Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Good Morning World! Meet Your New Hegemon!

Will Rogers once said that America was the first country in history to drive to the poorhouse in a car. 
Now, I think we'll be pushing our pickup trucks to the next gas station so we can get to the poorhouse.

And here are the folks who will fill the global power vacuum that we will leave behind.

Learn this tune, because you'll be hearing it a lot soon.

Monday, September 29, 2008

What was that noise?

Did I just hear something crash?

I wonder if there will be another Edward Gibbon looking out over the ruins of New York (or Chicago or Boston or LA), wondering how such greatness could come to such ruin.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jesus is A Republican, and He's White and Normal Just Like You

I tell ya, you just can't make this stuff up. No wonder the tee vee loves the religious right wingnuts. They're such an endless freak show. On that level, no one else can possibly compete.

Tip of the beret to Toujoursdan at Culture Choc.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I Miss Him Already

He looked good
He was good

Paul Newman

Friday, September 26, 2008

Kaethe Kollwitz, Printmaker and Pioneering Cinematographer

Kaethe Kollwitz, Mother and Dead Child, etching, 1903

Kaethe Kollwitz, "Sharpening The Scythe" from The Peasants' War, etching, 1905

Kaethe Kollwitz, "Prisoners" from The Peasants' War, etching, 1908

For most of my years in art school, "narrative" was a pejorative word. Perhaps it's because I was in art school in the last days of the domination of formalist criticism, but art that was "about" anything beyond itself was very much frowned upon. "Literary," "journalistic," "ilustrative" were among those terms of dismissal. The artist was thought to have abandoned the quest for form for the sake of storytelling, as though it was some kind of easy cheap magic. The underlying assumption behind all of this was that somehow, telling a story in pictures was the easiest thing in the world, and should be left to comic books.
Well, comic books have become "graphic novels" and everything from the Bayeaux Tapestry to Giotto to Goya to R. Crumb makes it clear that telling a narrative that unfolds over time in the form of one or many still images is no easy task at all.

I taught Kaethe Kollwitz today for the first time in many years. If anyone was a "literary" artist it was her. Her prints to my eye uncannily predict a lot of the storytelling-through-imagery pioneered in German Expressionist movies. I remember a time when Kaethe Kollwitz hardly appeared in the textbooks at all. Certainly there was the latent sexism among the overwhelmingly male cadre of scholars who wrote the textbooks 30 years ago. Even more so, I think it's because she didn't fit the standard Once Received From The Saints modern art narrative. That narrative was about the increasing self-consciousness of technique, the mechanics behind the image, and finally the liberation of form from the obligation to describe.
In no way did she fit into that narrative. In her long life, she saw Impressionism come to Germany. She was alive and in Berlin when Edvard Munch first showed his dark and anxious paintings at the Berliner Kunstler Verein in 1892. She met the Expressionists of Die Bruecke and The Blue Rider. She lived through both World Wars and the Nazi regime, dying in Moritzburg near Dresden just days before the Second World War ended. And yet, the formal language that she used most of her life was decidedly old fashioned and conservative compared to what was going on around her.
She was one of the very few modern artists who did NOT come from a comfortable bourgeois background. Her father was a mason and a carpenter. Her maternal grandfather was a former Lutheran pastor defrocked for his socialist sympathies. She married, at age 17, Dr. Karl Kollwitz, a physician who worked among the poor, and lived with him in the working class part of Berlin most of her life. She had tremmendous difficulty overcoming the reluctance of the German art academies to admit a woman, even a strikingly talented woman.
She is one of the great storytellers of modern art. The peasant sharpening the scythe in the print above from the series she did about the 16th century Peasants' War is a striking example of a use of imagery that would later be central to the movie making of directors like FW Murnau. A whole narrative is told in a single striking image. We need no text to see the anger in this image, as the half-blind peasant, brutalized by his toil, sharpens his scythe for war. It is as though Kaethe Kollwitz perfectly framed and lit a shot like Karl Freund or Gregg Tolland or one of the other great cameramen of the early movies.
The scene of defeated rebels captured and awaiting their fate is even more uncannily prophetic. It calls to my mind Margaret Bourke White's photographs of newly liberated concentration camp prisoners at Buchenwald. It is a centerless composition where we are invited to inspect the prisoners, and are appalled to discover not only grown men, but young boys among the captives, foretelling any number of scenes from the massacre filled 20th century from the Holocaust to Cambodia to Srebernica. Like a first rate film maker, she encourages us to move across and make discoveries in the scene.
Her powerful scene of a mother embracing her dead child clearly and deliberately recalls Christian imagery of the Pieta, but with a grief that is more animal than spiritual. The pose and the appearance of the bereaved mother is deliberately beastly. And again, we are astonished as we gradually awaken to the suffering humanity in what at first looks like a beast of burden.

