Friday, July 21, 2017

The Cat and the Laser Pointer

Best Trump analysis of the week. From Rick Wilson at the Daily Beast:
Trying to follow Trump’s manic changes of position on the doomed, roadkill-stank of the health care fight was like watching a cat chase a laser pointer. The GOP went into the fight without a real plan to market it, they let industry lobbyists craft it, and then they counted on Donald Freaking Trump to help sell it. Please clap.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

When Monk and Billie Were Banned

I was reading about Billie Holiday the other day and was stunned to learn that because of a drug bust she had had her "cabaret card" revoked for ten years, meaning that for that time she couldn't perform in any New York City room or club. I knew this had happened to Monk, but didn't know about Billie. What does it say that two of the greatest musical artists on the century couldn't even play in their hometown? Well it says that the authorities didn't give a shit about truth and beauty. We could describe this as the epitome of philistinism. It's easy to understand indifference to art, but this active suppression of it? "They say she's a genius. Well she's just another druggie to me." To what extent was this racist? I know many white jazz musicians did hard time for heroin. But it's hard to believe race isn't part of it. I mean, I'm sure Leonard Bernstein did narcotics in the form of cocaine, and I don't recall him getting busted or being shut out of any venues.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Emmylou Harris Sings "Like Strangers"

Please forgive the glitch that opens this video. Just a little imperfection to set in relief the perfection that follows. The song is by the wife-husband songwriting team of Felice Byrant (born Matilda Scaduto) and Boudleaux Byrant, who wrote most of the Everly Brothers hits, including "Love Hurts" and "All I Have to Do Is Dream." How about this cosmic tidbit from Wikipedia about the duo:
"Bryant and Scaduto eloped two days after meeting. Their song, "All I Have To Do Is Dream," is autobiographical for Felice. She was working as an elevator operator at the Sherwood Hotel when she saw Bryant. She has said that she "recognized" him immediately; she had seen his face in a dream when she was eight years old, and had "looked for him forever." She was nineteen when they met."
Despite the charmed meeting, they must have experienced the circumstances of "Like Strangers," and felt these lines down to the bone (I know I have):
Let's forget that we've been angry
Let's be lovers like before
And swear not to be like strangers anymore
Emmylou is accompanied on vocals by Jon Randall (guitar) and Sam Bush (mandolin). Bush is a legendary figure in progressive country and bluegrass. He's played with everyone, making them sound better every time. Not that the peerless Emmylou needs any help in that regard.

So and So Is a Heretical Such and Such: Thoreau Edition

From today's Boston Globe review (by William H. Pritchard) of Laura Dassow Walls' new Thoreau bio, we encounter Emerson half-ironically identifying the neo-pagan Thoreau as a heretical Christian of the Protestant variety. Pritchard tells us:
When Thoreau died in 1862 at the age of only 44, victim of the tuberculosis that had struck other members of his family, his mentor and critic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, delivered the memorial address. They had been friends for 25 years, Thoreau living on two occasions in Emerson’s house. No better sentences have since been made than the ones Emerson assembled to sum up his friend’s character. Emerson playfully called him a “born protestant,” pointing out that few lives contained so many renunciations, which he then proceeded to list: “He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.”

Emerson noted shrewdly that Thoreau “did not feel himself except in opposition,” a habit Emerson admitted was “a little chilling to the social affections.” One of his friends is quoted as confessing “I love Henry, but I cannot like him, and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.” Summing up Thoreau in a rich sentence, Emerson said: “He chose, wisely, no doubt, for himself to be the bachelor of thought and Nature.”

Tree/Sky Variations

M. Bogen, Somerville, Mass., After the Evening Rain, July 8, 2017

Saturday, July 8, 2017

So and So Is a Heretical Such and Such: Freud Edition

I love that formulation that goes (so and so) is a heretical (such and such). The idea being that quite often figures who seem to have rejected the principles of a given entity actually are just restating them, but in a way unacceptable to the dogma or doctrine of said entity. After reading the following passage from the master essayist George Scialabba it occurred to me, as I'm sure it has to others, that Freud was a heretical Christian. Speaking of D. H. Lawrence, Scialabba wrote:
Lawrence's Unconscious is not Freud's. Freud's unconscious is a swamp, which psychoanalytic reason must drain and reclaim. Lawrence's Unconscious is a vital power: the ineffable source of life, a monarch ruling and subsuming the whole field of bodily planes, plexuses, and ganglions, completely individual but connected by quick, subtle threads to the entire cosmos. 
For the Christian, if one goes too far within, one might meet and be seduced by Satan. The inner world is something to be feared. Certainly, as for Freud, it is not a source of creativity. If Christians require the guidance of a priest or clergyman to face and defeat the threat within, Freudians require an analyst. If the tension for Christians is the tension between God and the devil, for Freudians it is the battle between the superego and the id. Freud's colleague Jung was not a heretical Christian because he denied the whole premise that there is some fundamental problem, some fallen state, that must be overcome. Neither was Emerson a heretic. Though he started at Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian minister (when Unitarians were still Christians) he quickly left the whole thing behind, rejecting the idea that any salvation is needed and urging people to trust themselves, deeply and intuitively, in order for goodness and creativity to flourish in our world.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Matisse's Egyptian Curtain

