Thursday, December 31, 2015

Wishing You L-O-V-E Love in 2016

2015 Meta Reflections

It occurred to me that maybe a year-end summing up of this blog would be in order, some sort of attempt to pluck out a few main themes and draw some conclusions. But that idea didn't appeal to me. So I set out to understand why. I think it's because I like the slow accretion of ideas, images, and topics that is itself the composition or the point of the site. I'm sure there are conclusions that could be drawn, but going there myself feels like it would disrupt the actual doing of it, just like overthinking can stunt the living of life.

OK, an odd claim from someone who devotes a few hours each week to this blog in order to communicate thoughts. But the thoughts aren't about me exactly. They are about my concerns and enthusiasms, mostly the latter. The blog is a pretty good reflection of how I choose to focus my mind on an average day or during a typical week or month. For me it seems a more constructive and non-neurotic use of my mental apparatus to figure out what I would like to say about that Beach Boys song I'm listening to in the car than to spend too much time thinking about myself and my problems.

The question is always what to leave in and what to leave out. I've read my Bukowski, but nothing raunchy is going into this blog, even if a fair amount of raunch might present itself during the course of things. I mean, like many people I get those Judd Apatow movies. Yes, I want to maintain some decorum here, for both personal and professional reasons, as well as so that the site can have a reasonable amount of aesthetic and tonal coherence.

Many really great things I love, like free jazz, don't make it onto the site either. There's a time and place for everything. And this isn't it. In a way, my visual art and poetry postings track more closely to my tastes and interests than do my music posts. Here's why. A poem or image of a painting allows the viewer to take in as much as they choose to in a given moment, but a three, four, or five minute music video asks a lot more, so I try to choose music clips that are awesome and arty but also accessible. Actually I do the same editing with art and poetry, but to a lesser extent. For example, for poems I want them to have some lively language and imagery but also to not be totally incomprehensible, which characterizes more poems than poets would like to admit.

Then there's the non-art stuff, which boils down to philosophical and spiritual reflections along with some political commentary. For the former, I often just look at my bookshelves to see if there's something invigorating and thought-provoking that would be fun to share. Emerson works good in this regard. A single sentence of his can send your mind spinning out in several directions at once. As for the politics, well, sometimes things just intrude upon life to the point where they can't be ignored. The strength of this blog, I hope, is that if you're not into the occasional politics, you can return in a day or two and encounter what I think are some of the greatest and most beautiful things that humanity has to offer.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Farewell Ellsworth Kelly

Minimalist par excellence, Kelly made us think about form and color, to appreciate form and color. To think about presence and absence. About sensuality and austerity. I like his early works best, where there is more play within each work. The only later work here is the blue one, from the 90s. Thoreau said to "simplify, simplify, simplify." I've found that as a general rule that's not always best. But it worked for Kelly. Read Sebastian Smee's Boston Globe obit here.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cy Twombly

Pan (Part III), 1980, mixed media on paper, 76 x 57 cm

Why Twombly? Why now? Because he's the best artist I always fail to think of whenever I'm thinking about who the very best modern artists are. So just rectifying that unfortunate and repeated mental lapse. Twombly rocks.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Band: "Christmas Must Be Tonight"

Hey, Bill O'Reilly! No "war on Christmas" here. Move along, OK?

It's an Art & Argument tradition at this time of year to post The Band's "Christmas Must Be Tonight," a lovely song written by Robbie Robertson, with Rick Danko on lead vocals. Danko was always my favorite of the Band's three lead singers. And this is my favorite Christmas song, a bit outside the norm. The videographer here did a tasty job with the images.

We actually went down to Trinity Church in Boston last weekend for their Christmas music and worship service. I was struck once again how "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" has the best words of any traditional carol. They were written in 1868 by Philips Brooks, long the Rector at Trinity. Yes, the "hopes and fears of all the years."
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Terminology Clarification: Martyr

Look, you're not a martyr if you commit suicide in the process of killing innocent people. A martyr is killed when nonviolently trying to help innocent but oppressed people. Think MLK, Jr. Or the guy in the Homeland finale who was killed by his cousin in the process of thwarting a terrorist attack in Berlin.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Diane Simpson at the Boston ICA

Diane Simpson, Formal Wear

I definitely will go see this show. I like my "idea art" to be visually engaging on its own terms. I think Simpson succeeds. Here's what Sebastian Smee says in the Boston Globe.
To make her sculptures, Simpson transposes details of clothing or architecture that have caught her fancy — they may be Japanese kimonos, aprons, tunics, or bibs — into structural diagrams, which she then re-imagines in three dimensions. The results are superb, combining as they do aspects of Cubist sculpture (I thought in particular of Picasso’s Ballets Russes “Parade” costumes) with a lean, origami-like emphasis on structure, and a deeply original focus on materials, textures, and colors.... But as you take in each piece’s materials, another part of your brain is caught up in a set of convoluted pictorial puzzles, hinging on the interplay between diagrams and real objects, between three dimensions and two.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Religion and the Problem of Difference

How to think about and deal with nonbelievers: That's the question for all religious practitioners, not just the fundamentalists of ISIS who choose to deal with them violently. In the field of religious studies, religious practitioners and groups can be said to partake of three basic orientations toward the other.