I remain amazed that these clearly powerful and moving images remained ignored for so very long. Her contemporaries certainly didn't ignore her. The younger artists collected her work. And Adolph Von Menzel, the grand old man of German realism, paid her the supreme compliment of recommending her for a Berliner Kunstler Verein gold medal (a decision vetoed by Kaiser Wilhelm II in another compliment).

Here is a little sample from Murnau's  The Last Laugh where he sets up the whole coming narrative of the story without a single word.  This would become a commonplace of cinema, anticipated by Kaethe Kollwitz.

"A Banana Republic With Nukes"

"So what we now have is non-functional government in the face of a major crisis, because Congress includes a quorum of crazies and nobody trusts the White House an inch.

As a friend said last night, we’ve become a banana republic with nukes."
-Paul Krugman

"It's A Wonderful Life" Updated

Here is the lost alternative ending to this beloved holiday classic.

It just seems appropriate somehow.

Tip of the artist's beret to Atrios.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Wall Street Thought

I remember sitting on the steps of the Federal Hall Memorial a few weeks after 9/11 looking at the NYSE with the huge flag on the front and thinking,

"How patriotic is it really to keep overseas tax shelters in a time of national crisis?"

A Little Fresh Breeze of Honesty

Finally, someone calls this whole financial mess for what it is, theft. This is beginning to make its way around the Internet tubes, and I'm doing my part to help it along.

And who says nothing good comes out of Toledo!
I'm with her, bail out the rest of us and let The Masters of the Universe choke on it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Largest Political Rally in Alaska Ever

This was sent by 2 friends of mine:

The] Alaska Women Reject Palin rally was to be held outside on the lawn in front of the Loussac Library in midtown Anchorage. Home made signs were encouraged, and the idea was to make a statement that Sarah Palin does not speak for all Alaska women, or men. I had no idea what to expect.

The rally was organized by a small group of women, talking over coffee. It made me wonder what other things have started with small groups of women talking over coffee. It's probably an impressive list. These women hatched the plan, printed up flyers, posted them around town, and sent notices to local media outlets. One of those media outlets was KBYR radio, home of Eddie Burke, a long-time uber-conservative Anchorage talk show host. Turns out that Eddie Burke not
only announced the rally, but called the people who planned to attend the rally "a bunch of socialist baby-killing maggots," and read the home phone numbers of the organizers aloud over the air, urging listeners to call and tell them what they thought. The women, of course, received some nasty, harassing and threatening messages.

I felt a bit apprehensive. I'd been disappointed before by the turnout at other rallies. Basically, in Anchorage, if you can get 25 people to show up at an event, it's a success. So, I thought to myself, if we can actually get 100 people there that aren't sent by Eddie Burke, we'll be doing good. A real statement will have been made. I confess, I still had a mental image of 15 demonstrators surrounded by hundreds of menacing "socialist baby-killing maggot" haters.

It's a good thing I wasn't tailgating when I saw the crowd in front of the library or I would have ended up in somebody's trunk. When I got there, about 20 minutes early, the line of sign wavers stretched the full length of the library grounds, along the edge of the road, 6 or 7 people deep! I could hardly find a place to park. I nabbed one of the last spots in the library lot, and as I got out of the car and started walking, people seemed to join in from every direction, carrying signs.

