Friday, December 30, 2016

My Resolution

Carvaggio, The Taking of Christ, 1602, oil on canvas, 52.6 in. x 66.7 in.
I don't have any immediate plans to reduce my vices, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in self-improvement! So today, in front of God, the blogosphere, and everyone, I resolve during 2017 to learn more about the Baroque master Caravaggio (1571-1610). Here, Judas has just betrayed Jesus with a kiss. But is it actually betrayal, when the act was essential for the cosmic salvation story to play out as it was ordained to?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Healing Song for 2017: "Witchi-tai-to"

We need healing, we need it soon, and we need it for real. Jim Pepper was an accomplished Native American jazz saxophonist of Kaw-Muscogee descent. Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry urged him to draw on his roots to create his own sound. So he did. He composed "Witchi-tai-to" by adapting a traditional peyote ceremony healing song.* I've listened to it several times this week. My dream is that instead of having a child singer and a smattering of Rockettes perform at Trump's inauguration they would put this song on repeat and everyone would lose their power ties and join in a giant improvised circle dance. I visualized that and it felt good. Maybe in some parallel universe it will happen, and the bleed-through will help us out a bit. Be well.

* After the opening chant, the music kicks in at around 0:35.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Getting Zen About the Meaning of Zen

The linguist John McWhorter was on NPR this morning. He's exceedingly convincing on why words are always morphing in meaning and pronunciation. Honestly, he makes the vigilance of the Language Police seem not just misguided, but useless and absurd. The idea is that words mean whatever people want them to mean and that definitions are gradually codified through usage as opposed to the top-down judgments of language authorities. Still, some usages grate. I mean, I'm totally fine with the use of words like 'totally' and 'like' as modifiers (or are they qualifiers?). But there are limits. In my view it's simply wrong to describe anything having to do with yoga as being "very Zen," as is the current colloquial practice. The Buddha created his mode of spiritual practice after explicitly rejecting the exertions and strivings of yoga as a path to enlightenment. In Zen, a form of Buddhism, enlightenment (or satori), occurs in a flash of insight into the nonduality that undergirds existence. Nothing could be less Zen than yoga, since the insight comes without effort. To me it would be like describing a mosque as being very Christian. All that being said, I realize that my objections are ultimately meaningless, and that the word Zen, like all other words, will come to mean whatever people want it to mean. What's hard about this one is that I'm watching the change happen in a real time, and, having been a student of world religions, acceptance is tough. But McWhorter has convinced me that I would be wise to let it go. That would be Zen.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Townes Van Zandt: "Tower Song"


So close and yet so far away
And all the things I'd hoped to say
Will have to go unsaid today
Perhaps until tomorrow
Your fear has built a wall between
Our lives and all what lovin' means
Will have to go unfelt it seems
And that leaves only sorrow

You built your tower strong and tall
Can't you see it's got to fall some day

You close your eyes and speak to me
Of faith and love and destiny
As distant as eternity,
Truth and understanding
The wind blows cold outside your door
It whispers words I've tried before
But you don't hear me anymore
Your pride's just too demanding

The end is coming soon, it's plain
A warm bed just ain't worth the pain
And I will go and you'll remain
With the bitterness we tasted
A mother's breast, a newborn child
A poet's tear, and drunken smile
Can't help thinkin' all the while
Their meaning won't be wasted

A Frank Auerbach Christmas?

My wife has been getting into the British painter Frank Auerbach lately, so I thought I would post an image. I plucked this one from the Tate Britain website, which hosted a large Auerbach show in 2015. I chose this portrait because it's a particularly arresting image and also because I'm a sucker for the prominent use of white in oil paintings. Then I started to reconsider. I mean, this is the holiday season, the season of good cheer, and this painting is hardly cheery, nothing if not turbulent. But wait. The impact of Jesus, or the idea of Jesus, or the experience of what is perceived as Jesus, has also been turbulent. How else could an entire civilization be built around such a source? We do know that Jesus was a philosopher of nonviolence and common dignity, but we also know he said, in Matthew 10:34, "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." This is a metaphorical statement regarding the wrenching process of transforming society from the (small 'p') politics of domination to the politics of brotherhood, a process which has proceeded in fits and starts but which has also carried us a mighty long distance from the Roman Empire. The portrait above also conveys ambivalence (Is the figure emerging or dissolving?), which also describes the state of peace-oriented spirituality in today's world (advancing or in retreat?). It sure seems like Rome is ascendant now, with belligerent top-down governing and corruption the flavor of the moment.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Thank You Obamas, Plus a Reading List

I loved President Obama and the way he and Michelle represented our country. When I saw them in action I was proud. They represented so much of what I value, and it was a distinct pleasure for me to watch their form of leadership. To say that Republicans disagreed is an understatement. They despised the Obamas with a fury that was and is still shocking to me. It just shows that reality is pretty subjective. As they have proclaimed for years, they prefer a leader in the mold of Putin. So now we have our bargain basement version in the person of Trump, which fills me with shame when I think that he represents us. So the shoe's on the other foot now -- and it pinches my toes severely and my heel comes up when I walk. And to add insult to injury, I hate the way it looks.

I'm trying to not read obsessively over this turn of events. But here are some pieces well worth your time.

1. The best piece on Obama, race, and American culture that I have encountered is by Ta Nehisi Coates, writing at the Atlantic. Truly a superb essay. It's called "My President Was Black."

2. Extremely interesting interview with Noam Chomsky at Truthout.

3. For foreign policy analysis I read Daniel Larison at the American Conservative on a regular basis. Bush-Cheney Part II anyone?

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Milton Babbitt: Abstract Audio/Visual

Babbitt is one of the great composers of 20th century "classical" music, also known as "new music" or "experimental" music. Thanks to YouTube, music that once was very hard to purchase in the form of LPs or CDs is right there for the listening. It hardly needs to be said that this kind of music is unpopular: it is. But now with accessibility so increased it's easier to make the case that the unpopularity is unwarranted. Babbitt had a reputation as an especially difficult composer, but I think that's less because of the music than because of an article he once wrote called "Who Cares If They Listen," a polemic in defense of experimental and "advanced" music and against the notion that popularity tells us something about the worth of a work of art. He did himself no favors with his rhetoric, which seems to embrace the notion of his music's difficulty. But then again, it's a good conversation starter, no?