We made it over to the Matisse mini-blockbuster at the Boston MFA yesterday. It was a terrific show (hoards of people notwithstanding) that examined the role of treasured objects in Matisse's painting as it developed over many decades. The guy had some really cool stuff, that much is clear. Much of it was Northern African in origin, including many fabrics, sculptures, and various pieces of pottery and tea pots and such. Matisse said the items were like actors in the staged productions that were his paintings. They could be used in different settings and placed in relation to other objects to create an endless variety of dialogue between forms. I posted on this the other day. The image I chose (shown here, too) was the signature image of the show, featuring a dialogue between Matisse's prized Egyptian curtain and a stylized tree seen through a window. Walking out of the show yesterday I told my wife that I would rather own that curtain than one of Matisse's paintings (that is if I could pretend not to know that any given painting might be worth tens of millions of dollars). The curtain is magnificent. It's huge, maybe ten feet tall, and incredibly vivid, and dynamic, and minimalist to just the right degree.

Wedding Cakes & Matters of Principle

Ideally, or even normally, gay people wouldn't want their cake made by someone who didn't want to do it, someone whose religion says that their union is illegitimate. I mean who would want to hang out with someone who feels that way? And ideally, or even normally, a baker who is unsure about gay weddings might seize the opportunity to learn more, expand their horizons, and make some new friends. Yet, there are principles involved for both sides. So, where most people would choose to go with the flow, and not try to make a big deal out of a wedding cake, there are those who want to argue their point in court, since they believe that the principle behind their position is important for society as a whole -- religious rights on the one side and equality of civil standing on the other. And, indeed, we are a nation of laws, and laws operate according to principles. I've seen articles saying that civil rights law could make small-scale exemptions for "non-essential" services such as the religiously-motivated baker. That sounds reasonable. However, those diner-restaurants with segregated lunch counters back in the 50s and 60s were involved in non-essential services, yet it was rightly held that segregation can't be upheld as a matter of legal principle. So, we'll see how the most recent case plays out.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Matisse: Decoration As Art

Interior with Egyptian Curtain
By painting the interiors of his studio, populated with the objects he loved, did Matisse elevate decoration to the level of art? Or is it a false distinction? Beauty is beauty. The Boston MFA has a show (which I haven't seen yet) up called Matisse in the Studio, pairing many of Matisse's actual objects with paintings that depict them. One thing seems likely: that Matisse didn't love his paintings more than the objects themselves. Does love erase the dichotomy? Does an object have to be handmade to transcend the decorative? Is it the spark or breath of the unconscious that elevates things? The curtain clearly is equated with the tree seen through the window. Another distinction erased.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Hyperventilation and Violence

Conservatives were quick to lay the blame for the reprehensible shooting of Representative Scalise and other Republicans at the feet of Democratic commentators who in their opinion are "hyperventilating" over the threat Trump poses to the Republic, thereby inspiring that troubled nut job to act. Here's the thing: Everything that conservatives say qualifies as hyperventilating was the exact position the majority of Republicans held before Trump got nominated: that he is manifestly unfit for office; that he is an ignorant bully; that he shouldn't be trusted with the nuclear code; that his conflicts of interest are potentially the worst in US history; that he's a narcissist who delights in simplistically putting other people down; that he is compromised by ties with Russia; and so on. So now we are supposed to stop saying these things, though they are simply true, and that not saying them would be a dereliction of one's duty as a citizen.

The ironic thing here is that the left largely ended their infatuation with violence after the 60s. Now it's more of right wing thing. I don't think all those militia groups voted for Hillary. And it's not liberals who go around quoting Jefferson that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," or who glibly romanticize "second amendment solutions." To the extent that any group left or right thinks violence is part of the answer, they are to that extent mistaken. The commitment to nonviolence makes even inflammatory discourse possible.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Burning Musicological Question

A question for Pride Month: was Cole Porter just trolling everyone with "You're the Top"? Queer-savvy analysts feel free to weigh in.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Art of the Bridge: Bright Side of the Road

"Bright Side of the Road" is the springing, upbeat track that leads off Van Morrison's relatively unheralded masterpiece of 1979, Into the Music. Considering that '79 was the peak period for the Clash and the Ramones and the whole punk/new wave thing, it's understandable that Into the Music slipped through the cracks. But Van Morrison fans know it's one of his very best albums. For anyone interested in Van, I'd shortlist it along with Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, Wavelength, and his live double LP, Too Late to Stop Now.

This song came up on my iPod this morning, and what jumped out at me, alongside its general effervescence, is how strong the bridge is. Classic song structure is defined as AABA, with A being the main verse and B being the contrasting middle section. A good bridge does a couple things. It takes the melody in a fresh direction, but it does so in a way that subtly leads or circles back to the verse, in fact making the verse feel inevitable upon its return. It also provides a lyrical contrast, often in perspective or tone. In "Bright Side of the Road," the verses for the most part come across as first person statements addressed to a lover. The bridge on the other hand is spoken from a reflective or dispassionate perspective, offering a big picture take on the human experience.

In this tune, the bridge appears twice. After an intro and two runs through the 16 bar A section or verse, the bridge comes in at about 0:54. It runs for 16 bars, followed at 1:16 by a return to the verse, now featuring call and response background vocals, which elevate the proceedings. Thus far, then, you have the classic AABA structure. From here on out, the song uses the A and B forms to different effect, deviating from the classic pattern. At 1:36 we get an instrumental interlude (a harmonica solo performed by Van), which consists of one 'A' verse of 16 bars. Then the bridge or B section reappears at 2:00 to take us out of the instrumental and lead us back to a concluding vocal run through the verse. This is fairly common strategy. After that last lyric verse, the song repeats the A section the rest of the way out, but now with Van riffing, the singers answering, and the band cooking their collective asses off.

