Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Renzo Piano Moratorium, Anyone?

Harvard Art Museums

A few weeks ago I wrote about the new Harvard Art Museums, designed by Renzo Piano. My assessment was that the building was nondescript on the outside but successful on the inside, with lots of light and perspectives that frame certain works against interesting exterior views. Now I see that the new Whitney Museum in Manhattan is also a Renzo Piano design. Reading about it in the newest New Yorker I learned that writer Peter Schjeldahl was pretty unexcited about the exterior, too, saying that
the building is a lurching aggregate of shapes in striated steel cladding and glass, with outdoor stairways that connect terraces on three floors. It’s so confusing that, pretty soon, I gave up looking at it.
I'm actually more concerned about the fact that, as the article states, Piano has now designed thirteen museums in the United States, and twenty-four worldwide. So much for novelty and originality and unique civic identity. How did we get here? Two reasons, I think.

The first is institutional conservatism and caution. With Piano, you know what you are getting, which is important when the funders are putting up big bucks. But then you end up in a situation akin to the way major symphony orchestras rely on tried and true warhorses, lest the patrons have a less than engaging experience after their substantial cash outlay. Now we find ourselves in an era of postmodern conformity, where Piano designs are nearly as ubiquitous as the neoclassical designs that used to dominate. It always has been and always will be that most innovation happens closer to the ground, where the costs are lower -- as with today's "pop up" movement.

The other factor, I suggest, is that we're now in a Frank Gehry backlash, which is fine with me. Gehry became our foremost "starchitect" with his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Give him credit for exploding us big time out of the box; right angles can be hard to come by in his buildings. But I've been a skeptic, some graceful curves notwithstanding. For his worst buildings I imagine that his design method consists of crumpling up a piece of paper and then handing it to his battery of computer geniuses to come up with a workable design.

To clarify, both Piano and Gehry have been innovators, but so much replication renders the innovative mundane.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Elephant in the Room of the Iran Deal

I think that for something to qualify as an "elephant in the room" it has to be perfectly obvious to all concerned parties, yet too uncomfortable for anyone to deal with, or even acknowledge. So the elephant in the room of the Iran deal might not properly qualify a such, since very few seem to know it's even there. I'm referring to the absolutely crucial fact that this deal is not simply between the Iranians and the U.S., but rather between Iran and the allied powers of the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, and Germany.

The impression in the media is that this is all about the American-Iranian relationship, with a focus on Israel, whereas I believe that it is the cooperative action between the six states that might be the most important part of this. I mean, how incredible is it that we are engaged in a cooperative venture with China and Russia? Pretty incredible, I say. One reason that conditions aren't harsher is that the Russians and Chinese just don't see Iran like we do. Their interests aren't the same as ours. If the US puts the kibosh on the deal, which seems pretty likely, the other states might just decide to lift their sanctions anyway and go back to business as usual.

I'm pretty reconciled to the agreement not happening. If it is the will of the people, as represented by Congress, to nix it, so be it. But because of our American solipsism, we're not even aware of the elephant standing in the back yard, just outside the back kitchen door. People of America! Invite that elephant in!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Illustration After Mad Men: Steadman & Pettibon

Even though illustration began its decline as an advertising mode during the Mad Men years, it carried on and even thrived in the 70s and 80s as a niche art form. Two prominent examples are found in the works of Ralph Steadman (above) and Raymond Pettibon (below), whose drawings illuminated dark fringes of the American Dream. They are not the descendents of Norman Rockwell. Steadman's work was associated with Hunter  S. Thompson, and it fixed in our minds what "fear and loathing" actually looked like. Their shared style was called "gonzo." Pettibon's was associated with his brother's hardcore punk band Black Flag. The black and white style was quite influential, in punk and beyond. Pettibon is now known as a blue chip fine artist, not merely a punk illustrator.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Truth & Beauty #5: Hubble Photos

Science writer Phil Plait has posted a bunch of the most stunning photos taken from the orbiting Hubble telescope over the last 25 years -- images Plait calls Hubble's "greatest hits." All the pics are really great, so please visit Slate for more. Here's what Plait says about the above:
Gaze upon that picture, let your eyes wander. With only a few exceptions, every single object in that field is an entire galaxy, a mighty collection of billions or hundreds of billions of stars! Thousands can be seen here, yet this patch of sky is so tiny you could easily cover it many times over with the tip of your pinky at arm’s length. The Universe is vast and terrifying and magnificent beyond our ability to properly express.
The previous Truth & Beauty entry featured an Audubon illustration from The Birds of America.