This version of "Composition for 12 Instruments," conducted by Ralph Shapey, is exponentially enhanced by the incredible montage of abstract art images so wonderfully composed by the videographer, identified at YouTube as lendallpitts. I see a lot of images in the style of Franz Kline, as well as some early Picasso, some Miro, some Klee, some Rothko, as well as a bunch I can almost but not quite identify. The music and the art share the quality of not being concerned with what I will call "getting from here to there." The music has no clear time signature and the artworks lack narrative, so there aren't the usual features listeners and viewers like to grab onto in order to be carried away. Instead one's focus moves to the beauty found in moments, in the ring of an oboe tone, in the intensity of a given color; the unusual quality of a harmony, the texture of a brushstroke as white overlaps on black. The "not going anywhere" aesthetic is very close in spirit and experience to mindfulness meditation. Is it possible for music and art to be both austere and ravishing? I think yes.

Yesterday I watched a Beyonce video that had 58 million views. This Babbitt clip has 14,000. That gap won't be closed anytime soon. But maybe Babbitt could rise up to 50,000 views. And that would be cool, even if Babbitt himself couldn't have cared less.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Lou Marinoff: Reflection, Distortion, and Ethics

I've had the pleasure of engaging with the philosopher (and "Renaissance Man") Lou Marinoff in the context of my work. One of Lou's big things is to revive philosophy as something intimately connected with living a good life. His reflections here (about reflections) give a good taste of his approach to philosophy, art, and life.
“Reality is not stable; it is constantly shifting and shimmering. In consequence, every instant is unique. Reflections in water illuminate and exaggerate these evanescent instants, producing images that are even more fleetingly original (and hence more poignantly real) than the actual things reflected. Since glass is also a fluid — albeit a super-fluid that flows in ultra-slow motion  — it is also capable of producing similar illuminations and exaggerations. Every reflected image is a unique slice of reality. It can only be seen once, if at all. Every photo is a mere slice of a slice, but with persisting view-ability. If anyone objects that reflections are distortions of reality, consider that almost all views of reality are distorted to begin with. Those whose views are distorted in harmful ways produce harm; in helpful ways, help; in beautiful ways, beauty.”
Visit Lou's website.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Simon & Garfunkle: "American Tune"

Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it's all right, it's all right
We've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we're traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest

Let's Hear It for Linda McCartney

Look. I try to be fair. No, more than fair. Scrupulously fair. But you knew that. That's why you're here. At any rate, here's a case in point. We all know that Paul McCartney's post-Beatles body of work is, by comparison, pretty lame. But the question is, how lame? Not as lame as is often suggested is my short answer. They were showing a Wings concert from the mid-70s on the music channel recently and I got into it. I wasn't bored at all, and was actually impressed. Part of it is the ridiculous amount of musical talent displayed by Sir Paul. Part of it is that his melodies continued to charm and engage throughout the Wings years. ("Maybe I'm Amazed," "My Love," etc.) They hadn't yet become workmanlike. With that out of the way, I turned my attention to the burning question in the hearts of all Beatles fans: What was Linda doing up there and could she actually sing? Yes, she could sing. She wasn't going to take any leads, but her backing vocals were in tune and mixed nicely with the other voices.

That dispensed with, I thought that in all fairness* to Linda I really should spend some time looking at her photography. This, after all, was her true art form. I haven't seen enough of her work yet to form a full opinion. Most of the images view-able online are her pics of various rock stars. The fame of the subjects is distracting, so I don't want to judge on that basis. But there is one really great photo prominent online. It's a family scene with Paul in his bathrobe balancing on a fence and a couple of the kids playing beneath him. You can see why Paul might have found this preferable to being a Beatle. The photograph reads like a very successful homage to Cartier-Bresson, with spontaneity and composition fused in a manner most felicitous. A really great photo. Below is a delightful image of their daughter Stella.

* And here is another title option for my non-existent memoir: In All Fairness

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Trump Versus Whitman

Like Whitman, Trump contradicts himself. Sort of like Whitman, he contains multitudes. Except in his case they're all conspiracy theories and confidence schemes.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

More John Marin: Peak Colors in New Hampshire

John Marin, "New Hampshire, October," oil on canvas, 22 x 28 in.
I posted a late-autumn watercolor by John Marin a few days ago (see below). It really exemplifies Marin's refreshingly "non-pretty" approach to that medium. Here's an oil painting by Marin depicting the White Mountains during the peak colors of October. Like a van Gogh it employs bold, sometimes squiggly brush work to portray the spiritual energy emanating from nature, the vibrational force of life itself. And the way the composition leans toward elegant abstraction might bring to mind Cezanne. But there's nothing derivative about the work, in my view. This is a pretty spectacular painting, and it has me already looking forward to next October!

Marin is prominently featured at the Philips Collection art museum in Washington, DC. Here's what their website says about Marin:
Over the years Phillips wrote copiously about Marin. He admired his calligraphic line, luminous color, and ability to hint at the fleeting essence of the subject, and believed that he was one of America's finest modernists. In Phillips's estimate, Marin was both an impressionist and expressionist, because he could capture a moment and location as well as his subjective response to it. For Phillips, Marin’s abbreviated impressions of nature conveyed "glimpses of cosmic truth" and became "universal nature poetry." Marin experimented "on the frontiers of visual consciousness," Phillips wrote, making masterful use of space, light, and the dynamics of color. His works "required from the beholder an intuition...and an apprehension of the elemental which transcends school and dogma."

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Wayne Shorter's "Beauty and the Beast"

I'm intrigued by the practice of arbitrarily categorizing utterly subjective products as "the best." For example, Oprah Winfrey is always doing stuff like identifying the "best pie" in the United States. I don't doubt she knows her pie, but any given town, say, will feature hundreds of different pies that are unbelievably good, right? The same with all those food issues of local magazines that run features identifying the "best hamburger" in the city. I don't know about you, but I can attest that if the bun is fresh, almost every burger I've ever had is pretty darn good.

Now that the absurdity of the venture is acknowledged, let me jump in and declare Wayne Shorter's solo on his composition "Beauty and the Beast" to be the best recorded jazz solo ever. Have I heard even a small fraction of all solos? No I haven't. For the sake of integrity, then, I'll qualify my claim and say that it is impossible for a jazz solo to be better than this one. The painter Hans Hoffman was famous for his "push-pull" theory for creating dynamism in abstract works. Every time I hear this solo, I think to myself that this is the essence of the push-pull in music. The serene melodic sections of the piece (the beauty) are contrasted with the sections in which the rhythm falls squarely on each beat (the beast). First of all this demonstrates what they mean when they say that funk needs to hit "on the one." This is indeed funky. But the really cool thing about that regular beat is that it gives Shorter the opportunity to create tension by employing phrases that start in all sorts of places relative to both the single beat and the four beats that make up each measure. Starting at 1:54, his lines tumble forward and drag back, they stretch out and contract. Herbie Hancock's piano creates further tension, filling in gaps and accenting various ideas. If you are new to jazz, I recommend listening to this track more than once, since it is a textbook example of jazz improvisation, clear in its methods and supreme in its expression.