One reason this period was strong for Van was because he had Katie Kissoon on background vocals and a horn section consisting of Pee Wee Ellis on sax and Mark Isham on trumpet. Kissoon is possibly England's preeminent background vocalist. Ellis played sax for James Brown, and Isham went on to a successful career as a soundtrack composer.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Evening Sky

Somerville, Mass, June 10, 8:17 pm

The Fragrance of the Invisible Flower

Judith Trepp, Open Circle, Nr. 2013-08-02, 2013, oil stick and
acrylic on paper, 38 x 56 cm. (15 x 22 in.)
I've got some exciting Art & Argument news. Over the winter my friend Judith Trepp and I published a monograph featuring her work called "The Fragrance of the Invisible Flower: Sources of Power in the Minimalist Works of Judith Trepp." When Judith shows at the gallery Art Market Provincetown later this summer, AMP will host a reception for the monograph, which features an in-depth essay I wrote about her paintings and drawings along with more than two dozen images representing Judith's most important aesthetic directions of the last twenty or twenty-five years. You can read about the Sunday, August 20 reception here. For those unable to attend, you soon will be able to order books here via Paypal.

Untitled, Nr. 2011-07-01, 2011, egg tempera, oil and oil stick on linen, 24 x 45.2 in.
The title of the book refers to a Sufi metaphor, which suggests that the presence of love in the world is the physical manifestation of the divine, rather like the fragrance of an invisible flower. One thing I realized upon completing the essay was that by focusing on the tangible presence of her work I was able to address spiritual matters without engaging in speculation. The works are real; the works are here; but like that fragrance their beauty seems to suggest another, greater reality just outside of our conscious awareness, just beyond our reach. I contend that it is the minimalist nature of the works that allows more mysterious beauty to bleed through.

Judith's work will be part of a group show at AMP, and she has titled her presentation Undertow -- nice and minimalist, and suggesting of dangerous power. The piece above is one of several Judith will be showing.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Autobiography Update

I'm making some progress on my autobiography. No, I haven't written anything yet, but I came up with another possible title: A Passion for Lost Causes.

My previous top contender is Good In Theory.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Ideology Is Monoculture

As Henry David Thoreau put it: "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Fundamentally this refers to biodiversity. A wilderness area is much more stable and resilient than lands cultivated by human effort. The movement away from natural diversity is described as the movement toward monoculture. Metaphorically speaking, ideology is a form of monoculture. It narrows the intellectual and ethical options available within individuals, and requires more external involvement to keep it functioning. The whole thing is propped up by various control mechanisms -- the social equivalent of pesticides -- all of which bear the mark of authoritarianism.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Art Means Never Having To Say Should

If art is good for anything at all it's that it renders the word 'should' irrelevant. 'Should' is redolent of ideology and obligation, which stand in opposition to creativity. And so it was with a raised eyebrow and a moderately heavy heart that read about how the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (one of the country's top art institutions) agreed to meet the demands of local Dakota Native American activists to take down and destroy a sculpture by the artist Sam Durant, which he had intended as an exploration and condemnation of unjust executions in the U.S., including the execution of 38 Dakota men in 1862. Just as problemmatic (in my view) was the fact that the artist apologized for his "thoughtlessness" in including the Dakota 38 in the piece, and agreed with the activists that he should not have allowed the work to be shown without checking with them first. He is no doubt sincere, and as a well meaning person is alarmed that he was involved in perpetuating injustice as perceived by the Dakota. Ironically his intent had been to bring attention to injustices perpetrated by white supremacist culture and politics. It's his call of course, and it's not for me to say what he and the Walker should or should not do. Interestingly, when a Dana Schutz painting at the Whitney in NYC triggered a similar controversy, neither she nor the museum apologized or agreed to remove the painting. The museum will be holding a dialogue series on issues relating to the controversy, which seems a creative and conscientious response.

UPDATE: 6-5-17
Case in point. Critics said Hendrix should not have performed the national anthem as he did because it was disrespectful and unpatriotic. The aural equivalent of flag burning. That, of course, is an oversimplification of what Hendrix was up to.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

T. S. Eliot: From "Burnt Norton"

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
                                        But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
                          Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush?

Monday, May 29, 2017

Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner

I saw a web feature recently where novelists talked about what fiction they were reading during these disturbing early days of the Trump era, days in which the institutions of democracy are under steady siege. Most had some sort of politically over-toned book they were engaging with. I have found that for myself, I haven't been looking for political art at all. I get my political analysis through in depth essays online, while I look to art as an antidote to politics, as a pursuit in which I can keep my heart and mind and soul properly functioning. I do enjoy good political art when I come across it though, and for my money, the best piece of political art ever is Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969. Far from disrespectful, it was just a clear reflection of what was really happening in the US and in the world, and as Jimi says in the brief clip with Dick Cavett at the end, the performance has its own beauty. And it's fitting, in a sad way, for Memorial Day.

UPDATE: 5-31-17
Maybe this succeeds as political art because it's not really political. Is Hendrix saying that war is bad? Not necessarily. But he is saying that the United States should surrender its fantasy of purity.