Never, have I seen anything like it in my 17 and a half years living in Anchorage. The organizers had someone walk the rally with a counter, and they clicked off well over 1400 people (not including the 90 counter-demonstrators). This was the biggest political rally ever, in the history of the state. I was absolutely stunned. The second most amazing thing is how many people honked and gave the thumbs up as they drove by. And even those that didn't honk looked wide-eyed and
awe-struck at the huge crowd that was growing by the minute. This just doesn't happen here.

Then, the infamous Eddie Burke (NOTE FROM ALEXIS, GOOGLE LISTS HIM AS A TALK SHOW HOST) showed up. He tried to talk to the media, and was instantly surrounded by a group of 20 people who started shouting O-BA-MA so loud he couldn't be heard. Then passing cars started honking in a rhythmic pattern of 3, like the Obama chant, while the crowd cheered, hooted and waved their signs high.

So, if you've been doing the math. Yes. The Alaska Women Reject Palin rally was significantly bigger than Palin's rally that got all the national media coverage! So take heart, sit back, and enjoy the photo gallery. Feel free to spread the pictures around to anyone who needs to know that Sarah Palin most definitely does not speak for all Alaskans. The citizens of Alaska, who know her best, have
things to say.

"Obey Art"

Meet Shepard Fairey, the guy behind the Obama poster on the side bar. I've seen his stuff all over town here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Viva Capitalism!

It just keeps getting worse and piling up higher and deeper.  Twenty years ago, we fired all the cops, and the crooks ran wild on Wall Street.  And now we're expected to bail them all out with a trillion dollar purchase of all their bad debts and worthless assets, and leave them alone to get back to doing what they do best.   In the words of Atrios yesterday, "Capitalism, fuck yeah!"

This whole situation scares the bejeezus out of me.  It has the makings of a political, social, and economic perfect storm, a Hurricane Katrina for us all.

Paul Krugman's take on all of this is, as always, worth reading.

Fasten Your Seat Belts Everyone

We could have a deadlocked electoral college vote this year.  Did y'all know about the "unit rule" of voting in the House in the event that happens?  I didn't.  The more you look at it, the worse it gets.  

Of course, the fair and reasonable thing would be run off elections, or better still, no more electoral college.  But, fair and reasonable is way too much to expect these days.  Nobody "wins" by being fair or reasonable.  No one gets to do victory dances and say "In your face!" or make some obscene monster size profit.  And fair and reasonable sure as hell don't make good teevee.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Hail to Thee in the Wreath of Victory"

Old postcard showing the center of Berlin with the Berliner Dom and the Stadtschloss (Imperial Palace).

The Berliner Dom (The Protestant Cathedral of Berlin) from a postcard made soon after its consecration in 1905

The Berliner Dom in 1945

The Berliner Dom in 2006

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching German Modernism from Kaiser Bill to Schickelgruber (1892 - 1937) is to look at a society where art meant far more than a high end consumer item or a status trophy. I suppose that is a selfish pleasure, but a real one.

Everyone covered in this course from artists to dictators took the whole business of fine art very seriously, beginning with Kaiser Wilhelm II himself (he even took painting lessons). He was one of the most ambitious art patrons of the 20th century. He wanted to rebuild Berlin from the Prussian royal capital to the capital of the new German Empire. He also wanted to use art to help forge a sense of German national identity.
Germany was a unified country only since 1870 and the victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War. The idea of a German national identity (as opposed to a Bavarian, or Saxon, or Prussian, or Hessian, etc. identity) only began with the Napoleonic occupation of German lands at the beginning of the 19th century. The Kaiser needed art and architecture to proclaim a new German identity that transcended all the earlier local loyalties. He especially wanted to proclaim the supremacy of Prussia. Germany was united under Prussian domination.

The Berliner Dom was the Kaiser's single largest project in his building campaign in Berlin. He tore down a much smaller Baroque church, and built this huge building with a dome that originally was 381 feet high. He intended it to rival in size and grandeur Catholic St, Peter's in Rome. He intended it to be a colossal testimony to the Hohenzollern dynasty's nearly 500 years of support for the Protestant cause. It stands in what was once the center of the city, formerly across Unter Den Linden (Berlin's main street) from the old Stadtschloss, the imperial palace. It was the embodiment of the Kaiser's claim to legitimate authority from God and history. It was a huge proclamation of his determination to continue the ancient feudal hierarchy in a rapidly modernizing industrial country.