John Marin Autumn Landscape

John Marin, Hilltop, Autumn, Maine, watercolor and crayon on paper, 1923, 16 7/8 x 20 1/2 in.
Who doesn't lament the inexorable march of autumn toward winter, signaled by fading, muted colors and all that ever-thinning light? The task of the artist, however, is not to lament, but to understand, interpret, represent. This is yet another masterly watercolor from John Marin, who captured New England landscapes and seascapes with energy and authority during the first half of the 20th century. Here's to the beauty particular to every season.

UPDATE 11-29
Not long after I composed this the voice of my Ideal Reader took up residence in my mind: It spoke thusly (and sarcastically): Not the artist's place to lament? Have you ever heard of a little painting called Guernica? By a guy named Picasso? Or how about that musical form composers call a Requiem?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Power of Gratitude

Even those of us smarting over the election have plenty to be grateful for. In fact, it's good practice to seek sources of gratitude in the unlikeliest places. A brief essay at the website of the Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI) explores why gratitude is always an essential practice. Here's an excerpt.

"While the admonition to 'count one’s blessings' may seem trite, in times of trial a sense of gratitude for what is good in our lives can ground us and provide a basis for meeting and overcoming difficulties. In this sense, gratitude is the key to unlocking a more open and rewarding perspective on life. Feelings of appreciation are always accompanied by the elevation of one’s state of life and the broadening of one’s perspective. And, the more our life expands, the more profound our sense of gratitude becomes, to the point where we can feel appreciation even for the problems we face in life.

"SGI President Daisaku Ikeda frequently calls on young people to take on difficult challenges, in order to be able to grow. To be able to look back on one’s struggles with appreciation is proof of spiritual victory. To be able to greet even the most severe hardships with a sense of gratitude, rooted in a firm confidence of ultimate triumph, is an expression of the free, unfettered life condition of Buddhahood.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Polarization and Confirmation Bias

"The facts are being fixed around the policy." So observed British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (in the infamous "Downing Street Memo") about his conclusion that Bush and Cheney had long ago decided to invade Iraq but were now, after the fact, manufacturing justifications to support that policy. This was a major act of deception, to be sure, but I think that when it comes to politics we all do something like this on a small scale. Once we make our decision why we reject one candidate but support the other, or make the decision to be a Democrat as opposed to a Republican, we set about, or continue, looking for the facts that confirm our decision as to why X is good and Y is bad. Polarization then occurs when we think we have reached our conclusions in good faith but the others have not, for if they were acting in good faith how could they not agree with us?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Elaine de Kooning Rocks

Elaine de Kooning, Bullfight, oil on canvas, 77 5/8 x 131 1/4 inches
The Denver Art Museum has created an exhibition that's getting a lot of attention in the arts press. It's called "Women of Abstract Expressionism," and from what I can tell it does a good job showing how absurd it is that women artists of the time weren't considered by taste-makers to be quite first-tier. I haven't made a study of sexism in the arts, but I've always thought it strange that the lists of greatest 20th century artists are dominated by men but that at the local or regional level there is no sense at all that men are, generally-speaking, better artists than women. Our own collection might be 50-50 or might even tip toward women.

I'm posting a strong Elaine de Kooning painting from the show here. I might be betraying my lack of training in art history, but it's not apparent to me at all why this would be considered inferior to the works of her husband, Willem de Kooning, often considered one of the top two or three abstract expressionists. People with trained eyes can probably make some important distinctions here, but who could deny this is a great example of the genre? I would be hard-pressed as well to say that there is anything particularly feminine about the work. What I do know is that the brushwork is extraordinarily vigorous, the composition has a swirling (and stabbing?) energy, and the balancing and harmonizing of very strong colors is mighty impressive indeed.

Sidebar: Of all genres of painting, abstract expressionism is closest to jazz improvisation, since it reveals the thought processes and aesthetic choices that result in the final product. In fact, process and result are one. This is why jazz solos are usually more compelling to me than the composed solos of classical music. Jazz solos are rarely going to be as "perfect," but somehow the act of "thinking along" with the artist is immensely engaging for me. I generalize of course. For example, Bach is really great at inviting the listener to think along with him as melody and counterpoint unfold.

Gwen Ifill and the Power of Remembrance

It was my wife who introduced me to the habit of reading obituaries. Even more than in "human interest stories," well-written obits can provide a full and holistic view of what it means to live a life and make a positive impact on the world. And so it was that the too-soon passing of journalist Gwen Ifill led to an outpouring of grief, love, and appreciation that stood in stark contrast to the particularly squalid politics that have commanded our attention for far too long now, and which threaten to bum us out far into the future.

We get our evening news from the PBS News Hour, where Ifill served as co-anchor and co-program editor with Judy Woodruff. Sometimes it would hit me that, hey, we're watching the evening news and both anchors are women, and more than that, one (Gwen) is African-American! The reason it only hit me occasionally is because both were so good at what they did. This was no misguided affirmative action maneuver. I especially appreciated Gwen's facility with interviewing. I do interviewing as part of my work, and I marveled at her clarity, poise, focus, and all round intelligent awareness of how the conversation might go to attain maximum results. It's not easy, mostly because it's happening in real time. It also requires a lot of background knowledge to get it right.

The News Hour even devoted a full program to an appreciation of Ifill and her work. Since this happened just a few days after the election, it meant I could lift my self-imposed news moratorium for one evening. For fifty minutes we didn't have to hear about the Orange Person Who Shall Not Be Named! Rather, we heard about what it means to live an extraordinary life and how deeply one can change so many lives for the better. Yes, politics is real. But living a good life, a rich life, is even more real. I was moved to see how much she meant to young women of color, and how her example and mentoring was the truest gift of all. Certainly it was painful for those close to her, but for me, it was a pleasure to learn more about and be inspired by a person who so manifestly made the most of her life.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Getting Ridiculous Now: Mose Allison Is Gone

Mose Allison is gone, and just like that the music world is diminished yet again. In a way, Mose Allison and Leonard Cohen were similar, in that their lyrics were highly literate and that there just weren't any other artists like them. There was no mold. One must beware of identifying an artist as a "maverick" for the simple fact that there aren't that many singular figures. But it is appropriate for both Cohen and Allison. Since Allison's music was based on the blues, his literate lyrics were more minimalist than Cohen's, though both favored precision.