  • The exclusivist orientation holds that all nonbelievers will be condemned to hell on judgment day. "No salvation outside the Church" was the Catholic formulation.
  • The inclusivist orientation holds that God will save good people who don't share the faith, even if they don't don't know it. This is a more generous view, if condescending.
  • The pluralist orientation holds that all religions represent valid ways to find sacred truth. Many paths, one mountain. This is my viewpoint, and I would include non-religious people, too. The idea is that we can all learn from each other. For me this is the necessary attitude in the 21st century.

Let's look more closely at exclusivism, since this is the attitude of the ISIL types. Exclusivism is mostly found in Christianity and Islam, which is why these religions have a greater focus on conversion than others. If you really think that the "others," the nonbelievers, are going to be punished, you have a moral obligation to try to convert them. That's why all those Catholic missionaries traveled hundreds of miles up the Amazon to find every last "savage" on the planet. They were motivated. The irony here is that if all the Christian and Muslim exclusivists got their way, each would succeed in converting the other, and they would just swap places!

Throughout history there have been true believers who see no contradiction between military action and either the propagation of religion, or at least what they perceive as the defense of it. I think such attitudes were fairly common centuries ago. It is a more recent development to think that there might be any contradiction between religion and warfare. Today, we think in terms of just and unjust wars, and most of us would not want to say a war is waged in the name of a religion. Some still do, however. A small minority, yes, but problemmatic. Some American Christians think this way. So it's not just "them."

However, even if an exclusivist is committed to nonviolence, which most are, there is still the nagging sense that they think there is simply something wrong with the other. They are suspect. I mean, if I could see the Truth and submit to it, the true believer wonders, why don't they? In essence these others are delegitimized, which means that dealing with them in constructive ways is going to be that much harder, even if the bias is so subtle as to be not even articulated or acknowledged by the true believer.

UPDATE: 12-20-15

Let me upgrade the threat level of certain American Christians here. This recent article from Phil Torres at outlines a brand of American Christian extremism that is embraced (or at least pandered to) by several Republican candidates for president, Ted Cruz foremost among them. Not fringe weirdos, but presidential candidates. There is a strong "end times" theology at work among these Christians that sees a violent conflagration in the Middle East as a good thing, since it ushers in the Apocalypse. This is something that ought to be common knowledge in the US, but sadly isn't. Actually Hagee's extreme views came up when John McCain sought his support in 2008, but amnesia set in somewhere along the way, as it always does. Frank Rich wrote about Hagee in 2008 at the New York Times.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sidney Wade: "Beatitudes"

I think the title refers less to Jesus than to Kerouac, Corso, et al. This sure reads like a playful, songful update of Beat poetry, doesn't it? Totally engaging. Good clean fun. BTW, Wade is a woman.

(From Celestial Bodies, Louisiana State Press, 2002)

Let me take out my magic tar baby pencil
and scribble out for you what I saw

when I settled into that dense cloud
and caught a glimpse of God’s hide.

Plainsong Anthony and the Plainclothesmen
sang in the language of stones.

Mister Mistry pulled out the bewitch stick
and berserk mazurkaed through the radiant blind.

The Rhine Maidens wheened out the required
Requiem and then ran off at the mind.

The Legal Ramifications of this are yet unknown,
but I know. I’ve got interstitial vision.

And sometimes I take a wisdom pill.
But this was panoramic for real.

There was passion, power, plenitude.
Low-sodium acrobatics, mind-sap, maw.

Levantine parsimony. Paternalistic flaw.
My mother’s perfume: Pandemonium Marmalade.

They were all torch songs,
kind and complicated by doldrums and pang.

What they mean to say is,
You are the higher goods, Ignotus.

You are a magnificent fool.
Let’s entwinkle. Star star star.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Jazz, Religion, and Cherry-Picking

I came of age seeing Islam as something benign, even hip. That's because I spent a lot of time immersing myself in the world of jazz, where players with Islamic names were many. I can't say I gave it a lot of special thought. It just seemed like they were people who combined a sort of Black consciousness as exemplified by Malcolm X with the peace and love vibes that informed the post-Coltrane, jazz-as-spiritual-quest mode that characterized the music in the 60s and 70s. I would see their names on record jackets, and see the players in person sometimes too. There was Sahib Shihad, who played with Monk, and who was one of the earliest jazz converts to Islam. Other names that jump out at me now include the great South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, who conveys more positive vibes than almost anyone on the planet. There's the drummer Idris Muhammad, and the trumpeter Idrees Sulieman. There are probably dozens of great jazz players who went or go by Muslim names, and who, presumably, practiced or practice some form of Islam.

I wouldn't be surprised if they were influenced by Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam best known for the Whirling Dervishes. I've read books, which I recommend, by Hazrat Inayat Khan, the Indian classical musician turned Sufi master, whose works include The Music of Life. Vibration and harmony are literally the stuff and meaning of life, in the Sufi view. So, when it comes to Islam, give me Sufism!