There's not much that's religious in this monument (apart from the glued on Christian symbols and images). There's a lot that's triumphalist and imperial starting with the big Roman triumphal arch that forms the entrance. It's a huge incoherent pile of grandeur intended to reflect the taste of the arrogant, reckless, and incurious monarch who ordered it built. It's a foretaste of the grandiloquence of 20th century tyrants to come. To me, it looks less like a Lutheran hymn, and more like the opening line of the old Prussian anthem "Hail to Thee in the wreath of Victory!"

This monument is worth pondering in the current campaigns to soften and blur the divide between church and state in the United States.

The Berliner Dom was badly damaged by Allied incendiary bombs in 1945. The Stadtschloss across the street was completely destroyed in the bombing, and its remains were bulldozed by the East German government. The Dom was left mostly vacant with a temporary roof to preserve what was left of the interior. The East German government rebuilt its dome on a more modest scale in 1975, and the new reunited German government completed a restoration of the original 1905 interior (as much as possible) in 2003.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Age of the Suicide Bomber

A suicide bomber struck the Islamabad Mariott Hotel with a massive truck bomb.  There are at least 40 people dead.

The fanaticism and the nihilism that rule our age come together too perfectly in these attacks.

And Get Ready for Tomorrow's Fashions!

Predictions for the year 2000:

Friday, September 19, 2008

The World of Tomorrow

Few things age more poorly than visions of the future.

Continuing my 1930s obsession of late, here is the official film of the General Motors Futurama exhibit from the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

Part 1

Part 2

I began my survey of modern art in Germany from 1892 to 1937 (from Kaiser Bill to Schickelgruber) with the idea that what made modernity modern was a faith in the future, a sense of expectation of a better tomorrow. I said that this is what separates us from modernism.  They believed in "The Future," we don't.  "Welcome to the World of Tomorrow" for us is a bit of ironic fun. For the generations before WWII in Europe (and before Vietnam here) that phrase was a declaration of faith.

I don't know what to think of that transformation.  Are we wiser, or poorer?

I love this film because it is so very quaint (though some of its ideas, especially about parklands and green spaces, are actually very farsighted for the time). It's fun to see what came true and what didn't, and to see all the shameless corporate promotion of automobile technology throughout.  Trains and train travel are conspicuously absent in this film.  

My father loved this film for different reasons.  He saw it with eyes shaped by a childhood that witnessed the Great Depression.  For people living in that dreary time, this must have appeared magical and very encouraging.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Happy Birthday Grandmere!

You're NEVER too old!

"As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide"

From a speech by the very young Abraham Lincoln delivered January 27, 1838 to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois:

Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

"The Hidy Hi and Boop a Doo, the Lullaby of Broadway"

I'll get back to the art musings eventually folks. I'm just having a long hard week teaching and I'm exhausted.

In the meantime, here's my all time favorite Busby Berkely number. When Hitler chased out all those German Expressionist film makers (and effectively ended the once formidable German film industry), they all came to Hollywood. There's more than a little Fritz Lang and Karl Freund here. It's full of shadows and darkness with a shocking surprise at the end. Here's part one:

Here's the rest of it. What if Leni Riefenstahl had said, "Fuck Hitler, let's dance!" she might have made something like this:

I'll bet you didn't see that coming.

Viva Capitalism!

That's tax payer funded federal bailout socialism for big financial institutions and their executives.

"You're on your own, sucker!" and "These bootstraps are mighty tasty!" for the rest of us.

A Question I'd Like to Hear on the Campaign Trail...

... addressed, not to the candidates, but to white working class voters.

Who's really your enemy?

That suspiciously strange community college professor named Mohendra who makes your kid read Joyce's Ulysses?

Or, the smiling familiar corporate exec named Smith who ruins your company in leveraged schemes to drive up the share price, and then guts your retirement plan and ships your job to Lower Slobovia, while he abandons ship in a gold-plated umpteen million dollar life boat?

