Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Great Photo from Paul Theroux's "Deep South"

Photograph by Steve McCurry
Boarded up buildings are never good. They refuse to let the past be gone; in fact they put past failure right up in your face. Worse, they seem to block off the future. Socio-historically then, the photo is good. Was that a train station? A post office? Does that train even run now? But it's the composition of the image that I like most. Starting at the left we see two mounded forms, trees filled in by the messy fractals of the branching. Midway across, the pole signals a shift to hard angles. I like how the Railroad Crossing sign and the Speed Limit sign appear to be stylized geometric distillations of the trees. And the partial image of the building in the puddle symbolizes the truncation of the past, denying full continuity to the future.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Pope's Regret, and Growth

If Pope Francis has not actually changed Church doctrine, which he has not, he has changed the nature of what he sees as the Church's mission as well as its mode of being. An outstanding essay in the New York Review of Books by Eamon Duffy traces Pope Francis' humble and spiritually open persona back to his regrets as a young Church leader in the highly unjust and dysfunctional Argentina of the 70s.
In 1973, while still in his mid-thirties, Jorge Bergoglio became provincial superior of the Jesuits of Argentina. The Argentinian hierarchy was deeply compromised by acquiescence in the savagely repressive rule of a military junta, but many Jesuits had embraced the political and theological radicalism of the 1970s. As Jesuit superior, Bergoglio avoided open confrontation with the regime, struggling to reconcile the demands of justice and compassion for those suffering atrocity with the need to preserve the order’s institutions and mission and to protect Jesuit lives.

His own deeply traditional piety was in any case unsympathetic to much of the social and religious experimentalism of the time. Hero-worshiped by many for his personal charisma and spiritual gifts, he was detested by others who saw him as a repressive influence, inhibiting the work of the Spirit in a time of crisis, and he was later to be accused of having betrayed politically radical Jesuits to the junta.
Pope Francis appears to have been deeply troubled by his behavior.  Duffy continues:
Bergoglio himself has acknowledged that as provincial, “I had to learn from my errors along the way, because, to tell you the truth, I made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins.” Significantly, however, he attributes those sins not to religious or political reaction, but to inexperience and failure to consult: “I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”
And so today, he have a Pope much different than his predecessors in tone and emphasis. Duffy summarizes:
In a series of interviews and speeches, Francis has deplored clergy who “play Tarzan”—church leaders too confident of their own importance, moral strength, or superior insight. The best religious leaders in his view are those who leave “room for doubt.” The bad leader is “excessively normative because of his self-assurance.” The priest who “nullifies the decision-making” of his people is not a good priest, “he is a good dictator.” Bergoglio has even said that the very fact that someone thinks he has all the answers “is proof that God is not with him.” Those who look always “for disciplinarian solutions,…long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists” have “a static and inward-directed view of things,” and have turned faith into ideology. And so the experience of failure, of reaching one’s own limits, is the truest and best school of leadership. He has declared himself drawn to “the theology of failure” and a style of authority that has learned through failure to consult others, and to “travel in patience.”
I think this is all quite admirable. The only quibble I have with Francis is his characterization as some of his early failures as sinful. What is the sin in failing to live up to your hopes for your best self? As Francis acknowledges, such failure is the only way to learn. And this failure is surely the source of his undeniable spiritual presence, which thrills and inspires so many people today.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Beatitudes

Carl Heinrich Bloch, The Sermon on the Mount, 1877, oil on copper, 41" x 36"

The best part of the New Testament is the Sermon on the Mount (IMHO), which begins with the eight Beatitudes, statements on the meaning of spiritual victory. I'll post here in honor of the Pope, a man who seems to embody the spirit of Christianity.

Chapter 5 of Matthew begins:
Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, and He began to teach them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Caravaggio: The Crowning With Thorns

Speaking of suffering (see previous post), this Caravaggio masterpiece was the best thing we saw when we visited the Houston MFA last month. It's pretty large, maybe 4 feet by 5 feet. Dynamic and energetic. In Protestant Christianity, you don't see much body imagery. But in Catholicism, the body is everything, especially depictions of Christ suffering. Let's do a quick survey: In Islam you see no human depictions at all. Judaism, not much. In Zen and some other forms of Buddhism very few human forms. But Hinduism has plenty of humans, demons, and gods, as does Tibetan Buddhism and the Buddhism of SE Asia, thus the closest corollaries to Catholicism among the other great religions. The theology of the body. Protestant Christians represent the theology of the Word.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Some Solace

I have known despair at the state of the world, or more specifically these days, the dismal state of our politics. But I took solace today when I came across this William Carlos Williams poem, "Nantucket," with its quiet statement of beautiful evidence, directly experienced, as opposed to the way we experience politics, which is usually as media noise.
Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow

Changed by white curtains --
Smell of cleanliness

Sunshine of late afternoon --
On the glass tray

a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which

a key is lying -- And the
immaculate white bed.
And I thought of Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell," and how the injustice of the world is so vexing, and how it is only aesthetic facts that can be known, including in the simple, emotional, haiku-like truth of the blues.
Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
 Read my related piece from 2014 called "The Blues Is a Haiku."

