, that mattered most.

But it wasn't all about image. The image was a protective layer. Ellington came to dislike the term jazz, but insisted without ceasing that all of his work was intended to be a testimony to the Black or Negro experience in America. It was his firm conviction that the Black contribution to American culture was indispensable; at once unique and central to its character. He was right.

UPDATE: 1-11-14

The third main theme revolves around Ellington's compositional methods, which often involved grabbing the good melodic bits from his band members' improvised solos and turning them into songs, usually without sharing credit with them. The truth is he didn't come up with the themes to most of his hits by himself. This raises lots of questions about what we mean by originality. As a point of comparison, if you look at Bob Dylan's body of work, you see many songs lifted from the folk canon with only the barest melodic alterations. A good example is his "Girl from the North Country," which lifts the melody and even some words from the traditional British song "Scarborough Fair." Dylan acknowledged the process with the title of his 2001 album: Love and Theft. Fittingly, Dylan was accused of plagiarizing the words of Japanese writer Junichi Saga throughout that record.

No matter their source material, Ellington and Dylan produced work that is immediately, recognizably theirs and theirs alone. That's art. That's the way it goes.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Ted Cruz: Idiot or Panderer?

I saw that leading Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has joined the crackpot brigade, going for the cheap "Al Gore said we wouldn't ever get cold weather again" laugh line. The question is whether he is an idiot or a panderer. He's Ivy League educated, so we can assume he knows that isolated incidents and events constitute data points and by themselves tell us nothing about trends that play out over decades, centuries, and millennia. Actually, it doesn't even take a college degree to get this. I would think this would be a good science concept for an 8th or 9th grader to grasp. This means that Cruz must be a panderer of the most predictable sort.

The lure of a laugh line is strong, and when it comes to this kind of science-denial, it would seem it's one that few Republicans can resist. A good laugh line should at least reside in proximity to some kind of truth, though, or else it's simply childish. If Republicans see this kind of thing as the route back to the White House, they are probably mistaken. (OK, this last sentence qualifies as a bit of "concern trolling.")

Saturday, January 4, 2014

My Discernment

I tend to be favorably impressed with the intelligence of people who think like I do and share my tastes and opinions. For example, I would appreciate the acuity of anyone who agrees with the previous post.

Maybe I need to cultivate a more, um, scientific mindset.

Some Grammar Push Back

Spell and grammar check function as forms of profiling. Ninety percent of the time they make suggestions that I ignore, but they catch things often enough that I leave them engaged.

One of the biggest things that gets flagged is passive sentence construction, confirming the bias that the passive voice is always something to avoid. But depending on the subject or subjects of the previous sentence and your intentions for the new sentence, passive construction can be the best choice and can facilitate clarity and flow.

There are a number of other biases and truisms out there, many tracing back to the deified Strunk and White, that make no prescriptive sense. Here are a few.

1. Commas: The (newish) conventional wisdom is that fewer commas are always better. But the standard for any sentence is clarity, and if commas help, then they should be used. This is why I prefer the serial comma. Commas can also help a sentence attain the rhythms of spoken language. I even enjoy nineteenth century writing, where they used an insane amount of commas and clauses.

2. Exclamation points: Many editors say they should never be used, that the writer should be able to achieve the desired effect without them. But why? I think the actual problem is overuse of exclamation points. Otherwise it makes no sense to remove a tool from the tool box.

3. Sentence length: The shared opinion is that shorter and punchier is always better. True, we don't want flab, but the real goal should be the use of sentences of varying length. Plus, verbosity can be fun on occasion. The skills of classical rhetoric even encourage word and phrase repetition in some cases to increase impact and lyricism.

4. Sentence fragments: These only need to be avoided if it's clear you don't know what you're doing. Great writers use fragments whenever they wish. Spoken language utilizes fragments all the time.

5. Mainstream opinion is shifting away from the previous gospel that infinitives should never be split or sentences end with a preposition. This is good. Many unnecessary contortions are no longer needed.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Cartier-Bresson Had His Mojo Workin'

Let's begin the new year with some art instead of argument. I was watching the excellent Henri Cartier-Bresson documentary, The Impassioned Eye, the other day, and was struck once again by the marvelous integration of his photographs. He paid close attention to geometry and pattern, which all artists must do, but rarely has it been done with such clarity and panache. My favorite works of his mix human and built or natural forms into coherent compositions, with the human forms adding a sense of imperfection or fuzziness into the frame, along with sociological and emotional overtones. The humans are at once of the same order as the non-human forms -- they are equal elements of the pattern -- but are also mysterious and transcendent.

The master claimed that the key was being ready for "the decisive moment":
Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.
This sounds right, but I'm inclined not just to take him at his word. The moments Cartier-Bresson captured were so perfect that I feel he must somehow have bent the universe to his will, asserting mighty mojo so that humans and the myriad elements of the physical environment rushed into position only to satisfy his aesthetic desires! Here are a few of his most celebrated images. You be the judge as to what kind of magic is working here.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thinking Provincetown Summer Blue

Well, we're in the middle of a good old Nor'easter here in the Boston area: with more than a foot of drifting snow predicted, along with 35 MPH gusts of wind, subzero windchill temps, and near whiteout conditions. This is when I daydream of the summer blue of Provincetown Harbor. Like this. Digital mind over physical matter.