Sunday, August 31, 2014

Michael Wolf: Abstract Urbanism

German photographer Michael Wolf turns Hong Kong's density into striking geometric abstractions.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Ferguson Reflections

1. One of the key factors in thinking about the Michael Brown shooting and its aftermath is empathy. This does not mean "bleeding heart" sympathy. It means, if you're not black, trying to put yourself in the shoes of an African-American person, just a regular citizen. I bet that if they did this most white people who currently see this as an overly-racialized situation, would see it like the black people who are protesting do. But so many people are turned off by what they perceive as political correctness that they immediately reject any suggestion that there might really be a problem here. I understand the impulse, having been burned myself by PC orthodoxy. What I am suggesting is that the same amount of self-respect that a white person would maintain is the same self-respect that calls black Americans to stand up to what clearly is a widespread assault on simple dignity. It's just a fact that black people are treated worse by the police and the legal system. For example, if white people who do drugs were busted at the same rate as blacks, every dorm in the US would suddenly be half empty.

2. Poor whites have it bad, too, of course. As Bryan Stevenson has pointed out, it's better to be rich and guilty in our legal system than it is to be poor and innocent.* That said, I think Michael Brown would still be alive if he were white. And the way he was left dead on the street was an outrage.

3. It's also true, though, that police have an incredibly difficult job, one in which mistakes, even tragic mistakes, will be made. In this case, it seems very, very hard to justify the death of an unarmed person. But we shouldn't just assume malice on the part of police.

4. In a way, the media is overplaying the racial divide in opinions about this case. Even if 70 or 75 percent of black people see this as a case where race is an important factor, that still leaves a lot of other people who agree to some extent with the white people who don't. And the reverse is true. Even if two thirds of white people think this is being over-racialized, that still leaves a lot of white people who agree with the majority black opinion.

* Or, as Bob Dylan sang, "Steal a little and they throw you in jail / Steal a lot and they make you king."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

William James: Dogs in the Drawing Rooms of the Universe

Once, many years ago on a street in London, I observed a group of very young children, walking single file as they do, with their teachers watching over. It was beautiful. I can still see them turning that corner in Hampstead Heath, with the old buildings framing a journey that was, for them, very insular. I realized in a flash that while I would remember them forever, they had no awareness at all of my existence. And it seemed to me that growth and maturation is indivisible from the expansion of awareness and consciousness. Growing is to take more experience into one's orbit. And all of this reminded me of my favorite quote* from the great William James, from the last chapter of Pragmatism. I should add, though, that our pets also inhabit a world, of smells and sounds, that is beyond our consciousness. So it cuts both ways.
I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing-rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangents to the wider life of things. But, just as many of the dog’s and cat’s ideals coincide with our ideals, and the dogs and cats have daily living proof of the fact, so we may well believe, on the proofs that religious experience affords, that higher powers exist and are at work to save the world on ideal lines similar to our own.
* I snared this block quote from Jeff Carreira's amazing, lucid and erudite, philosophy blog.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Munkácsy: "The Blind Milton Dictating"

Mihály Munkácsy, The Blind Milton Dictating Paradise Lost to His Daughters, 1877

During a few days in New York City I decided to check out the Public Library. The main reading room was closed, which was a disappointment. But I did visit the Edna Barnes Solomon Room, where many oil paintings hang, with this large (several feet wide) Munkácsy as the centerpiece. Readers of this blog will know that, counter to normal tastes, I prefer abstract painting to objective or narrative works. Many narrative paintings are so detailed that I lose interest. You know: Jesus with eight or nine disciples, a whole bunch of onlookers, each with different expressions, and maybe some angels or Romans to boot.

This piece, with just four figures, communicates in a way I can really get. Before I knew what the painting was about, I thought that the male figure was slumped in pain. What we actually see is a figure (Milton, 1608 - 1674) in the deepest concentration imaginable, perhaps even weighing new words against those that came to him in the night, as this excellent blog post explains. And I wonder, how much literature is composed in a sort of trance state, or through the means of what we might refer to as "channeling"?

The sister on the far right is in charge of the main transcription, and she leans forward so as to figure out exactly what her father is saying. The other sitting sister seems to be embroidering. Maybe she weighs in when a word or phrase is in doubt. The standing sister looks like she was leaving until something particularly arresting emerged from her father's mouth. Maybe he was expressing sympathy for the devil.