Vicki Heymann Gloucester Photos

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Let's Stop Circling Those Wagons

The left has long been hit with the criticism that they are obsessed, to their detriment, and the detriment of all, with identity politics and victimology. While there's plenty of truth there, the irony is that now it is the right that appears even more obsessed with identity and victimology than the left is. Just look at all those Sarah Palin Republicans, those Evangelical Christians, and those Bannonesque white nationalists whose vociferous rallying cry is that they get always the shit end of the stick in a nation dominated by liberal coastal elites.

The victim status claimed by so many identity groups isn't just pure paranoia, of course. Virtually every group is treated unfairly some of the time, and some more so than others. The trouble occurs when any questioning of one's own group is seen as a slippery slope which will result in that group's annihilation. This is the "circling the wagons" approach to identity, that idea being that closing ranks in the face of criticism or threat, hardening the borders of identity, is the way to avoid losing identity completely. Thus a Christian can't admit that they suspect their religion isn't superior to the other religions, a "straight" person can't admit to having a homosexual thought, a liberal can't question Black Lives Matter, a conservative can't question police behavior, the wealthy can't admit their status rests on a dubious foundation, and so on.

It should be acknowledged that given social power dynamics, the risk of un-circling the wagons is greater for some than others. Yet there is no other option if we are to succeed and thrive, both individually and collectively. The Buddhist concept of No Self is useful here. While we function as unique individuals, ultimately when we think of identity there is no static entity that just exists "as is," that can be held in one's hands or set upon a shelf. What we call "self" is always in flux, and there are no real boundaries. The task then is to accept this truth and consciously see that one is always morphing in directions that are creative, nonviolent, and poised to further the growth of not just oneself and one's group, but also of those others.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Flight Magazine Doctors

Sorry for the radio silence here at Art & Argument. Went to the Midwest for a graduation. We flew United and no one was even hauled off by force, so that was good. But I do have some questions: Why do flight magazines always feature huge ads for doctors, especially plastic surgeons. Are my fellow travelers in United Economy so vain that they spend their airborne moments pondering their next enhancements? And why would anyone choose their surgeon based on a flight magazine ad? They also had ads for the "best doctors" in various cities. What makes a doctor the best? Are the other highly trained doctors in their city somehow inferior? Do the thousands of Ivy League doctors in NYC often inadvertently kill their patients? Do the "best" doctors possess some shamanic secret known only to their kind? The only thing I can see connecting all these doctors is that they are wearing very expensive suits and are excessively well groomed.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Eva Cassidy Sings "Over the Rainbow"

Here we have one of the greatest singers of the last half century singing the greatest standard in the American Songbook. Cassidy takes some mild liberties with phrasing and melody. Given how indelible the original melody is, her personalized take is at first a touch disorienting. But as she proceeds, her interpretation feels more than right, and the essence of the song feels honored. For a more straightforward reading, I like Ella's version from her "Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook" recording. Partisans of other great singers will prefer other versions, including those by Judy Garland, who introduced the song in The Wizard of Oz. We all can agree, however, that Cassidy's performance is one of exceeding beauty. There is nothing like a pure distillation of yearning and aspiration, so well conveyed by Arlen's majestic melody, to give a song the legs needed to thrive over the long haul. And there is nothing like Cassidy's soulfulness to revivify us as we face another day in Trump's America. No, we, who love beauty, shall not be vanquished!

UPDATE: 6-7-17
As if to prove my point about the timelessness of this song, Ariana Grande performed Over the Rainbow at the One Love benefit concert for the victims of the Manchester bombing. And it really worked. It was profound, gorgeous, moving.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Art of Daydreaming: P-Town Edition

Peter Busa, Dune Shack, 1936, oil on paper, approx. 22 x 28 inches
One of the core truisms of spiritual advice is that one should always be present in the moment, attending to what is front of you; when you are washing dishes, wash them with full consciousness, observing how the plate is crafted, noting the way you are cleaning, wiping, drying. Sounds boring to me! I think this in-the-moment thing became a truism because the practice at least keeps your mind from wandering down rabbit holes of neuroticism, or to mix animal metaphors, to unwittingly fall victim to what Buddhists call monkey mind.

Fair enough, but what about the power and beauty and pleasure of imagining things? Using your imagination doesn't mean you're not in the moment, it means that in this moment that is how you are using your mind. A novel could never get written or a cosmological problem get solved if a person kept their mind from wandering while they are tying their shoes or mowing the lawn.

Imagining does not have to be this exalted, however. In good old fashioned daydreaming we slip into reveries of minor consequence. For example, earlier today I let my mind wander to what it will be like when we go to Provincetown this summer. I felt the heat and saw how at low tide in the harbor the boats come to rest on sand, and I felt pleasant anticipation. And I thought about the art we would see. So, as a tribute to the splendor of daydreams and as a tip of the hat to P-town itself, I'm posting this dunes painting by one of P-town's most beloved painters, Peter Busa. This piece, which actually is atypical for Busa, since he mostly did abstracts, is from the permanent collection of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Perhaps I should add that painting is an excellent way to be in the moment, paying attention to what is in front of you.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Balancing Act

With each new day, come fresh atrocities from Trump -- in this case the Nixonian firing of FBI director James Comey. And I find myself getting weary, knowing that the Republican party will continue their complicity with our reality show despot, making positive change or even a modicum of accountability very unlikely. So I muttered to myself this morning that I just don't care any more. But of course I do care. I've never managed the trick of being apolitical as in the "I never vote, it only encourages the bastards" school of thought. This means my task must be to care and not care at the same time. I'll let you know how that goes.

