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.