Other artists have tackled the same subject, including Delacroix, who includes an image of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden in this painting from 1827-28. The act of dictation here seems so much less burdensome than in the Munkácsy.

In Henry Fuseli's 1794 version, Milton himself looks like a specter, or emissary from another world, with inspiration settling on him in a cone of light.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Power of Mottos

I never thought much about mottos until I started at my current position a number of years ago. Early on, our founder gave our peace and dialogue institute the above guidances. Then I noticed that a school I support in Boston, Fenway High School, has these really concise, on point, and cool mottos: "Work hard. Be yourself. Do the right thing." And then I remembered that I have always focused on a slogan for my own work as an education writer: "To inform and inspire." 

Now that I think about it, it should actually go: "To inform, inspire, and provoke." That last part is a tricky proposition, but an essential one. We all need our assumptions challenged on a regular basis. The key is to do this without tearing down too much or discouraging people. To do this well is a core educational aspiration. Buddhists call this skillful means. A closely related educational principle is to "meet people where they are." This means that information, inspiration, and provocation must be calibrated based on awareness of an individual's (or group's) character, mindset, and experience to maximize the potential for growth.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Friday, August 15, 2014

Stuart Davis: Owh! in San Pao

Stuart Davis, Owh! in San Pao, 1951, oil on canvas, approx. 52 x 41 in.

This later Stuart Davis is bold and pared down. The colors and geometrics emerging from the yellow background give "Owh!" a lot of pow. All Davis works are punchy, but this one especially so. It is said that he was a practitioner of the Cubist idiom. I never thought of him that way, but it's clear that he's working with multiple perspectives. The words clearly look forward to pop. To me he's neither cubist or pop, but just the best purveyor of what the dynamism of jazz looks like. And can we hear it for yellow? It will never be a hip color (see: smiley face), but it's the color of optimism, and I love it.

Here's an earlier Stuart Davis post: Hot Still-scape in Six Colors.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

When the media talks about jobs and the economy, they always paint with too broad of a brush. Some examples:

1. We always hear that people with college degrees make a million or more dollars over their lifetime than those without. The question is: Which people? A tradesman, i.e., an electrician, plumber, etc., will make more during a lifetime than most people with bachelors, some of whom are insanely rich, but many of whom have basic administrative jobs.

2. Talking about unemployment figures of Americans as a whole is useless. For example, unemployment for young African American males might be quadruple another group.

3. When we talk about jobs added, it's key to distinguish what kind of jobs they are. Most new jobs are service sector, lower paid than the manufacturing jobs they are replacing.

4. When discussing wages and salary it's absolutely crucial to talk about benefits. Many low wage workers get no sick or vacation time. Missing a day is something they can't afford, even when ill.

5. It's often claimed that the main cause of unemployment is the lack of proper education. I don't buy that. If more people get law degrees there won't be more legal jobs as a result.  Most training for skilled and non-skilled positions actually happens on the job. I'd love to see more apprentice programs, since a lot of people can't afford to get a degree or certificate and then be unemployed.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

No Magic Teaching Pills

Great article by James Goodman at Salon. It lays out the misunderstanding on the part of many ed reformers who think that teaching is about finding the right technique and then having all teachers do it, the technique being rather like a drug one administers as a cure. Goodman's article was triggered by some recent remarks by Rand Paul. Here are three paragraphs from the piece, but please read the whole thing.

According to Politico, Rand Paul is “planning a major push on education reform, including education choice, school choice, vouchers, charter schools, you name it.” As one specific example for improving education, Paul suggested that “if you have one person in the country who is, like, the best at explaining calculus, that person maybe should teach every calculus class in the country.” He allowed that “You’d still have local teachers to reinforce and try to explain and help the kids, but you’d have some of these extraordinary teachers teaching millions of people in the classroom.”


Here is the biggest problem with this approach (and thus with Paul’s vision of education): If your brand of teaching is simply explaining things to kids, then you’re not teaching them to think. You’re not teaching them to problem-solve. You’re teaching them to learn what you tell them, and to be able to reproduce something similar. What we need to do in education, however, and in particular in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, is to cultivate creative critical thinking skills. As former Secretary of Education Richard Riley said, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” This is always in my mind as I teach my math courses. I have to constantly remind myself to get out of the way of the students, to not jump in with a hint or answer too quickly, and to challenge them to ponder a concept before I explain it to them.