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Illegal, Immoral, and Ineffective

One of the big Republican talking points about the Iran agreement is that we got swindled into a "bad deal" because we took the "military option" off the table.

First of all, the deal isn't bad or the lesser of evils. I hate when even supporters of the agreement get apologetic like this. The agreement is among the most stringent agreements in the nuclear era, and across the history of modern diplomacy, aside from when a nation has been fully vanquished in war and agrees to unconditional surrender.

Next, does anyone think Obama would be gun shy when it comes to missles and drones? He has arguably been too quick to use these options around the world.

Finally, the military option is rightly "off the table" for the simple reason that a military strike on Iran would be illegal, immoral, and ineffective. Let me repeat: illegal, immoral, and ineffective. Illegal: At Nuremberg, the waging of aggressive war was identified as the "supreme international crime." (Of course this is never enforced.) Immoral: Any strikes to try to prevent the future development of nukes falls into the category of "preventive war," which is by definition an unjust war. Ineffective: Even war hawks admit that strikes would constitute only a temporary setback. WTF?

Oh, and if that military "option" was off the table, it was mostly because the American people had awakened to the catastrophe that was the Iraq invasion with little appetite for more. Temporarily awakened, that is. The deranged brain trust that brought us Iraq is the driving force for all Republican candidates now, with Rand Paul possibly being an exception. This is insane.

Oh, and one more thing. I bet that the Republican candidates don't even know that this was not an agreement simply between the US and Iran, but also included the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China. If they do know this, then they are being mendacious when they suggest that a Republican could just go in, tear up the existing agreement, and impose our terms on Iran by talking tough. Mind you, the other states would not reinstate their sanctions, so that leverage would stay gone.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Miles: Someday My Prince Will Come

A riveting two-part American Experience on Walt Disney aired on PBS this week. For kids like me, Disney was there like electricity, baseball diamonds, trees and creeks, Mom and Dad, and school in the fall. This documentary shows the potent mix of sweat, inspiration, and conflict that defined Walt's success. As a tribute, here's Miles doing "Someday My Prince Will Come," from Disney's first masterpiece, "Snow White."

UPDATE: 9-19-15

Of course we didn't know that Walt was marketing at us big time. His innovations in animation were easily matched by his innovations in merchandising and licensing. For better or worse. Oh, and we can also blame Disney for jump-starting our national obsession with princesses, the bane of every parent of young daughters.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Emerson, the Ocean, and the Shore

Judith Trepp, untitled, 2009, ink on handmade Indian paper,  18.5 x 29"

 Writing in his journal, July 1841, Emerson said:
It is the same ocean everywhere, but it has no character until seen with the shore or the ship. Who would value any number of miles of Atlantic brine bounded by lines of latitude and longitude? Confine it by granite rocks, let it wash ashore where wise men dwell, and it is filled with expression; and the point of greatest interest is where the land and water meet.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Good Things To Do: Listen to Moondog

Why is it good to listen to Moondog?

1. Because he doesn't sound like anyone else. The key to marketing is to say this sounds like that. You need to know where to slot it. But he just made Moondog music, which ranged from contemporary classical to an idiosyncratic take on jazz to the tribal and the otherworldly. If you could slot him anywhere it would be in the great America tradition of weirdo genius outsiders like Sun Ra and Harry Partch. He invented some of his own instruments, like Partch did.

2. Because he named himself for his childhood dog who would howl at the moon.

3. Because in the late 40s and 50s he would stand on 6th Street in NYC dressed up like a Viking. Why? Because when he first showed up in NYC he had a beard and long hair and people always said he looked like Jesus. Not a compliment for Mr. Moondog, who said, Look: "that's enough, I don't want that connection. I must do something about my appearance to make it look un-Christian." Before counter-cultural status was commodified in the 60s it found expression in individuals and small groups of proto-hippies, as with the guy who wrote "Nature Boy," Eden Ahbez.