Laughing is part of the answer. Someone in the comments section at the Boston Globe suggested that the new director will be Jared Kushner. I gave that a "like." And many writers have observed that the administration's ludicrous rationale, meant to convince us rather than make us guffaw, is that Comey was too mean to Hillary Clinton! You can't make this shit up, right?

Friday, May 5, 2017

Ellsworth Kelly In Back and White

Lots of buzz in the arts media about a show featuring the final paintings from the late Ellsworth Kelly at the Matthew Marks Gallery in NYC. If you like minimalism you like Kelly. For that matter if you like the juxtaposition of strong form and color you like Kelly. But that's everyone, right? At the Marks Gallery show it's actually the black and white works that are getting a lot of attention. I think it's because the overlapping displacement of the white forms on the black is at once subtle and incredibly dynamic, whispering meaning into our eyes. Maybe something about the thin line between love and hate, or life and death.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Random Trump

Every so often I need to exorcise all the Trump-related madness swirling around in my brain.

1. Trump supporters say they love him because he tells the truth. What they mean is that he has no filters on saying whatever pops into his head, which is the characteristic of a crazy person, not a truth teller. The "truth" he is supposedly speaking is a mix of ignorance, provocation, self-love, prejudice, deceit, and ill will, with the occasional statement of common sense thrown in there to make everyone think there's hope.

2. The problem isn't that Trump is willing to meet with various dictators, authoritarians, and dubious "strong men" leaders. It's that he admires them.

3. Trump has only appeared happy twice since he took office. Once was when he got to sit in a big truck and act like he was driving it. The other was when Sarah Palin, Kid Rock, and Ted Nugent visited the White House. I rest my case.

4. Ivanka Trump has as much right to publish a vapid "feminist" leadership book as Sheryl Sandberg does, but that doesn't mean it's worth endlessly hashing it over in the media.

5. I used to think the US was so resilient that it could survive having a jackass in the White House. But Trump is no garden variety jackass. He's a jackass bent on discrediting or destroying the institutions and traditions of democracy. That's a whole 'nother thing.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

No Obligation Either Way

There is no article or book more tedious than those decrying the impact of new technology on young people in particular and society/culture in general. A new one gets published every week! Look, the introduction of the printed word dealt a real blow to the oral tradition thousands of years ago, which is in fact kind of sad, but civilization has buzzed along with the same old mix of beauty and atrocity since then. I don't think it's so bad if people sit around together and look at their phones. The various flavors of technology toothpaste aren't going back into the tube, and who am I to say what constitutes a rich inner or social life for young people, especially digital natives. Conversely, and ironically, we are constantly told that only the uncool (and old) would dare miss out on the amazing new apps and modes. Personally, I just don't prefer to listen to my music via Spotify. I'm pretty happy with the way I've been rolling. The upshot? One should feel under no obligation either to embrace or condemn technological advances.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Happy 100, Ella!

Last Tuesday, April 25th, was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald, one of the most masterful singers of the 20th century. There certainly hasn't been a better jazz singer than her. There have been others just as good, in their own way, but none better. In terms of female jazz singers, Ella was part of a great quartet of consummate vocalists, joined by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae. These women need a Mt. Rushmore of their own. Might there be an enterprising sculptor out there who could undertake this project? Perhaps it could be carved out of a bluff overlooking the Hudson, since New York City is so central to jazz and to the careers of all four women. Ella's tone is pure, even pretty, and I mean that in the best possible way. And, yes, she could truly swing, as this Billy May arranged version of "Paper Moon" demonstrates. When I listen to her great songbook series, from which this clip is taken, I often think to myself that I don't ever need to hear anyone else sing these songs. But then I listen to Billie or Sarah or Carmen, and I think the same thing. How blessed we are to have their music in the world.

An aside: Ms. Fitzgerald would likely be very surprised to see how many little Ellas are running around out there now. Every elementary classroom must have at least one or two, don't you think?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Rain Haiku

After the hard rain
Fallen magnolia petals
Decorate the asphalt

M. Bogen, 4-26-17

Fallen magnolia petals
The parking lot is transfigured
Into a starry sky

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Of Human Feeling: "He Was a Friend of Mine"

Since the election I've been filled with a lot of anger, and I don't want to lose it. Our situation calls for some outrage and resistance, but I don't want to get stuck in that. Maybe that's why when I listen to music these days I am drawn to music that speaks, as Ornette Coleman phrased it, "of human feeling," music that speaks to shared experience and not just righteous indignation. It keeps me centered and sane. To lose someone you love is not a partisan issue. It hurts for everyone. But there is more than pain in this great old song, there is great beauty. When we die we won't think of politics but of those we loved. There is an extra layer of poignancy here, since Bill Morrissey died too young a few years ago.