The first three installments of Truth & Beauty featured snowflake macro-photography, brainbows and dying stars.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Mad Men & the End of Illustration

One of the things that that struck me from the early days of Mad Men was that the agency's art department featured men sitting at drawing boards, illustrating things. Quaint, yes, but up to the mid-60s or so most ads were hand-drawn. Even Andy Warhol, king of mass-produced, impersonal art, was an advertising illustrator, and a damn good one at that. I was listening to Sinatra's 1965 LP "September of My Years," and noticed that the cover really captured the hand-drawn look of the time. I like how it keeps a rough, unfinished quality, like it's a study.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Stevie Wonder's "Visions"

I don't go to church on Sundays. But I will take a walk later to see which buds are finally emerging, and after that will commune in front of the Panasonic to watch the Celts challenge King James and the Cavs. I will also give thanks for the blessed Stevie Wonder, who has a way of saying all that needs to be said, spirit-wise, as he did in this beautiful song from what might be his greatest album, "Innervisions." I recommend headphones.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Judith Trepp's Sculptures of Hard-Won Grace

No. 1, 2015, stainless steel and car paint, 6.5 x 17.75 x 14 inches

John Kenneth Galbraith once observed how people would often commend him on the informal, conversational style of his writing. I thank them, he said, and then assure them that this breeziness is the spontaneous result of six or seven hard-fought drafts. This is what I thought of when I viewed images of Judith Trepp's new sculptures, whose evident fluidity and grace belie the fact that they were created using a 40-ton press to bend that is, force the stainless steel into the desired form.

I often wonder if an artist will be offended if I remark on the sheer beauty of a work. Well, I can't help myself here. These works are, as my wife remarked, simply gorgeous, and the soft colors harmonize with the stainless steel in a way that feels meant-to-be. That metal can be made so pleasing and inviting is something fun to contemplate.

Some modes of art reveal the processes of their creation. Consider Kerouac's "spontaneous bop prosody," which many critics said would have benefited from some make that a lot of editing. They were wrong, because that's not what he was going for. He was trying to reveal streams of consciousness. This is a big part of what abstract expressionism was about, and why it was also called "action painting." It revealed the act of creating. These aren't that. But this is not to say there isn't spontaneity involved. I think that in this kind of art the spontaneity occurs at inception. I know that Judith is concerned with bringing images forth from the unconscious. The only way that happens is through some form of intuition. However, once this emergence has happened, conscious effort and technique are required to create the "final" work of art.

Process note: While writing this I have been listening to a collection of Yehudi Menuhin performances. I trust that neither he nor the composer would be offended by the fact that I found the violinist's performance of Act III from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake to be exceedingly beautiful.

(Please view these at Judith Trepp's website as well, since these images aren't reproducing here quite as well as they do there.)

No. 2, 2015, stainless steel and car paint, 6.5 x 17.75 x 17 inches

No. 2, 2015, stainless steel and car paint, 6.5 x 17.75 x 17

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


The social historian Peter Stearns has an essay on the history of happiness at the Harvard Business Review website. It's a great read. The U.S., of course, is Happiness Central.
  • We enshrined the pursuit of happiness in our Declaration of Independence in 1776
  • The song "Happy Birthday" was composed by an American in 1926, and is now sung all around the world.
  • The smiley face was designed by the American Harvey Ball in 1963. It has proven endlessly adaptable. I like the stoner one.
  • McDonald's introduced the Happy Meal in 1977.
  • The laugh track is an American invention.
  • Bobby McFerrin had a huge hit with "Don't Worry, Be Happy" in 1988. 
  • And then Pharrell Williams hit big a couple years ago with "Happy," which posits that "happiness is the truth." Getting metaphysical about it.
And look at all the American self-help books and "power of positive thinking" mega-churches like Joel Osteen's. Does all this overt focus on happiness mean we're delusional, naive, or misguided? I don't think so, as long as happiness isn't an obligation. And it can be a tad weird sometimes. Like when Zippy asks if we are having fun yet.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Jacob Lawrence & the Angular Aesthetic