Part of the problem with the perpetuity of education reform is that everyone is looking for the answer to the question, “How do we best teach,” as though there is some formula that is ultimately the best. They see teaching as a science experiment – as though one set of conditions and stimuli will prove to be optimal. That’s not what it is. It is an art. Two great teachers may do things completely differently from each other. Furthermore, no two classes of students are the same. One great teacher may teach the same thing in very different ways to different groups of kids, depending on their strengths, personalities and the real-time feedback that the teacher reads from her class.  Again, this is something that requires a talented, knowledgeable classroom teacher (the one directing the instruction and activity at each moment) who cultivates a relationship with each student – anathema to Paul’s description of his own vision of education.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Poem: Fallen Adam

Michelangelo, detail from The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, 1508 - 1512

Unfallen Adam is an ape
Who, with Eve, fell upward into
An awareness of duality
And differentiated desire
Setting into motion a journey
Toward a new naivete in which
Our finger paintings are full of sex
Where we unite with pure love
For the pain of separation

Yes, Man named the beasts and
Plants of the forest and field
We rise not by un-naming
But by divining names are not
The things but a way of arranging life
For the expansion of knowledge
And responsibility. We accept that
Illusory taxonomies do no damage
To the miracle of what we feel

In the new Eden our fig leaves
Are chosen not out of shame
But for beauty

M. Bogen
2011 / 2014

Friday, August 8, 2014

Linda Thompson Sings Rufus Wainwright's Beauty

My song of the week is Linda Thompson's version of Rufus Wainwright's "Beauty." I was listening the other day and thought, "Hey, maybe I'm not a Dad Rock Prisoner after all. I mean, it's a Rufus Wainwright song." A quick visit to Wikipedia, however, revealed that not only is he 41 years old, but he's also a Gay Dad. Shit. I love the part that goes "I'm smoking again in the morning." What a perfect way to signal being all undone. I'll just add that Linda Thompson is a great, great singer: Amazing tone, and you can feel it. Nice background singing by Antony, and a perfect string arrangement. Actually, Antony's vocals aren't really backing, since what they do is interweave with Linda's, a performance strategy demanding much empathy and intuition on the part of both singers.
Beauty, you make me sad
All you beautiful babies been had
Who'll be able to love you for
What you, what you really are?

Beauty, what is your face?
What has it given the human race?
All that it has given me is a longing for
People and things I could never afford

Ah, beauty, now that the walls of Troy are tumbling down
And poor Oscar Wilde's verdict is out
And the Hope diamond's up for auction

And what about Michael Jackson?
And I'm smoking again
In the morning looking at

Beauty, look at me
You who did line the apple once offered Eve
I fear you line the world we see
Filled with goodness only hidden by

Beauty, you make me sad
You make me sad
You make me sad

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Daisaku Ikeda: Art As Transformation

"When we create or appreciate art, we set free the spirit trapped within. That is why art arouses such joy. Art – whether skillfully executed or not – is the emotion, the pleasure of expressing life as it is. Those who see art are moved by its passion and strength, its intensity and beauty. That is why it is impossible to separate life from art. Political and economic developments may seem to dominate the news, but culture and education are the forces that actually shape an age, since they transform the human heart."
–Daisaku Ikeda

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Irene Lipton at Albert Merola

Irene Lipton, Untitled, 2006, oil paint and graphite on paper, 23 x 29 in.

If you are in P-town stop by the Albert Merola Gallery to see the new Irene Lipton show, opening this weekend. This is the image they used for the postcard. Beautiful and lyrical and textured. And, I should add: fun (a description which I hope does not distress the artist; maybe better words are lively and pleasurable). I love the blue and dirty gold and the way the elements of her vocabulary converse within, between, and across the quadrants. Her works are really layered. In good light you can detect the original markings, calling across the mists of time and paint.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Lost in the Cornfields

Somewhere in the Midwest
Somewhere else, sunny

Sorry for the lapse in posts. My wife and I were in Illinois visiting family. We did a lot of driving around the state, and it all looks like this. So do Iowa and Nebraska. And Indiana. Beautiful in a minimalist way, but monotonous "as all get out."