The Anxious Bench and the Auto Dealer

In his NYRB review of Frances FitzGerald's new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Garry Wills describes the role of the anxious bench, or as he calls it, the anxious seat, in the history of American revivalism:
To walk down toward a revival’s preacher, to make one’s decision for Christ, is a dramatic moment not only for the ones doing the deciding but for the onlookers, who are internally cheering them across the finish line to salvation. The great revivalist Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) knew how to increase this urge of people to save others. He created the “anxious seat” at his revivals, for those still hesitating to commit themselves to Jesus. Anyone in the anxious seat became the instant target of all the circumambient prayers. If the prayers successfully dislodged any of those seated, whoops of joy would greet another victory for the Holy Spirit.
The key to conversion to Christ at a revival meeting and the decision to buy a new car from an auto dealer both hinge on the dynamic of putting someone on the spot. The idea is to create an isolated moment of decision for the convert/buyer. What happens in this moment is that any prior misgivings or doubts are instantly neutralized and the odds of taking the bait move from, say, 20-80 to 50-50. Instead, the internal dialogue shifts, with the assistance of the preacher or salesman, from finding fault in the product to finding fault in oneself. Am I resisting Jesus because the devil has control of me? Because I'm a coward or person of base character? Am I resisting the car purchase because I'm too obsessed with money and am cheap? Does part of me resist the idea of living in style? Do I think I don't deserve it?

Then you add in the pressure from the outside and you might tip it in favor of completing the transaction. The praying attendees of the revival root for you to join the team. It feels good to walk with Jesus! The salesman brings you back to the manager's office, the inner sanctum, where he will sweeten the deal and dangle the possibility of joining the brotherhood of those who roll in style.

I once read -- or at least power browsed -- a book called A Nation of Salesmen, and at that time I was something of an anti-materialist purist, so I was sympathetic to the subtitle, The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture. Now I think to myself that, yes, we are a nation of salesman, but so what? I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with the sales model. What I don't like is the hard sell, as we see at the revivals and auto dealerships. To my own detriment perhaps, I like the soft sell, which is probably why I continue to labor away here on blogger instead of at facebook.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Post-it Note Variations

M. Bogen, post-it note arrangement, April 2017

Pear Blossom Haiku

New blossoms on the pear tree
Hide the plastic grocery sack
Caught in its branches

M. Bogen

Thursday, April 20, 2017

W. S. Merwin: "Unknown Bird"

Out of the dry days
through the dusty leaves
far across the valley
those few notes never
heard here before

one fluted phrase
floating over its
wandering secret
all at once wells up
somewhere else

and is gone before it
goes on fallen into
its own echo leaving
a hollow through the air
that is dry as before

where is it from
hardly anyone
seems to have noticed it
so far but who now
would have been listening

it is not native here
that may be the one
thing we are sure of
it came from somewhere
else perhaps alone

so keeps on calling for
no one who is here
hoping to be heard
by another of its own
unlikely origin

trying once more the same few
notes that began the song
of an oriole last heard
years ago in another
existence there

it goes again tell
no one it is here
foreign as we are
who are filling the days
with a sound of our own

Friday, April 14, 2017

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Chauncey Trump

You heard it hear first: Donald Trump is Chauncey Gardiner. Various pundits, apologists, and supporters read into him what they want. When he issues a bizarre four-in-the-morning tweet that's because he and Bannon are playing 4D chess. When health care reform goes south he is the misunderstood visionary who "left everything on the field" but somehow was let down by Congress. When he manages to make sounds criticizing antisemitism or racism he has pivoted to becoming a champion of human rights. When he successfully reads a speech from a teleprompter or bombs a country he's presidential.

UPDATE: 4-14-17
Okay, I just spotted my first Chauncey Gardiner reference out there in the larger media universe. It's in Andrew Sullivan's weekly Friday column at New York Magazine. This makes sense, since I enjoy Sullivan's writing, unlike many of my fellow liberals I should add.

Minimalism, Compression, and Omission

Judith Trepp, oil and acrylic on linen, 2017
The power of minimalism derives from two sources: compression and omission. The thousand things unsaid concentrate power into the one thing that is said. Ken Kesey described how he was once participating in a chaotic late 60s scene at Apple Studios in London when John Lennon walked in and silenced and focused everyone with a single word. That's authority, which needs to be in place to make the compression and omission work.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Opening Day at Fenway Park

Here we go again!
Baseball is pretty boring, but that's one of its virtues! The games have gotten too long with all the pitching changes, but what I'll do during the summer is put the game on and then check in on it between going outside to water the garden and the like. Hopefully I don't miss the parts when the game becomes incredibly intense and every pitch counts, like when the pitcher gets himself out of a bases-loaded no-outs jam. But if I do miss the good parts it doesn't matter. There's another game tomorrow.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Dana Schutz Whitney Flare Up

Maybe you have heard that black activists are outraged that a painting by white painter Dana Schutz of Emmet Till in his coffin appears in the Whitney Biennial; indeed, outraged that it was even created, since there are certain subjects that a white artist should not even attempt, or if attempted, done in a certain acceptable way, i.e., in a realist manner. I just find it hard to accept this argument at all. My response basically boils down to exasperation. But, hey, it's definitely good for the protesters to express their opinions, and I don't want to dismiss concerns about race and justice out of hand. But, please, stop with the standing in front of the painting to block visitors' views.

Writing at Hyperallergic, author and artist Coco Fusco presents a defense of artistic free expression that is nothing less than a tour de force -- knowledgeable, tightly argued, and fluent. Read the very fine essay here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Yes, You Like Jazz, #5: "She Was Young"

Specifically, you like jazz poetry, a form that is hard to cozy up to, what with all the Kerouacian streams of consciousness and Beatnik mannerisms.* Fear not, Steve Swallow takes the opposite tack here, opting for concision and brevity. It works.