Okay then: How is it possible that Sufism and the ultra-conservative Salafism of ISIS both reside under the umbrella of Islam? Isn't the violent practice of ISIS a perversion of Islam? Aren't they just cherry-picking some extreme statements from the Koran and certain examples from the early days of the religion to further their anti-human agenda? Well, yes they are. But the Sufis are cherry-picking, too. It's not the cherry-picking that makes a religion illegitimate or false. Our teachings and histories are full of contradictions. And why would anything that rich, ancient, and widespread be any other way? Indeed, the only way to practice a religion is to cherry-pick. Otherwise you would be paralyzed by it all.

One analysis of ISIS, clearly intended as "sophisticated" analysis, holds that the purposes of ISIS are political and megalomaniacal, and that they simply are "using" certain teachings to seduce recruits and to maintain cohesion in pursuit of their nefarious goals. This might in fact be true. But, again: All religion is practiced like this. Let's say I'm concerned about death, maybe fearful of death, or at the very least curious about life after death. Religion helps me in a very big way with this. Does this make that religion illegitimate? Not at all. Let's say I am interested in a community that nurtures fellow feeling and pursues social aid and justice, and I have found a church that provides this. Same thing.

I understand that people are hesitant for the word Islam to be associated with ISIS and other terrorists in any manner at all, for fear that bigots will use that association to condemn all Muslims, the vast majority of whom are peaceful. But refusing to think clearly and dispassionately about the contradictions and tensions that exist within all religions inhibits our ability to say what needs to be said, which is that the way forward toward greater harmony and peaceful coexistence within civil society requires us to cherry-pick the stuff that will help us get there. And, believe me: There's plenty to be picked.

Above I have posted a video of pianist Randy Weston's "Blue Moses," from his late-career masterpiece, The Spirits of our Ancestors. This piece demonstrates how Islamic-oriented music can be expressed in a jazz context. Call it pluralism. Call it cosmopolitanism. Call it good.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Louis Menand: How History Is Elusive

From Louis Menand's introduction to Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station:
Writing history is an imaginative act. Few people would deny this, but not everyone agrees on what it means. It doesn’t mean, obviously, that historians may alter or suppress the facts, because that is not being imaginative; it’s being dishonest. The role of imagination in writing history isn’t to make up things that aren’t there; it’s to make sensible the things that are there. When you undertake historical research, two truths that once sounded banal come to seem profound. The first is that your knowledge of the past—apart, occasionally, from a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor—comes entirely from written documents. You are almost completely cut off, by a wall of print, from the life you have set out to represent. You can’t observe historical events; you can’t question historical actors; you can’t even know most of what has not been written about. Whatever has been written about therefore takes on an importance which may be spurious. A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance—even though these are just the bits that have floated to the surface. The historian clings to them, while somewhere below, the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Fountains of Wayne: "A Road Song"

I totally get it if you don't share my obsession with Fountains of Wayne. If so, you are excused from this lesson! Otherwise, here we go.

"A Road Song" gets off to a good start with a strumming, chugging rhythm and an excellent couplet that gets its geography right -- while tossing in some internal rhymes as a bonus: "We're still in Wisconsin / As far as I know / Today was Green Bay / Tomorrow Chicago." After a nice verite reference to a dying cell phone (the bane of travel), we get to the B section where the narrator does a preemptive strike against the allegation of cliche. Again, good stuff. Oh, and the interjection of "but hey" is pitch-perfect vernacular.

But now we go up a notch in songwriting craft. The first time I listened to "A Road Song," I said to myself, Wait a second, did they just rhyme Cracker Barrel with Will Farrell? Yes they did. Anyone who has spent time on America's interstate highways knows how apposite this is. The landscape is like a repeating GIF of chain restaurants, strip malls, and megaplex theaters. And since Will Farrell isn't known for quality control, "forty movies" sounds right. The second time through the B section they deliver again, this time rhyming "not necessary" and "no Steve Perry." Perfect.

"A Road Song" is a love song about apologizing to one's spouse for writing them a love song. It's a love song completely stripped of romance, and in so doing becomes one of the most romantic songs going -- at least for an old married guy like me.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Civilization and Barbarism

Many decades ago now, Walter Benjamin famously said that "there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism." I was thinking about that last week as the controversy around Woodrow Wilson's racism occupied much opinion space online. It does appear that Wilson was a racist. In fact, I'm surprised I didn't know that much about it, considering that I've read my Zinn, etc. But I have to disagree that removing his name from the Princeton building would be wise. If we accept that Benjamin's claim is mostly true, every darn building, city, and airport in the country would have to be renamed.

So what do we do, if Benjamin is correct? 1) We can embrace it and say that might makes right and the winners write history and get on with the business of domination and oppression. 2) We can hope we're doing better, and we are, and ignore the fact that these days in civilization, "mostly other people do the killing." 3) Or we can take stock of the way the sometimes-malign influence of the powerful continues in more subtle ways, and continue the work of creating a civilization much less dependent on barbarism. In other words, not be content that we're far less barbaric than ISIS.