4. Because he learned drumming from Arapahoes in Wyoming in the 1920s.

5. Because he is really engaging to listen to.

Here's an outstanding article on Moondog.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Oscar Tuazon at the DeCordova

When "idea art" is successful, it doesn't need the curator's remarks to make sense, to make an impact. When we were up at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln the other day, many works, unfortunately, fell into that trap: if you didn't know the back story -- where the artist went to do the art, what their theoretical rationale was, etc. -- the work had little or no power.

One piece there that needed no explanation, but which nevertheless continues to succeed and even gain strength when subjected to analysis, is Oscar Tuazon's Partners, created in October 2014. This elegant piece consists of an elbow structure made of concrete that attaches to a sugar maple tree. This piece meets my first criterion of idea art: it must be visually successful, or beautiful, or engaging, in and of itself, on its own terms. And like any good art, there must be tension. Are these elements (and everything they represent) in a symbiotic relationship of support, or are they battling like two sumo wrestlers momentarily still in the center of the ring?

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Trump Card: No Apologies

When Fox's Roger Aisles called on Trump to apologize for his disrespect toward reporter Megyn Kelly, I thought that he might be intentionally lobbing a softball to the ginger-coiffed plutocrat. After all, what is the main source of Trump's appeal? Trump don't apologize, that's what. Nor does he even try -- that is, lower himself -- to respond to policy critiques. Bush tried that angle, basically saying Trump doesn't know what he is talking about (which is pretty true). The Donald's response? Jeb is a "low energy" guy. Possibly even "a loser." Ouch.

This is why Trump won't be brought down easily. He just doesn't give a shit. Traditionally, candidates are scripted and focus-grouped to death. You know, the Frank Luntz treatment. Exhibit A: Hillary. People love that Trump isn't one of those people. Hell, I like it. The "no apologies" part is the key, though. This plays into three big conservative themes, the first a bit disturbing; the second, half-baked; and the third, understandable.

The first is the need for an authoritarian Daddy figure. Trump's fundamental approach is, Kids, just don't worry about it. I'll be so good at the military it will make your head spin. I believe you, dad! Thank you!

The second relates to the Republican complaints that Obama is ceaselessly traveling the globe apologizing for the US. This is nonsense. Occasionally, at the beginning of his presidency, he would acknowledge historical US missteps, misguided actions whose negative impacts upon the less powerful nations of the world has always been, in their eyes, quite blatant. Acknowledging reality, however modestly, has gone a long way toward restoring respect for the US globally. That's a fact. Hey, I thought it was a conservative value to take responsibility for one's actions.

The final point has some legs, seems more legitimate to me. Essentially, a lot of white people feel that liberal orthodoxy demands that they go around apologizing all the time, literally just for being born (white). Yes, there are racists and nativists among Trump's followers, but there are plenty of other good people who feel caricatured by the left, and are tired of it. So for the moment and maybe longer, Trump is their man.
UPDATE 9-22:
Wow, have to revise this and say that the nativists and racists seem to really be dominant at this point in the Trump crowd. Ugly. The point still holds for many other white Republicans.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Dale Chisman Paintings

Some challenges are just right, and stand the test of time. For example, the 90 foot distance from home plate to first base ensures that unless there is a clean hit there are going to be lots of bang-bang plays at first as the defense tries to turn a double play or the runner tries to beat out a throw for an infield hit. Painting is like that. Often the painter gets a clean hit, but other times they teeter on the brink of failure. And even after a failure, they step up for another try. And so painting lives. Which is a long way of saying that plenty of great artists continue to take up the challenge of working in this medium. Dale Chisman practiced up to his death in 2008. I see some echoes of Twombly's influential scribble and scratch aesthetic. The ladder in the top image provides a nice archetypal touch. Chisman is from Denver. Could the ladder be a reference to Pueblo kiva ladders? Or maybe it's a version of Jacob's ladder, from which the artist tumbles as he seeks aesthetic perfection.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

I'm Sorry. What?

Donald Trump's campaign slogan is Make America Great Again. I have no idea what that means. Seriously. Although when I see that stupid cap on Trump's head -- the head of a white guy who was born rich -- I can start to gather for whom.

UPDATE: 9-2-15

Actually, we can't really assume Trump is just out for guys like him. More accurately, he's out for himself and anyone else (unspecified) who will benefit from his "terrific" ideas (unspecified) because, as he reminds us, he's a "really smart guy," a "winner" -- as opposed to all those other "losers" in the race. And when he makes America "great again," it will be like that other time (unspecified) when America was great.