Category Archives: Art

Christina’s Andrew, 1917-2009

Andrew Wyeth was the first real artist I found for myself. I had Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Rafael, and the like thrust on me either at school or at home (my father disliked art but thought a “rounded education” meant I ought at least to be able to recognize a renowned masterpiece when I saw one) but Wyeth I found for myself when an English teacher made a passing reference to “Christina’s World” as a painting done by an artist who lived part of the year in Maine. I lived in New Hampshire, as un- if not anti-artistic a state as exists. Mississippi thinks more of artists than New Hampshire and Maine where they were considered flakes, bums, drug addicts, and wastrels dodging a decent day’s work. The idea that one of these despised ones had actually chosen to live surrounded by the people who despised him was fascinating. I went to the local library and looked him up.

christinas_worldThere was a full-color, two-page repro of “Christina’s World” in an art book and I spread it in front of me on the empty library table and stared at it for a long time. I think I must have been expecting a Norman Rockwell-ish sentimentality but there was nothing sentimental about Christina. A cripple, she made her way around her run-down farm and dilapidated house by pulling herself along with her hands, her useless legs dragging behind her.

She was 55 at the time, an aging recluse who stubbornly refused any kind of aid, glorying in her pain and privation as if it somehow proved her worth. The picture Wyeth painted was generally considered to show her courage, determination, and independence. It doesn’t really, at least it doesn’t show those things any more than it shows her overweaning pride, her satisfaction in playing victim, or her vicious puritanical streak. All it shows is, as the picture title says, her world – as much of her hardscrabble farm as her strong if scrawny arms could get her across and then back to her house again in a single day.

It is – and was then – an extraordinary picture to me precisely because it looked unflinchingly at Christine yet made no judgments about her or her world except for the most important one: how limited they were. Christine’s world was the world of her farm, a world to which she was content to be chained, modern contrivances like wheelchairs be damned. It is the bleak, restricted world of people who live bleak and restricted lives and don’t see any point to changing them. Many assumed Wyeth admired them, but if so why aren’t they fleshed out, their joys lit next door to their fears, their hopes as much a part of the picture as their despair?

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We’ve Lost Him: Paul Newman, 1925-2008

It’s hard to speak of Paul Newman’s entire life. There were too many parts to it. He drove race cars and sponsored Newman-Haas, one of the most successful Indy-league teams in sports history. He began Newman’s Own out of a few jars of salad dressing whipped up as Christmas gifts and turned it into a multi-million-dollar corporation that has provided satisfying work and healthy working conditions for thousands of employees, and turned $250M over to charities. He started out as an actor but rapidly grew into a director of some ability, a producer, and even a writer.

But it was as an actor that I knew him first, and it’s as an actor that he’ll be remembered by most us.

If Marlon was the Giant, the pioneer, the trendsetter, the larger-than-life prototype for all who followed, Paul was the one he opened the door for. If Brando was an earth-shattering explosion, Paul was the guy who came later and used the hole as the foundation for a hospital.

Newman always claimed he was a character actor in a leading man’s body, and over the years, especially his later career, he proved it. He was as dedicated to his craft as any artisan, and it was Newman who proved to the doubters of The Method, the ones who said Brando and Dean were exceptions, that Stanlislovski’s technique could bring depth and desire to even the 2-dimensional illusion of film. Brando may have finally given acting the cachet of art, but it was Newman who gave it the stability and honor of craft.

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George Carlin: The Best? Or Just the Best We Could Get?

George Carlin used to tell the story of the night that, as a young comic, he jumped into Lenny Bruce’s limo and exclaimed, “I want to be just like you.” Lenny was at the height of his fame at the time, and also at the height of his infamy, with simultaneous pornography trials going on in New York and San Francisco. Lenny, for reasons known only to himself, answered with a quote that turned out to be a Polish proverb. “If you tell the truth, kid, run like hell.”

Carlin sort of told the truth. He softened it, warmed it over and gave it back like milk at bedtime. He didn’t lie but he didn’t exactly shove it in our faces, either. So he never had to run. He made a lot of money instead.