And is that Evangelical preacher who tells you that it's all your fault for not working hard enough, not loving your family enough, not having enough self-discipline and responsibility really your friend?  Or is he really your creditors' friend?

That's what I'd like to hear on the campaign trail this year.

I ain't holding my breath with anticipation.

Deep American Thoughts

What an irony it would be if it turns out that America's first dictator, our first leader to claim the title "emperor," is a woman.

When the final remnants of our constitutional democracy are run through the shredder, it will be with the enthusiastic blessing of the electorate.  The cheering will be deafening.

"The United States will either live forever, or it will die by suicide.  No foreign army will ever march upon the Blue Ridge, or drink from the rivers of the Ohio"   -- Abraham Lincoln

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008

Forgetting How to Dream

Dr. Robert Goddard with one of his first rockets.

In 1926, Dr Robert Goddard was ridiculed as a crank when he proposed that human beings could travel to the moon and return. He began to build prototypes of the liquid fuel rockets that he believed would make the trip possible.

Here's what happened 43 years later.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, 1969

I wonder if an enterprise like this is still possible.
My partner Michael describes the United States as a big Ford LTD, a great car back in 1966, but one that's completely unworkable now. We cling to the old car because it's what we know, and the thought of changing cars frightens us. He says that we've forgotten how to dream, how to imagine anything better than what we have. We're so preoccupied with clinging to what we've got, always afraid that someone is going to take it from us, that we've forgotten all our hopes and expectations.
It looks like the USA is about to replace Portugal as the most backwards of First World countries. Everyone knows the embarrassing statistics on crime, infant mortality, illiteracy, etc. More seriously, we have been overtaken by China and Europe in science and technology. We are no longer the leader in those fields. Foreign grad students are no longer coming here in the same numbers, not because of our new found xenophobia, but because they see us as behind the rest of the world.
Even in fine art, a field that we never take very seriously (unlike the rest of the world), we've been overtaken by the Chinese whose talent now rules the international art exhibitions and markets.
A lot has blown up in our faces over the last 40 years starting with Vietnam. The Space Shuttle has lasted longer -- and killed more astronauts -- than Projects Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and the Soviet space program combined. The Civil Rights movement ended legal segregation only to find it replaced with de facto segregation. On September 11th, terrorists scored a major victory, bringing down a symbol of American greatness and panicking us into just the kind of paranoid state they hoped to create. And now, we watch helplessly as more blood and treasure is being squandered in another dubious war.
We've become resigned. We've decided that it's all hopeless, that the politicians, the parties, the process are all the same, and it's all been bought and paid for by corporations that are all way more powerful than we are. The 1% that own and run all the rest of us have us by the nads whenever we think that way. They want us to think that it's all hopeless, that we should worry most about hanging on to whatever little we have left (while they quietly pick our pockets). They keep playing us, dangling terrorist alerts and threats of unemployment and foreclosure in our faces to keep us in line. And remember what Stendhal once said about resignation, that it's that stupid form of courage where we allow ourselves to be hanged without one murmur of protest.

I remember visiting Cape Canaveral a few years ago and taking the tour through the Space Center, a place that lives on memories of past glories. I came away missing the old Soviet Union. No, I didn't miss brutal Communism, I missed our competitor. We had not only a political and military competitor, but a real moral challenge as well. The Soviets constantly goaded us to try to be better than we really were. Everyone knows about the Space Race, but the Civil Rights movement had its Cold War dimension. The Soviet propagandists had a Roman holiday with American racism and segregation laws, and used them with great effect among African and Asian nations. It was that constant propaganda victory by the Soviets that helped pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. Even the now much maligned National Endowment for the Arts had a Cold War origin. The perceived trashiness of American culture was more grist for the Soviet propaganda mills. Even though Americans are reluctant to admit it, their self-image of national greatness is bound up with matters of culture and fine art (as it is with every other country). In the mid 1960s, the Federal Government decided to create a program (small by most standards) to encourage artists and arts programs.
We have those same challenges now. We don't seem to be nearly as interested as we once were in meeting them. Now, we simply withdraw into petulant resentment over how others perceive us.
We also forget that the turmoil of the 1960s was driven not just by anger over segregation or the Vietnam War, but by expectation. The American military and civilian experience in World War II, awakened expectations in large segments of the population that went unmet until the 1960s.
The Civil Rights movement, the Second Feminist movement, the Latino awakening, even the Gay Rights movement were all driven by expectations created in WWII. And as DeToqueville reminds us, expectation is the spark of revolution.