After a songful bass solo by leader Steve Swallow to open the piece, the words -- composed by the poet Robert Creeley -- enter at just over a minute in, and last just 15 seconds. Singer Sheila Jordan presents this resonant, strangely gorgeous riddle.
she was young
she was old
she was small
she was tall
with extraordinary grace
her face
was all distance
her eyes
the depth of all 
one had thought of
and again
and again
Then this compressed poetry expands out into improvisation that feels like mantra meditation, both still and moving at the same time. The transcendent piano is by Steve Kuhn, but the group interplay is what makes it. And underneath, or inside of it, are those 34 words, singing.

* Actually, and in all seriousness, the best spoken word with music I've ever heard is Kerouac reading the last page of On the Road, with the Steve Allen jazz trio. Will link it asap.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Robert Silvers and the NYRB

Robert B. Silvers, 1929 - 2017
And my wife tells me I should get rid of some books. For one group of people this looks like heaven, and for the other, hell. Count me in the former. That's Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books from 1963 to his death last week at the age of 87. I have read NYRB religiously for nearly three decades now, and I think religiously is the right word, both because of the regular pattern of my engagement with it (every Saturday morning) and because I feel it constantly pushes me to be better, in this case at thinking and writing, qualities not as distant from spirituality as one might think.

The tributes to Silvers at the NYRB website by their extensive and accomplished roster of writers reveal the extent to which they admired him both as a person and as an editor. As someone who engages in editing as part of my profession, I could only hope to aspire to a fraction of the editing virtues attributed to Silvers here. The thing about editing is that you need to push past the vague feeling that something is wrong or missing to put your finger on the actual shortcomings or gaps and then communicate them clearly and in ways that encourage. Not easily done.

I often wonder if by definition good editors must be good writers, or typically are good writers. I don't know about Silvers' writing abilities, but he edited a damn good publication that continues to enrich my life.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

Covering Chuck Berry

It's an ancient and honorable tradition to cover Chuck Berry, just ask the Beatles and the Stones. Here's Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance performing "You Never Can Tell." Coincidentally (or cosmically) I was watching covers of this song for quite a while Friday evening, the day before Mr. Berry passed. To contribute this much good feeling to the world is no small thing. And how good are these lyrics? As good as Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. May the covers continue forever.

It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well
You could see that Pierre did truly love the mademoiselle
And now the young monsieur and madame have rung the chapel bell,
"C'est la vie", say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

They furnished off an apartment with a two room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale,
But when Pierre found work, the little money comin' worked out well
"C'est la vie", say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

They had a hi-fi phono, boy, did they let it blast
Seven hundred little records, all rock and rhythm and jazz
But when the sun went down, the rapid tempo of the music fell
"C'est la vie", say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

They bought a souped-up jitney, 'twas a cherry red '53,
They drove it down to Orleans to celebrate the anniversary
It was there that Pierre was married to the lovely mademoiselle
"C'est la vie", say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tiny Houses: Make It Stop

Hey, before hipsters got involved, before tiny houses and locally sourced organic food trucks, we had things called mobile homes and roach coaches.

Caravaggio: Humanism and Severed Heads

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1610
Existing at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from the effervescent pop art of Mary Heilmann and Brian Wilson (both of whom I featured last week) is the tortured art of Caravaggio, who, among other subject matter, enjoyed depicting severed heads. In "David With the Head of Goliath" the severed head is actually a self-portrait. Maybe Caravaggio was a humanist the way that the punk rockers were: the violence they embraced was not anti-human but a corrective to the peace and love crowd, who in their view denied aspects of existence. Maybe it's just the old Rousseau-Hobbes dichotomy being played out in different times and places. One thing is clear: Caravaggio was conflicted. But unless we are a pure ideologue, we all are too.

Art historian Troy Thomas offers these observations about Caravaggio's painting, touching on the ways that Caravaggio himself was no stranger to violence:
Caravaggio may have created this painting in part as a meditative assessment of his murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni on a Roman Street in 1606, a crime prompted by the artist's pride, which led him to a duel. In this painting Caravaggio represents himself as damned, as the embodiment of evil. Through his gruesome portrait as the severed head of Goliath he reveals his failure as a Christian, having committed a mortal sin. The young David, Caravaggio's "slayer," shows a pensive mix of compassion and regret.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Nat Hentoff: Is Jazz Black Music?

I have been meaning to write a tribute to the late journalist Nat Hentoff, who died last month at the age of 91, and am finally getting around to it now. I first encountered him through his writing on jazz, which was foundational for me when I was young and learning about that great art form. In the 80s and 90s I would read his columns at the Village Voice, which focused mainly on free speech issues. (I should add that the Village Voice as a whole contributed greatly to my cultural and intellectual education. We don't just learn in school!) Finally, in the 2000s I would read his column in Jazz Times magazine. I guess you would say that his love for jazz was strong and deep but never sentimental.