Back in June, I did a post on Allison called "Mose Got Attitude." I featured the song "What's With You?" Check it out.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Carmen McRae Sings "A Song for You"

Talk about being whipsawed! For the last week we've been toggling back and forth between vile politics and the loss of musicians of note, first Leonard Cohen, now Leon Russell. Admittedly Russell was more of a niche artist, but many stars, i.e., more popular musicians, admired him and acknowledged his influence as a pianist, including most recently Elton John. He did however write a couple of the best songs of the 20th century: "This Masquerade" was covered by George Benson, resulting in a massive hit in the 70s. It's a great example of what I call the Single Metaphor Song. Then there is "A Song for You," which is in a class by itself, a perfect song covered by dozens maybe hundreds of performers. Russell said he wrote it in ten minutes. In that instance he was an open channel through which the muses blessed our world. Most tributes will feature this song, but I'm posting a version that I'm sure no one else will be sharing. It's a live version from the great Carmen McRae, recorded in the 70s. Listen how centered her tone is, how she controls the bending notes, and how she really puts the lyrics across. The minimalist backing is perfection: Low piano chords and deep bowed bass. The sustained high note she sings at the end is a thing of beauty.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Quick Trump Dump

Some final (for now) Trump thoughts. Then back to celebrating the arts!

1. Polling showed that most Republican voters believed Hillary was more qualified, had a better temperament, and cared more about working people, but they believed Trump would bring "change" so they voted for him. How's this for change? Trump's top advisors are Rudy Guiliani, Newt Gingrich, and Chris Christie. How fresh! Oh, and his "anti-Wall Street" candidate for Treasury is Wall Street titan Jamie Dimon.

2. But didn't he express heterodox positions such as a repudiation of the Iraq War? Let's unpack this one. Trump knew which way the wind was blowing and since he wasn't part of the Republican establishment he didn't have to defend the tragedy of that horrible war. So what does he do when elected? He looks to guys like John Bolton to serve as Secretary of State. John Bolton! The most extreme neocon of them all and co-architect and chief booster of the Iraq War. The question here is whether Trump is pulling a bait and switch. I don't think so. That would require Trump to know what he is doing. I just he is too ignorant to know he is contradicting himself. But I do think his heart is with the neocons.

3. Wanting change is one thing, but willfully seeking the support of and encouraging racists is another. It will never be acceptable that the Republicans nominated, elected, and endorsed to lead our country a man willing to legitimize racism and xenophobia. Trump and the Republicans owe us a repudiation and an apology, but what are the chances of that?

4. Along with "Build that wall," the main rallying cry of Trump's campaign was "Lock her up." If that happens it will be the end of the American experiment in democracy, and the country won't survive it. Thus far Trump has given no indication that he won't pursue the imprisonment, and the Republican Congress has reconfirmed they will follow through on this. Their calls for unity ring hollow.

There's so much more that needs to be said, but I'll wrap it up here, and try with all my might to keep alive my love for the better parts of life.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Leonard Can Talk to Hank Now

Well, the master songwriter Leonard Cohen is gone. After the election I'm literally in a state of depression that has really hampered my ability to get excited about the arts, which of course is the raison d'etre for this site. But I must soldier on! Cohen himself liked military metaphors for his art. On tour he called himself Field Commander Cohen, and when he spoke of writing it was always as an effort or a battle. For him it was work, noble work. He wrote slowly and his works favored precision. He liked to tell a story about when he met Dylan. He expressed his affection for Bob's "I and I" while Dylan spoke kindly of Cohen's famous "Hallelujah." Cohen asked how long it took to write "I and I" and Bob said 20 minutes. Cohen responded that "Hallelujah" took him several years. Note: this later song demonstrates how Cohen, raised as a Jew in Montreal, chose to infuse his work with the kind of Christian imagery that surrounded him there.

Most tributes are going with "Hallelujah" but I'll go with "Tower of Song" from his best or at least most accessible album, I'm Your Man. That album opens with a nice piece of attitude: "Well they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom / for trying to change the system from within." No, Cohen wasn't political, and maybe there's some solace in that right now.

"Tower of Song" features Cohen's trademark irony and wit. And also his humility. Note that Hank Williams is 100 stories above him there. And it features a couplet that is among the best any songwriter has ever come up with, a couplet that is small 'p' political I guess, and which is resigned, not cynical. If were just cynical, it wouldn't be funny. "Now, you can say that I've grown bitter but of this you may be sure," Leonard observes. "The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor."

I'm so glad my wife and I saw his North American tour, three or four years ago. Tremendous. So farewell, Leonard. When you get to heaven you will have the option of having your pain taken away, but I bet you will choose to keep it. That's where some of the best songs come from.

"Tower of Song"

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh, a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice
And twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond
They tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song

So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll
I'm very sorry, baby, doesn't look like me at all
I'm standing by the window where the light is strong
Ah, they don't let a woman kill you, not in the Tower of Song

Now, you can say that I've grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there's a mighty judgment coming, but I may be wrong
You see, you hear these funny voices in the Tower of Song

I see you standing on the other side
I don't know how the river got so wide
I loved you baby, way back when
And all the bridges are burning that we might have crossed
But I feel so close to everything that we lost
We'll never, we'll never have to lose it again

Now I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back
They're moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone
I'll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song

Yeah, my friends are gone and my hair is gray
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

Friday, November 11, 2016

An Observation

The trouble with especially windy days in November is that the remaining leaves get knocked down fast and suddenly there is no color at all.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Karrin Allyson Sings "Smile"

Yes, this offered in the spirit of positive self-talk. But she is my favorite jazz singer, so it's always worth raising awareness about her. Her piano accompaniment provides an incredibly interesting and creative counterpoint to Charlie Chaplin's melody (which Wikipedia tells me was inspired by Puccini's Tosca).