I’m not trying to badmouth the guy, just see him in perspective without the golden aura of nostalgia. The truth is that he was no Lenny Bruce, cutting to heart of hypocrisy and laying it bare, and certainly he was no Richard Pryor, fearless with both his mouth and his life onstage. He had elements of each but they were tightly controlled. He never attacked religion the way Lenny did, although he did his best to give it a hard time, harrying it like a wasp at a church picnic. He never laid his private life bare in front of an audience or made humor from his relationships or loves – or failures – the way Pryor did, although the characters he created did sometimes have the same bright punch of recognition. He didn’t have the kind of courage a comic needs to go all the way, either in social commentary or personal risk. Or maybe he didn’t have that kind of desperation.

He tended to stay safe. His famous “7 words” bit was developed in front of college audiences in the 60’s who were thrilled with a new freedom, not in night clubs before successful businessmen raised on Burlesque and weaned on Milton Berle, who would have been angry, who would have called the police. I’m not saying he should have, I’m only saying he didn’t.

He guarded his career and the risks he took were carefully calculated to preserve it while at the same time he could appear to be going out on a limb. Lenny told audiences full of Catholics that they had invested their faith in an institution riddled with hypocrisy, faithlessness, and corruption. Carlin told audiences full of apostates that they were right. The NYT’s Charles McGrath notes the same characteristic, even if he means to applaud it.

Like all the great comics, Mr. Carlin had a gift for saying — and thinking — things that other people wouldn’t or couldn’t. He wasn’t as threatening as Bruce or Pryor. Especially in his later years, when, mostly bald but with a white beard and just a hint of a ponytail in back, he would bounce onstage in a black sweater, black pants and sneakers, his persona was warmer, cranky rather than angry. He was like your outrageous beatnik uncle.

(emphasis added)

There was always something unthreatening about Carlin. Even when his material wanted to skewer, his manner wanted to ingratiate. Lenny shared the truth with you because he wanted you to get the Great Cosmic Joke. Carlin shared his comedy because he wanted you to like him. There is a fundamental difference between Hard and Soft Truth that is personified in each man: Hard Truths don’t let you off the hook, don’t let you duck, don’t let you make excuses for not facing them. Soft Truth gives you a way to feel superior without having to do anything about it, least of all change your own attitude. Hard Truth challenges you, Soft Truth avoids challenges and gravitates toward comfort in the presence of pain. “It’s not my fault.” The only thing soft about Lenny’s truth was the humor he found in it. The only thing hard about Carlin’s humor was the language he used yo express it.

In a way that difference is an expression of what happened to society at the same time. In the 60’s we were ready to face Hard Truth, ready to do something even if we weren’t quite sure what it was we were supposed to do. Then they killed Jack and Bobby and Martin within a single 5-yr span, thousands of bodies were coming back from Nam, most of them friends and neighbors and jesus god family, and Nixon was the most popular president in history. We had torn society apart and for what? To hand it to wanna-be dictators? Carlin was there before, during, and after. He saw the change, then the turnaround, and his humor followed it. He had an ear for small discrepancies that played to the new desire not to mess with anything big, and a love of playing with language that college-educated if not college aged audiences could relate to. Lenny wanted us to stop the war. Carlin wanted us to make fun of it. Lenny died. Carlin lived.

That is the story of my generation. The motivating forces of my time were taken early and replaced by much softer versions with blurred edges who stepped carefully, suddenly aware that the risks they ran were not, after all, illusions. The Real Thing was replaced by its shadow, which was OK with us because by then we were running from the glare of the spotlight ourselves. By 1970 Lenny would probably have been doing routines about us selling out. Carlin did “7 words”. Without the Hard Truth staring us in our glassy eyes, we settled into the soft recliner of the Me Generation, turning our attention to making the money we once spurned and spurning the activism to which we had once pledged our lives.

Carlin was the perfect comic for us. He fed and confirmed our prejudices without challenging our assumptions. He was safe in a way Lenny never could have been. He was as much as we could absorb, as much as we wanted to absorb, the best we could get, the best we could stand to get. And he played his role to the hilt.

CB Takes the Prize

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CB in Iraq (Reuters)

Back in July of ’04, I was writing a blog about literary blogs – blogs that used the form for fiction or poetry or photography, or that featured exceptional writing – and in surfing for them I stumbled across one called My War: Fear and Loathing in Iraq by an anonymous Iraqi soldier stationed near Mosul who called himself “CBFTW”. The writing was raw, honest, and vibrant. CBFTW reminded me of a cross between Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson (even without the clue in the title, it would have been impossible not to recognize CB as a Thompson fan from the style of his writing). I was very impressed and said so when I reviewed it.