In 2008 he contributed an essay to Jazz Times that I keep returning to, as it poses the eternal question: "Is Jazz Black Music?" Short answer: Yes. But that's not to say that white people haven't been and are not today integral to the music. Reflecting on his participation in a panel discussion held at Lincoln Center, Hentoff distinguishes between originators, originals, and influencers, which is a pretty good, if imperfect, way of thinking about it. Let's quote at length to capture some of the nuance Hentoff brings to the topic:
My partial list of originators-and I’m sure you have yours-includes Louis Armstrong, Mr. Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Lester Young. All were black, and some were influenced by non-blacks.

Lester Young told me that Frank Trumbauer, mainly known for his association with Bix Beiderbecke, “was my idol. When I started to play, I bought all his records and I imagine I can still play those solos. I tried to get the sound of the C-melody saxophone on the tenor. That’s why I don’t sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story.” But Trumbauer, though an original, didn’t affect, as Prez did, the stories of countless jazz musicians around the world.

The moderator that night at Lincoln Center was historian and jazz professor Lewis Porter. He made the salient point that although the roots of the originators were black, they had big ears and were open to an infinite diversity of influences. As Charles Hersch notes in his important new book, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans (University of Chicago Press), the jazz culture there “included [transmutations of] quadrilles, mazurkas and schottisches.”

On the panel, I mentioned that world-traveler Duke Ellington absorbed into his music the colors, dynamics and stories of the regional and national sounds he heard.
Porter emphasized, “It’s typical of African-American music that jazz players are open to influences.” Eric Dolphy told me how hearing birds singing became part of his music. But again, the roots are black. Or, as Porter put it, being that open “doesn’t make it non-black.”

That’s true of both originators and originals. A necessarily partial list of the originals who are influential but didn’t profoundly change the course of jazz would encompass such non-black players as Bix Beiderbecke (at whom Louis Armstrong marveled during Chicago after-hours sessions), Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Phil Woods and bandleader Woody Herman.
I would add, among many others, white players such as Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheney, and Joe Lovano. Some examples: Lovano can't be said to have originated any paradigm shifts in the music, but he is a spectacular musician who has been very adventurous in expanding the settings in which jazz playing can be expressed. The accusation is frequently hurled at Baker that he was just a Miles Davis imitator who became successful watering down Miles' sound for white people. Aside from the fact that they both brought an introspective approach to their playing, Baker doesn't actually sound like Miles at all, and his sense of melody was all his own. Right now, jazz flourishes in Europe, with scores of white musicians performing very creative music that doesn't sound black in an any significant way, which is good, I think. But the fact remains that they wouldn't be playing jazz at all if it weren't for the black originators of the music.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Mary Heilmann's Pop Art

Mary Heilmann, "Malevich Spin," 2011, oil on canvas, approx. 20 x 20 in.
Unlike pop music, which for the most part focuses on the pleasure principle, what became known as the pop art movement isn't predominantly pleasurable. Rather it portrays the elements of mass-produced post-war popular culture: Think Oldenburg's hamburgers, Rosenquist's canned spaghetti, Warhol's soup cans, or Lichtenstein's comic books writ large. They aren't necessarily unpleasurable, but pleasure isn't the point. A painting like this one from Mary Heilmann, however, pushes pleasure to the limit, while somehow never wearing out its welcome, kind of like the Beach Boys "Wouldn't It Be Nice." I pulled this painting a couple weeks ago from the website of the gallery where she shows, with the intent of creating this post. In the interim, I've opened it on my screen a few times and without fail get a visceral kick. The title tells us the piece is a tribute to Kazimir Malevich, the pioneer of non-objective, or non-representational, art, which devoted itself to the pleasure and exploration of form and color, without reference to traditional narratives.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Pure Boomer Pop: "Wouldn't It Be Nice"

It's not like there wasn't joyous popular music before the post-war baby boom. Louis Armstrong took the sound of New Orleans "second line" music global, and there's no music that feels better than that. The pop R & B of Louis Jordan, a precursor to rock and roll, was all about the fun; not any angst there. But the joy of the post-war sound was different: It was technicolor. It was optimistic. It was more youth oriented, too, and it was all set in motion by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and of course, Elvis. Not every piece of art needs to balance light and dark motifs. No, sometimes, as with Brian Wilson's "Wouldn't It Be Nice," as in so much of what we call pop music, it can be all light, like when you perceive the love that constitutes the beating heart of the universe. Sometimes when things look bleak or life feels like it's in a rut, you just need to emphasize, or re-emphasize, that "there is something good in feeling good," as John Trudell put it in his tribute to Elvis called "Baby Boom Che." The drum hit at 0:06 of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," is like an ecstatic, innocent cannon shot proclaiming the revolution Trudell described at the end of his poem-song:
It’s like we were the Baby Boom because
Life needed a fresher start
I mean two World Wars in a row is
Really crazy man
And Elvis even though
He didn’t know he said it
He showed it to us anyway
And even though
We didn’t know we heard it
We heard it anyway

Man like he woke us up
And now they’re trying to put us
Back to sleep
So we’ll see how it goes

Anyway look at the record man
Rock ’N Roll is based on revolution
Going way past 33⅓
You gotta understand man he was
America’s Baby Boom Ché
I oughta know, I was in his army
It's often observed that the Beach Boys' music reflected the optimism of Southern California. But how then do you account for the equally joyous music of the Beatles, which emanated from soot-stained Liverpool? No it wasn't geographical, it was spiritual, like Trudell suggests.

Snow/Sky Variations

M. Bogen, Cambridge, Mass, 3-10-17