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.