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Enough Is Enough

I really don't know who reads this blog, but I hope readership includes self-identified Republicans. I want to say something about Trump, and I'll keep it brief. Whatever one might think about Trump's virtues (which are evident to his supporters if not to me), it is undeniable that he has made racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism more acceptable in our country. I know what political correctness is -- I live in Massachusetts after all -- and I'll say that to be concerned about this is not a matter of being politically correct or overly touchy. For this reason alone Trump should not be allowed anywhere near the White House. But he doesn't believe that stuff he says, argue some supporters! Well toying with racism is dangerous and unforgivable. And what does it mean that he is willing to use racism as a tool to promote himself? What does that say about a person? So, if you haven't been to the polls yet, please don't vote for Trump.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Even the Chairs Around Here Change Color in November

Self-Talk for the Last Days of the Campaign

Well, when Tuesday night rolls around half the country will be relieved and happy, and the other will be in despair. How many are like me, mentally preparing for the worst? Maybe everyone. When I lapse into fear I tell myself that Charlie Parker probably didn't know who his senator was when he invented Bebop. And can anyone tell us who was president when our grandparents fell in love? It's clear at this point that I'll never succeed in becoming apolitical. I envy those guys who say, "I never vote; it just encourages those bastards." The best I can do, I guess, is try to keep some perspective and watch out for depressing self-talk. Politics is vitally important and unimportant at the same time, isn't it? Let's just say when I'm dying I probably won't be replaying any election cycles in my mind. And if the politics of 2016 does worm its way in there, well, hopefully the doctors will have some meds for that.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Speaking In Tongues Album Cover

Designed by David Byrne

UPDATE 11-4-16

This classic cover is a clear (at least to me) homage to Jasper Johns' series of "target" paintings. I'll say it owes the most to "Target with Four Faces" from 1955. Why? Well the elements placed in juxtaposition to the circles total four: four lower faces in one, four chairs in the other. The faces appear to have no "meaning" in relation to the concentric circles. They are just there for friction, and to be weirdly suggestive. It's like a Zen koan. There isn't an answer. I don't want to impute intention to David Byrne (I don't want to insult him like that), but when I see those four chairs they don't quite seem meaningless. They look to me just like the kind of chairs you would see in homes in places where they actually speak in tongues: Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, the Smokey Mountains, like that. Overall, I would say Byrne's rendition feels more tribal too.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Charters and the Question of Good Teaching

We have a ballot initiative here in Massachusetts to increase the number of charter schools. A highly contentious issue, at least around here. So there have been scores of pieces revolving around choice, waiting lists, privatization, funding mechanisms, and so on. One crucial issue gets little if any attention though. That is the question of what we think actually constitutes good teaching and learning, and based on that what structures will get us there. Charters mostly buy into the idea that the best measure of student achievement is results of standardized tests, thus they are structured first and foremost to get high scores. This means that they need to find teachers who also buy in. A person who is a career teacher and who has spent many years, decades even, considering what constitutes good teaching and learning, as well as the best ways to nurture the development of the child, understood holistically, most likely will not want to get on board with the charter approach -- and not because they are selfish union members, as we so often hear. Tellingly, charters are mostly staffed by very young teachers who don't have much training in pedagogy but rather are people who did well academically as undergrads and now want to give back. These people are more credulous about the testing model. Crucially, many or most of these teachers leave after a couple years. I recall my mentor teacher telling me it took him at least five years to become a good teacher. I believe him, and worry about the ways charters don't seem to get this important point.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Tone Is Everything, Part 2

A Crap Writer?
Why is tone everything in art? It's because tone is what makes you want or not want to spend time with a given novel, recording, movie, painting. Tone is how the basic attitude or sensibility of the artist is communicated. If you like that attitude then you can forgive blemishes and if you don't like that attitude then no virtues of technique or narrative will redeem things for you. This is why you can go to Amazon and Ernest Hemingway will get no shortage of negative ratings. Ernest Frickin' Hemingway! I'm guessing that's because they don't like his stoic world-weary tone and terse, seen-it-all dialogue. Which I happen to love, and which allow plot lines to be more subtle and naturalistic. So, 5 stars from me, and 2 from someone else. Here's another example from literature. I saw a Kate Atkinson novel displayed on the Staff Picks shelf at the local bookstore and decided to give it a go. After 30 pages or so I could tell that there were places where the author meant to be hip or funny but I didn't find it hip or funny. At that point the virtues of the plot were irrelevant, and I bailed out. Tone and taste are interrelated concepts, aren't they? Almost two ways of saying the same thing.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Sam Phillips: I Need Love

  And I need love
Not some sentimental prison
I need God
Not the political church
I need fire
To melt the frozen sea inside me
I need love

Thursday, October 27, 2016

My Memoir

I enjoy thinking up names for my memoir -- a book, I should add, that I will never write. It turns out I like naming this project much better than I enjoy remembering episodes from my life, an activity that is always faintly depressing even when the memories are good. That said, my first choice is Good In Theory, and my second choice is Slightly Unorthodox.

Update, 12-30-16: How about this one? In the Flesh.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Joan Mitchell's Concluding Vocabulary

Joan Mitchell, Little Weeds II, 1992, color lithograph on three sheets, 9 1/4 x 21 inches
We happened upon a really interesting show of Joan Mitchell prints in Litchfield, Connecticut, over the weekend. It featured Mitchell's later prints, and it was quite energetic and inviting. Motivated to look further into her work, I went to the Joan Mitchell Foundation website and came upon this exquisite print, created in the last year of her life. Looking at it I thought of something my friend Judith Trepp, a creator of minimalist abstracts, told me. "I attempt in my individual 'language and words,' she said 'to bring forth a non-verbal alphabet." I think all artists do this, but especially those whose work tends toward abstraction. If this is true, what was Joan Mitchell saying just months or weeks from her death? Maybe that life is a dance and weeds aren't always weeds.

Click on the Judith Trepp label below for my various posts on Judith's work.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Today In Technological Utopianism: Driverless Cars

By all accounts, driverless cars are coming soon and will transform civilization. They said that about the Segway too, but this prediction seems a bit more plausible. Yet, how will they improvise when the situation demands it? Perhaps it won't be needed because all vehicles will communicate in perfect intuitive harmony and synchronization, rather like swarming hordes of worker ants.

There is one prospect that offers an unequivocal improvement: When the Rapture comes there won't be any car accidents resulting from drivers being plucked from their seats! Many cars will arrive at church parking lots empty, which means many plates of deviled eggs will go bad in the back seat, but this is better than the carnage that might have ensued during the era of human-driven cars.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"A Certain Alienated Majesty"

Did you know that Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first person to make the case for blogging. OK, not in so many words. But he did want you to trust your instincts about what you have to say and think you can offer to the world. This classic passage from "Self-Reliance" explains why.
"A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another."