This is, as far as I know, one of a kind. Not only is it a blog written by a soldier now serving in Iraq, it’s written by a soldier who can write. His grammar isn’t great, his spelling is OK, his punctuation is horrible. All of that is beside the point….[H]e can communicate a sense of time and place so clearly that it’s almost physical–you can hear it, you can see it, you can almost reach out and touch it.

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He…seems to write at least one post a day, sometimes two, and they all slice directly into the heart of what the troops are up against and, to a degree, how they’re coping. He doesn’t make judgments and he doesn’t talk poilitics; if he has opinions he mostly keeps them to himself. What you will read is raw, frontline reporting, practically in real-time. In other words, everything we don’t get–or only rarely–from our Bush-addled media.

This is one of the best combat soldier’s diaries I’ve ever read. It has the immediacy and authenticity of an eye-witness account under extreme stress, and the power of a Hemingway novel to punch you in the gut when you’re not expecting it. Consider it a Must-Read and check it every day. If he can live it, we can read it.

Somebody told him about the review and not long after I got an email from CBFTW, thanking me for the attention and the nice things I said. He wrote that it was encouraging to get that kind of praise because he was just a low-income kid from a suburb of San Francisco with no education to speak of who had never written anything before and often felt lost, like he wasn’t sure he was doing it right. He told me his name – Colby Buzzell – and that the “FTW” stood for “Fuck This War”.

Well, I was hooked, of course. A working-class kid – like me – who wanted to write and actually had talent? I couldn’t resist. Continue reading

Abu Ghraib Painting Provokes Violence

In America we tend to honor art more in theory than in fact. It is, we think, a fine-sounding idea, but faced with the reality we usually turn to the NASCAR channel and pop a beer. We like art that’s distant from our own reality, either geographically or temporally–‘100 years and 1000 miles away’ is more or less our rule of thumb for ‘acceptable’ art. The term ‘contemporary art’, on the other hand, seems to carry an image of combined difficulty and insult. While we don’t seem to be able to fathom how it could be that van Gogh only sold a single painting in his lifetime, we think Robert Mapplethorpe should be strung up by the heels and drawn-and-quartered for daring to print ‘lewd’ images and De Kooning should have been put in a Rest Home with bars on the windows and guards on the doors because he was obviously ‘crazy’.

Occasionally, though we generally ignore most art no matter where it came from or how old it is, some piece of work comes along that really gets our juices flowing, either in a good way–as in the response to the Assassins revival–or in a bad, as in this little episode in San Francisco:

The furor began on May 16 when Colwell, an East Bay artist, made an addition to his monthlong showing at Haigh’s gallery on Powell Street. Angered by the pictures he saw of Iraqi prisoners being abused, he created a black and white painting depicting three hooded and naked men undergoing electric shock torture by American soldiers. Colwell, who took down his paintings Saturday, declined to comment.Two days after the painting went up, Haigh arrived at her gallery to find broken glass, eggs and trash strewn outside her storefront. Haigh also began receiving the first of about 200 angry voicemails, e-mails and death threats.

A week ago, a man walked into the gallery and spit in Haigh’s face. On Tuesday, Haigh decided to temporarily close the gallery and began to consider giving up on her dream of owning an art gallery. Just two days later, another man knocked on the door of the gallery and then punched Haigh in the face, knocking her out, breaking her nose and causing a concussion.

Art critics.

That this is deplorable goes without saying. That it was likely Freepers or their sympathizers is a good bet (SF is a main Freeper stomping ground). That’s it’s symptomatic of a deep American..well, let’s be kind and call it ‘ambivalence’..toward art in general and contemporary art in particular and political art most especially is a reasonable conclusion given the ease with which Jesse Helms cut the NEA budget and the extraordinary difficulty arts organizations in this country have just surviving. What is surprising, in a way, is that a painting hanging in an obscure gallery could cause such a furor in this age of LCD ‘culture’.