One of the key aesthetic themes of the 20th century is angularity, introduced most powerfully into the visual arts by the Cubists around 1910. In his great "migration series" of paintings, which depicts the lives of the millions of African-Americans who migrated from the American South to the North from about 1910 to 1930, the painter Jacob Lawrence gave the aesthetics of angularity a real immediacy, since it was deployed in the interest of an emotional narrative, full of the triumphs and tragedies of that period. Lawrence painted the series of 60 plates in 1940 - 41, just when African-American music was being advanced by figures such as Thelonious Monk, whose work might be called the apotheosis of accessible angularity. I would also describe Lawrence as a neo-Mannerist, with the stretching of forms for psychological impact. Lawrence is in the news these days because MOMA is doing a big show of the complete migration series. It's a great achievement in American art.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

What Are We Educating For?

Lost in all our public education-related skirmishes is a thoughtful consideration of what we think education is actually for. The answer we hear most often in America is "achievement," which takes for granted that what we want to achieve are high scores on standardized tests -- a shallow and dispiriting objective, in my view. It is also assumed that to attain this educational success we need our children to be rescued by Superman. And Superwoman, of course -- this signals gender equity, if not complexity of thought. In other words, one will not come away knowing a lot about our challenges simply by listening with one ear to the loudest voices. (Michelle Rhee, anyone?)

Good, thoughtful material does exist, material that can help us clarify our thinking, which means no easy answers. Here are two terrific pieces on education that I encountered over the last couple of weeks. These pieces will really help you understand what's at stake, and what the questions are that need answering. I urge you to read them, if you are so inclined.

The first is an in-depth article by Kate Taylor in the New York Times considering the pros and cons of the Success Academy charter schools in New York City. My personal bias is not toward the highly-regimented test-focused pedagogy of these schools, but I acknowledge that they are very popular and that they do in fact provide exactly what many parents want for their children. The comments section attests to this. But let me raise some skepticism around a couple points. First, these are privatized schools founded by super-wealthy hedge-fund people. It doesn't impugn their motives to suggest that their conception of good education is skewed by their own circumstances. Second, at these schools teachers tend to be very young, with many leaving after a couple years. When I did my teacher training, my mentor teacher told me that he didn't become a truly good teacher until after five years or so. This suggests that good teaching involves many things, such as wisdom, that go way past high test scores, since the young Success Academy teachers do achieve such scores. I would use this article as a case study in education schools. Read the article here.

The next is from Leon Botstein, president of Bard College. This substantial essay, which appears at the Democracy Journal website, is called "Are We Still Making Citizens?" I share Botstein's view that it is a vital task for schools to help young people develop the kind of thinking capacities, judgment, and confidence to be able to contribute as citizens; to be thoughtfully anti-authoritarian while still being committed to the polis and our common good. But Botstein does not overlook the trade-offs involved, especially academically. I believe this is one of the most valuable essays on education I've ever read -- and I've read a lot of them. Read the essay here.

In this paragraph Botstein lays out his vision of the challenge of citizenship education:
What that experience has taught me is that the purpose, challenge, and substance of education in a democracy are defined by two questions: How ought we to live, side by side, not as lone individuals but as citizens? And how can we, through education, help individuals answer that question? Answering these questions is hard, particularly in the United States, where many seem to view citizenship as a burden and even an unfortunate necessity. The rampant distrust of government and the public sector has become overwhelming. We sidestep the question and defend education in purely economic terms, linking education to work and productivity. Nonetheless, citizenship is more than economic; it is a defining political fact of life, one that even in its neglect can’t be dismissed. And active citizenship, embraced with some measure of critical enthusiasm, may be an indispensable foundation of justice, freedom, and civility.
In conclusion, I'll just say that America has done, and is doing, a better job with education than is acknowledged, that the American educational project is the most ambitious ever attempted, and that teachers are not the enemy, nor the entire answer, either.