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Morandi Still Life

I need peace. You need peace. Right? This Morandi still life will help us get there. This is a high quality image, but still nothing can replace the power of seeing paintings in person, where they have tangible vibrational force. Be well.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Tom Petty Sings Dylan's "License To Kill"

Hey, I almost forgot. Something really great happened last week when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. By my informal count 70 percent of the commentaries I encountered thought it was reason for celebration and 30 thought it was a travesty -- because what Dylan does is songwriting not "literature." Jesus. Lighten up. One prominent novelist snarked out a Tweet saying "I get it, reading books is hard." No, I get it: Your words will never get inside people's heads and hearts and change their lives like Dylan's have, and you don't like it.

Before the 60s there was no such thing as a pop song that had the scope and ambition that Dylan brought to the game, exemplified so well in "License To Kill," from Infidels, a really strong album from 1983. This song explores how the anthropocentric domination model of civilization, closely related to unbalanced patriarchal structures, is destroying our planet, our home.

He worships at an alter of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection he's fulfilled
Well, man is opposed to fair play
He wants it all and he wants it his way
But there's a woman on my block
She just sits there as night grows still
And she says, Who's gonna take away his
License to kill?

What a performance from Tom Petty and the band! Filmed at the 1993 concert in Madison Square Garden celebrating 30 years since Dylan's first album.

UPDATE: 10-27
In a pleasant turn of events Krista Tippett's On Being re-posted my essay on Bob Dylan to their Facebook page as a way to acknowledge Bob's prize. I'm glad they liked the piece well enough to bring it back like that. It's called "Bob Dylan: Old Testament Language, Beat Poetics, and a Theology of Service." I originally titled it "Bob Dylan's Beautiful Calvinism," but they drew upon one of my sentences to re-title it. I like it. Check it out here and send the link to your friends!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Visualizing November 9th

Serenity Now!

Well, I'm back online here at Art & Argument after a technical glitch with Blogger left me sidelined for a few days. So what can I report about what's transpired this week? I can report that my affirmation (below) to "think about art not politics" was about as effective as when Seinfeld's Frank Costanza would bellow SERENITY NOW! in a futile effort to keep his blood pressure from rising. Did I think about Trump? Yes, I thought about Trump.

What I thought about was how Republicans are crying hypocrisy about the outrage over Trump's sexual assault pattern because Bill Clinton was, in their view, just as bad. But this misses the point. As far as this liberal is concerned I hardly needed to know about Trump's sordid sexual behavior to consider him unfit for office! He could be as upright in his private life as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Barack Obama are, and he still shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the White House. His fathomless ignorance, his blinding self-regard, his vellum-thin skin, his unhinged tweeting, his obsessive need to dominate, his reckless encouragement of racism and xenophobia, his disturbing trafficking in conspiracy theories, his authoritarian threats of jailing his opponent -- all these and more are enough for me. Of course many of these relate to why he is so screwed up personally.

Monday, October 10, 2016

My Affirmation

Salvatore del Deo, "Low Tide, Long Point"

(deep breath)
I will think about art, not politics.
I will think about art, not politics.
I will think about art, not politics.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Alejandro Escovedo: Thirteen Years

This, my friends, is one helluva breakup song. Last year, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin famously engaged in process of "conscious uncoupling" wherein they separated with equanimity and mutuality. I think that it's more common for there to be a power imbalance and for one person to get dumped and the other to do the dumping. This beautiful, beautiful song from Alejandro Escovedo seems to be written from the former perspective. Recorded live in Austin in 1996. Turn it up.

Big, Slow, and Fragile

Big weather events get me thinking about how people on the "North American" continent say one thousand years ago dealt with such situations. Why? Well, because for modern post-industrial cities and other high population areas hurricanes and major snowstorms are a hassle and a danger precisely because of the way that contemporary society differs from certain societies of millennia ago. Essentially modern society is massive and slow moving and built on a fragile edifice of high technology and extended energy grids.

I'm guessing that indigenous, sustenance-based or hunting and gathering people didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing. They could probably sense a big weather event two or three days out which would give them plenty of time to tear down their encampment and bug out to the safest place around, which centuries of experience has shown to be perfect for waiting out the upcoming hurricane or tornado or blizzard. And waiting it out is key. There were no office parks that needed to be driven to deal with looming deadlines. There were no power lines and blackouts, no online world to crash and wreak havoc.

There's the idea that in the absence of modern civilization and technology people went around suffering all the time. Nonsense. They knew perfectly well how to adapt themselves comfortably to their environments and to not just get by but to enjoy themselves in the process.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Ultimate Con

The argument from Trump supporters boils down to: he's a lying, conning, narcissistic jerk, but he'll be our lying, conning, narcissistic jerk. To which I say, the con man has pulled the ultimate con when he has convinced you that while he used to be conning you he isn't conning you now. Miraculously after 70 years he has awakened to the need to work for the well-being of others!

And how about the Alicia Machado thing? Somehow he's going to intimidate China and Iran and bend them to his iron will, but a squabble with a former Miss Universe has him blasting desperate and unhinged Tweets in the middle of the night.

Thursday, September 29, 2016


Observing infants and toddlers it appears that their main mission and source of joy is learning what it means be in their bodies in the physical world. As we age we become capable of abstract feats such as writing novels or creating machines that are nearly as omnipotent as God Himself. Yet it seems unlikely that our core task would somehow change, that being physically in the world is no longer job number one. And I say this as a guy who lives in his head way too much.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Arnold's Army Lost Its Leader

I've played golf since I was a kid, and was fortunate to see the late Arnold Palmer play when he came through the Chicago-area for tournaments. He played with style, and won more tournaments than anyone else except for Jack, Tiger, and Sam Snead (I think.) I often hear people expressing bafflement as to why anyone would watch golf, since it's just some guys chasing a little white ball around a course. I don't have time to get into why that is so wrong-headed, so let me say that I guess Miles Davis was just a guy who just blew spit into some metal tubing. Farewell, Arnie! Hopefully they have golf in heaven, and you have a 29-year-old body again.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Art and the God Gene

Liz Larner ceramic sculpture
Evolutionary biologists tell us we have a “God gene” or “religion gene.” What they mean is that for evolutionary purposes not yet understood we are conditioned to believe that there is a transcendent reality — even though such a belief is, in the view of science, just an illusion. The trouble with this proposition is that it tempts us to simply disagree or disagree with it, to lapse into stagnant dichotomy, rather than challenge us to live adventurously with the unknown. One advantage of the arts is that it helps us with this latter, vital task. After all, the core attribute of good art is mystery — mystery as to its origins, and mystery as to its ends, its intentions, its purposes. The work of art doesn’t require us to vote thumbs up or thumbs down, though some may mistakenly think that is required of the informed viewer or listener. It is impossible for a response to art to be an illusion. This is why aesthetic and emotional subjectivity is the most reliable source of truth, the only kind of “fact” you can take to the bank, existentially speaking.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Stanley Kunitz: The Layers

Even in the best of political times (say under the in-my-opinion calm and eminently reasonable leadership of Barack Obama) politics is crazy-making. Now with Trump on the scene (he knows nothing about anything but thinks he knows everything), following politics is a direct threat to sanity. Where then might we turn our attention instead? How about to the sanest thing there is: Poetry! And who is the sanest poet of all? Stanley Kunitz! His language is straightforward, never flowery, but each of his phrases blossoms from the inside out.

