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.