Maybe that’s a good sign, along with Avenue Q‘s Tony win as Best Musical. If a political painting can get a gallery owner beaten up and an adult puppet show with scathing political satire can win a pretigious award, then maybe art isn’t as dead in America as everybody thought. (Assassins won, too–in every category for which it was nominated.) Poor Lori, who thought it would be fun to run an art gallery, didn’t know how dangerous art can be to your health. She, like the rest of us, was used to art being considered a harmless diversion for the 5% of the population that *wrinkling their nose* ‘likes that sort of thing’.

I’m sorry Lori had to pay the price for my learning but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that somewhere deep inside me there was an ecstatic chill I haven’t felt in a long time:

YES! Art still has POWER!

How could I have doubted it?

(Thanks to Charles Dodgson at Through the Looking Glass for the tip)

We Still Don’t Understand Lenny Bruce

I have to pause here for a moment just before the end of The Cult of Personality in order to express again some frustration with the appalling ignorance of the press and the way in which that ignorance colors press reports in shades of misunderstanding and outright inaccuracy.

In today’s NYT, John Kifner writes about NY Gov George Pataki’s pardon of Lenny Bruce, who was convicted of obscenity for using 4-letter words in his nightclub act in 1964, and in doing so perpetuates the very myths, misunderstandings, and false accusations that Lenny’s enemies used to destroy his career. It is patently obvious from Kifner’s descriptions of them that he has never heard first-hand any of the routines for which Bruce was condemned but is instead relying on the opinions of others for his understanding of them. In fact, he sounds exactly as uninformed as the contemporary press accounts 40 years ago which were likewise written by men who had never seen Bruce perform and who were simply parroting the characterizations in the indictments.

For instance, he begins his account of Lenny’s life and work with this:

Mr. Bruce, born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, N.Y., on Oct. 13, 1925, got his first big break in the fall of 1948 on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” a notably wholesome venue. But his humor grew dark and edgy, filled with scatological words and ethnic slurs…

Lenny never used ethnic names as “slurs” in his whole life. As a Jew, he used words like “kike”, “sheeny” and “hebe” only in order to make the case that they were slurs, which in the late 50’s was a startling, not to say revolutionary, concept. When Southern clubs began banning him, they didn’t do it because he used the word “nigger” but because he was attacking their common, everyday use of the very same word, pointing out in the early 60’s in a routine on the power of words that he was being arrested for using a perfectly acceptable word–“come”–in a sexual context at the same time that no one thought twice about, much less objected to, the way bigots used “nigger” to refer to Negroes.

Lenny’s reputation as the first “shock comic” was entirely undeserved. He wasn’t interested in shocking audiences by using forbidden language for its own sake as George Carlin and Howard Stern, among others, have built their reputations doing; his point was always centered around the hypocrisy of that use–the double-standards, the inconsistencies, the hidden assumptions of good vs evil. Lenny wanted his audiences to acknowledge their hypocrisy and try to understand its source so they could reject it. People who focused on the words themselves rather than the way in which the words were used or the people the words hurt were, to him, missing the point and probably perpetuating the hypocrisy.

Mr Kifner, explaining what led to Lenny’s NY arrest, writes:

Mr. Bruce mocked a magazine photograph said to show Jackie Kennedy trying heroically to aid her husband, saying she was really trying to flee.

That was the interpretation of his accusers; in fact, Lenny never said any such thing and what he did say was almost the diametric opposite of Kifner’s “explanation”. He wasn’t “mocking” Jackie Kennedy, he was mocking a society that would have torn her apart without mercy had she reacted the way any human being would be likely to react if the head of the person sitting next to them exploded, spewing brains all over them–by trying to save themselves. He saw nothing abominable in that reaction; it was normal, human, maybe even intelligent. What he found abominable–and what he mocked in that routine–was our insistent belief in a heroic fantasy at the expense of human reality, and our willingness to devour anyone who did not live up to our fantastic, inhuman expectations. That we would have been willing to roast Jackie on a spit for reacting exactly as we would probably have reacted in the same circumstances was what he found hypocritical and uncharitable; to him it proved that our fantasies were more important to us than human life itself, and that made them dangerous.

That we can still be missing Lenny’s point 40 years after his death is testament to how far we haven’t come after all. Much as we may congratulate ourselves for overcoming obstacles and improving our tolerance for difference, Lenny Bruce is still there, not-so-silently rebuking our “progress” for being pretty superficial. If Lenny were still alive, he’d be having a field day mocking all the hypocrisies we continue to embrace.

And John Kifner still wouldn’t get it.