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

From The Collected Poems by Stanley Kunitz (W. W. Norton, 2000).
Copyright © 1978 by Stanley Kunitz.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Silence Is Your Music

I remember you saying, just a couple moons ago,
Silence is my music.
It turns out that Ai Weiwei said that too,
Maybe even before you did.
But that’s OK:
There’s enough silence for everyone,
Even one thousand and one John Cage imitators.
There’s even enough for a million multiverses to emerge from.
Hell, there’s more silence than the sound of
Ten million jackhammers reverberating in Midtown Manhattan
Or the vibrating tymbals of a trillion cicadas,
To say nothing of every folk song in the British Isles.
So now that that’s settled, let me say for the record
That music is my music.
But on that, we can agree to disagree.


John Lennon: Jealous Guy

I suppose John Lennon is responsible for the cringe-inducing confessional singer-songwriters of the 70s and beyond the same way Led Zeppelin is responsible for all those second-rate boogie and metal bands: which is sort of, but not really. The question is then: Why does Lennon's gut spilling work so well where others fail? For starters his melodies and voice are so excellent that a song like "Jealous Guy" works on that basis alone. Plus he's not engaging in humble-brag; this is not a disingenuous back-door gambit to make himself look good. And who can't relate when he says: "I didn't mean to hurt you," which is what we all say after we hurt someone we love.

Bonus question: Is it possible that jealousy is the only vice or shortcoming with no upside? I mean gluttony and greed and lust all have some pleasurable aspects that manifest before things go bad, right?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Highly Miscellaneous

1. Trump admires Putin for his "82 percent approval rating." That's peanuts. Kim Jong-Un enjoys 100 percent approval. Why not aim your bromance that direction?

2. There's nothing in sports that beats a men's Grand Slam tennis final. Sunday's US Open final featured Stan Wawrinka emerging victorious over world number one Novak Djokovic. Since three sets are required to win, great physical endurance is required. But the mental game is even more important. Over the course of three or four hours you can't let it enter your mind that maybe the other guy just has too much game, and you're not up to putting him away.

3. For my money, the biggest music loss this year wasn't David Bowie. I'm torn between the passing of Merle Haggard and the death of the great Rudy van Gelder, engineer of the classic Blue Note jazz recordings of the 50s and 60s. The sound was spacious and immediate, and defined forever what the heart of modern jazz is.

4. Will do a full post on this soon, but have been listening closely to Born To Run. The truth is that as a record it is more impressive than it is great. As Bruce will freely admit, the creating of the album was labored over and tortured. Instead of feeling felicitous and propulsive, many of the songs just feel busy. The many classic songs on this disc found their true life on stage, where they could breathe and cook.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Bob Dylan Is an Excellent Sculptor

Who knew Bob Dylan was an excellent sculptor? Most of us Bob-followers knew he was a good painter, but somehow I missed this aspect of his creativity. He is in the news this week because a new resort casino in Maryland is installing a massive iron gate of his devising. I guess he mentioned in his memoir, Chronicles, that he works with iron, but it blew right past me when I read it. The works are incredibly elegant and energetic assemblages of "found" iron elements from machinery and so forth. It's cool how he makes heavy objects feel as light as a Joseph Cornell magic box. Here's what the New York Times says in their recent article, cleverly titled "Another Side of Bob Dylan," in homage to his early LP:
“I’ve been around iron all my life ever since I was a kid,” Mr. Dylan said at the time. “I was born and raised in iron ore country” — Hibbing, Minn. — “where you could breathe it and smell it every day. And I’ve always worked with it in one form or another.”

Of his new public-art archway (titled “Portal”), Mr. Dylan added: “Gates appeal to me because of the negative space they allow. They can be closed, but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways, there is no difference.”

The artist uses found objects and scrap metal from junkyards — “everything from farm equipment, children’s toys, kitchen utensils and antique fire arms to chains, cogs, axes and wheels,” according to an announcement from MGM National Harbor.

The key to creating good collage art is to have the correct object at your fingertips when you need it. The picture below (by John Shearer) shows how Dylan's objects are organized in his massive work space. This mode of working makes sense for Dylan, since his songwriting oeuvre was built by combining and re-purposing lyrical and melodic elements from the hundreds or thousands of traditional folk and blues songs that he knows. There's a reason he called on of his recordings Love and Theft.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Richard Thompson's "Wall of Death"

I'm a fan of the single-metaphor song, not least because they are easy to understand but also because of the way the pieces get cleverly put together by the lyricist. A while back I posted one of my favorites of the genre, Merle Haggard singing Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War With You." Here's another great example: Richard Thompson's "Wall of Death." I saw this tour, or another one featuring the same band, at a club in Boulder back in the 80s. The song is great not only because of the inspired lyrics but also because of the Byrds-like jangle that drives the thing. Musicology note: Thompson is one of the world's great rock guitarists, but unlike most rockers his sound isn't based on the blues so much as on Scottish bagpipes and other traditional tones of his native British Isles.
Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

You can go with the crazy people in the Crooked House
You can fly away on the Rocket or spin in the Mouse
The Tunnel Of Love might amuse you
Noah's Ark might confuse you
But let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
On the Wall Of Death it's the nearest to being free

Well you're going nowhere when you ride on the carousel
And maybe you're strong but what's the good of ringing a bell
The switchback will make you crazy. Beware of the bearded lady
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

Let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
Oh let me ride on the Wall Of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
Let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
UPDATE: 9-8-16
I must confess I relate to the sentiments of this song in only a theoretical way.  Unlike the Mystic Warriors of the Plains, who, before entering battle, would confirm that "It is a good day to die," the most severe existential threat I face on a daily basis is getting stuck in gridlocked traffic.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Ekta's "Alt-Pop" Art

Juxtapoz art mag has a feature up on the Swiss artist Ekta. He takes the forms of classic abstract and graffiti art and presents them with playful immediacy. It's not Pop Art per se, but it engages like sophisticated pop music does. Here, I will coin the phrase, "Alt-Pop." Look at how the stairs are stairs to nowhere, as in the avant garde Dada or Fluxus movements, but echo pop artist Keith Haring with the thick black lines.