View my post from last year called A Field Guide to Ed Reform.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

St. Francis: Sermon to the Birds

Giotto (and others), Sermon to the Birds, c. 1300

Is St. Francis the most pagan of the Catholic saints? This is my favorite from Giotto's great series of 28 frescoes in the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, in the Tuscan hill town of Assisi. Francis treats the birds as sentient beings, with souls. That's pretty cool. I hope that after he delivered his homily he took time to hear what his feathered parishioners had to say as well. I bet he did.

I viewed this in the 80s, but a major earthquake severely damaged the Basilica in 1997. Not sure if this fresco survived.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Suppressive Persons & Counter-Revolutionaries

We finally watched the impactful HBO documentary on Scientology, Going Clear. I had read the original Lawrence Wright New Yorker article that led to the book that the film is based on. But the film, directed by Alex Gibney, is especially powerful because of the on-camera interviews with a number of very high-ranking Scientologists who managed to leave and are now speaking out. I knew the general contours of the Scientology story, but the abuses happening within the "religion" are worse than I imagined.

One thing that really struck me is that they were always on the lookout for "suppressive persons" within or close to the organization whom they deemed a hindrance to purity and progress. This seemed to me similar to the label of the "counter-revolutionary," wielded so ruthlessly in Mao's China and Castro's Cuba, to name two prominent cases. Once the external enemy is defeated the focus turns inward. It has a life of its own. I remember watching a documentary on Che Guevera, a figure loved by many liberals (at least judging by t-shirts). As soon as the Cuban dictatorial oligarchy was removed, an understandable action in many ways, Che turned his revolutionary fervor aggressively and violently against those within the party deemed not pure or committed enough. In Mao's China, measures aimed at counter-revolutionaries abused countless millions during the Cultural Revolution. Those closest to the flame get burned the worst in the end.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Botticelli: La Primavera


Botticelli, Primavera, 1482, approx. 7' x 10'

We watched Rick Steves reporting from Florence the other night, which means lots and lots of paintings of the Madonna and Child, and of course, the great Davids of Donatello and Michelangelo. But the Renaissance wasn't just about the humanizing of Christian archetypes; it was greatly concerned with reviving and celebrating the ideas and aesthetics of the ancient Greeks and Romans. So just when you think you can't ponder the baby Jesus even one more time, you can encounter a masterpiece of paganism such as Botticelli's "La Primavera," which means spring in Italian.

There's a lot of symbolism going on, but let's just note that that's Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, in the middle, with that chubby rascal Cupid floating above her. Cupid, as we know, represents eros, or the forms of love based on desire. Cupid's arrow penetrates, which doesn't merely mean sexually, but also spiritually, in that our hearts are pierced, entered into, by our beloved. Our hearts can also be pierced by beauty -- and not just the beauty of our beloved, but the beauty of art, justice, nature, and existence itself.

Curiously, Venus looks somewhat neutral, which seems significant given all the desire and fertility and sensuality happening around her. Perhaps that sense of remove in some way represents agape, another distinct form of love identified by the Greeks. Agape love is disinterested: it's not addressed to or concerned with any one person in particular. That's why agape is associated with compassion, and why it is often symbolized by rainfall, which makes possible all the nourishment and replenishment of the world.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Elliott Murphy: "Come On Louann"

No particular reason, except that it's Friday. Murphy is from New Jersey, but has spent the last 30 years or more in Paris, so not so well known here. This one is on my "repeat button" list.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"East Coker" & T. S. Eliot's "Raid on the Inarticulate"

As a call to arms, it's pretty muted. But it might be the best one I know. This is part five of "East Coker," the second of Eliot's Four Quartets (1940):

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.