Here's an excerpt from his interview with Juxtapose write Kristin Farr:
Kristin Farr: What do you think makes abstraction unique and meaningful, and have you always been able to make it work?
Ekta: I think I had some vision of what I would like to do, but it took time and many detours to get there. I felt I had something to prove to myself before I could move on. Initially, my work was more illustration-based, and I wanted to move more towards painting. In recent years, I’ve gained the confidence to have a more free approach to my work. I don’t like to be stuck with the idea that the sun is round and yellow; it might as well be square and blue. My ambition when starting to work on something like a drawing, painting or collage is to surprise myself and have a playful approach. I value mistakes and accidents, and things usually start to get interesting just after making a big mistake, either with what is left after you take it out, or what appears when you start to work around it.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Colin Kaepernick is Just Being Reasonable

Well, Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand for the national anthem prior to his NFL games set off a storm of vitriol from American right-wingers. I can understand that many or most people don't agree with his decision, but that doesn't mean that his behavior is somehow off-the-charts in terms of actions responsible citizens might take. A little empathy on the part of white people, a little effort to see how life in the US might look to a person of color, including very successful ones, would help matters greatly. Instead of asking why Kaepernick did it we might wonder why it doesn't it happen more often.

This is not to say that anyone, white or black, has to or will agree with his analysis, but come on. When the Bundy gang seized a government building with the threat of deadly gun violence, conservatives fell all over themselves to champion them. Because they agreed with the Bundy gang, these law breakers were called patriots.

An interesting aspect of all this is that the Kaepernick they hate is a straw man. No, he doesn't think he is being personally oppressed. No, he doesn't need the publicity. Do you think someone would do as he did in the jingoistic world of the NFL if he were just being selfish? Here's a great article on this topic at Slate.

Oh, and when did standing for the anthem become solely about respecting our troops?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tone Is Everything: "The Night Of"

If tone is everything, and it is, then the recent HBO series "The Night Of" totally nailed it. The hard-boiled atmosphere of the NYC justice system was pitch perfect, the cynicism so well and convincingly presented that the whole thing didn't just ring true but also on occasion edged over into that sacred realm of dark comedy. And you can't do dark comedy unless you are fully in command of tone. The plot was riveting as well, but the world and characters being portrayed was so rich that even when no plot point was being advanced, or if a plot point seemed iffy, the viewer was hooked. At least this viewer. The photo above shows John Turturro as the beleaguered low-end lawyer John Stone. His performance grounded the show, but everyone was great, especially Bill Camp as the phlegmatic Detective Dennis Box, whose cheerlessness was infectious.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Jeffrey Perkins: "Map of Atonement"

Here's a poem from my friend Jeffrey Perkins. We met in the peace education community here in Cambridge, but he found that he could best say what he wanted to say through the peacefully exacting work of poetry. His works often blend irony, humor, and pathos. This one is "Map of Atonement," published at the Tupelo Quarterly.
Back then, Sara invited the artists
for rum-spiked punch. I brought
a lover with his colossal German nose.

I almost forgot how they adored him.
How he built a cartilage between us—
Instructing the guests in an essential trick

of how to tip go-go boys. Now, a church
strikes ten, but sounds like twenty.
Unreliable time. I was a fickle lover—

ungrateful. I’m sorry little cosmos
of misters. Alphabets of horse, squirrel.
May you love one another deeply soon.

Climb those attic stairs and look down.
What do you see when I think of you—
do you see the wasps? Their yellow.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Zadie Smith on Brexit and the Blunt Instrument of Referendum

Democracy by referendum seems like a good thing since it creates policy unmediated by anything except the voice of the people. Why then does it so often feel wrong? Here in Massachusetts we had some referendum votes a number of years ago that illustrate part of the problem. One vote was to "ban cruel traps" of beavers and such. People in the city (like me) voted to ban them, since the word 'cruel' sounds bad, and they had no idea that beavers present a real problem out in the suburbs and rural areas, where the people voted against the referendum. The city people won, even though the problem didn't affect them. Then there was a referendum to get rid of rent control. People in the city, where rent control was relevant, largely voted to keep it. People outside the city (many of them absentee landlords) voted to get rid of it, and they won. Am I saying we would have been better off leaving the question to the policy wonks? Um, er, maybe, uh, I don't know.

All of that came to mind when I read the novelist Zadie Smith's essay on Brexit over at the New York Review of Books. Here's what she said:
"A referendum magnifies the worst aspects of an already imperfect system—democracy—channeling a dazzlingly wide variety of issues through a very narrow gate. It has the appearance of intensification—Ultimate democracy! Thumbs up or thumbs down!—but in practice delivers a dangerously misleading reduction. Even many who voted Leave ended up feeling that their vote did not accurately express their feelings. They had a wide variety of motives for their vote, and much of the Remain camp was similarly splintered.
"Some of the reasoning was almost comically removed from the binary question posed. A friend whose mother still lives in the neighborhood describes a conversation over the garden fence, between her mother and a fellow North London leftist, who explained to my friend’s mother that she herself had voted Leave in order “to get rid of that bloody health secretary!” Ah, like so many people across this great nation I also long to be free of the almost perfectly named Jeremy Hunt, but a referendum turns out to be a very ineffective hammer for a thousand crooked nails."

Spinvis: "Kom Terug"

When this old world starts getting me down and my vibrations need to get re-calibrated back into the proper positive place, I repair over to YouTube and watch the Dutch band Spinvis perform "Kom Terug." Led by singer-songwriter Eric de Jong, the band isn't known at all in the US, since they don't sing in English (the nerve!). Thanks to Google Translate I can share the chorus here:
Reis ver, drink wijn, denk na
Lach hard, duik diep
Kom terug

Travel far, drink wine, ponder
Laugh hard, dive deep
Come back
Check it out at 2:02. The angels wanna wear her red shoes. Moira Shearer does for sure. Hang in there for the reprise in the last minute. And turn it up.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Truth & Beauty: The Puffin

Photo by Derrick Jackson for the Boston Globe
I don't know what is more mind boggling: that the universe can be explained through abstract mathematical formulas or that nature is inherently beautiful. As far as I understand, all of human life, all of civilization, amounts to fantastically complex elaborations on fundamental evolutionary instincts. The question is whether the ability and desire to perceive beauty is a ground level instinct.