We won't get anything better than what we have now until we start expecting something better. We won't get any improvement in the standard of living for most Americans until we can see it in our imaginations and expect it. We won't get any return to any leadership role beyond brute military force until we expect it. We can blame the politicians all we want. We can blame our corporate masters all we want. But, in the end, it's up to us to make the difference.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Razzle Dazzle 'Em

Bob Fosse, that wise political sage, makes a most insightful analysis of the workings of American law and politics:

The great political question of our time is how to sort out truth from satire.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sarah Palin for a Change, or Just More of the Same?

According to this article in the NY Times, it looks more like this humble hockey mom ran her town and her state like an old time ward heeler.  She's a right-wing ideologue who values loyalty above everything, is vindictive toward opponents, and is obsessed with secrecy.

Sound familiar?

"My friends," I'd rather NOT make fun of Sarah Palin's background.  Sure, I was a professional student for awhile, but it was all on scholarship, and I worked the whole time through school.  I worked in kitchens all through art school.  My brother worked as a cowboy when he was in college, my mother worked as a physical therapist most of her life, and my dad owned and ran a carwash business out near Garland, TX.  I ain't nobility.  So I'm dropping all the "Caribou Barbie" jokes right now.

There's more than enough in her actual record as mayor of Wasilla and governor of Alaska to make us wonder if she's really fit for the most powerful job on earth.

Hang In There, Texas

I'm thinking of everyone in Texas today affected by Ike. You're in my prayers and I wish you well.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Once and Future WTC

The proposed design for the rebuilding of the WTC in its current form

The old WTC viewed from Queens

I was never fond of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Neither did I really hate them either, as some other people did. The Towers were simply too mute and uncommunicative to be lovable or hateful. Children, however, loved them. They were so big, and so simple. While there are certainly a lot of buildings in New York that I loved far more than those towers, there are others that I thought were far worse offenses against decency and sound urban planning (for example, the Citicorp tower).
At last, real construction has finally begun on the new World Trade Center. The foundations are largely completed for the "Freedom Tower" and the memorial. The first steel beams have been put in place, and work is beginning on the elevator shaft of the new tower. The substructure for the memorial is largely completed. Until recently, the whole project has been bogged down in controversies over design and management, cost over-runs, corruption, and scandal (especially all the scandal that came out after the fire in the ruins of the Deutsche Bank building that cost the lives of 2 firefighters).

The most interesting aspect of the project to rebuild the World Trade Center is that this is a commercial redevelopment fraught with all kinds of meaning and symbolism that usually belongs to public monuments. I can't think of anything else similar. This project is a commercial enterprise intended to make some people in the real estate industry and in the Port Authority a lot of money. This is also the public centerpiece of Lower Manhattan, with a lot of death-and-resurrection imagery in the design, intended to articulate and bear witness to the collective experiences of the city during and after September 11th, 2001. Bearing witness to history and articulating meaning for future generations is usually not the business of commercial architecture. But, it is here. Usually those 2 purposes would cancel each other out. Making a profit is usually about anything but finding meaning. Meaning frequently gets in the way of what is expedient for driving up profit margins on investments. Part of what has delayed and compromised the design for the new WTC is the inevitable conflict between those two imperatives of profit and meaning.
I've followed the fortunes of the rebuilding with great interest for a long time now. While most people complain about the slow pace of the reconstruction, others point out that the idea for building a World Trade Center in Manhattan was first proposed in 1946, and the Twin Towers weren't finished until 1973, a span of 27 years. On the other hand, the first World Trade Center didn't have to fill a big smoking hole in the middle of downtown Manhattan.
Most of the textbooks fail to point out that modern architecture began as commercial and domestic architecture. It is design created to meet those two purposes. Almost all the pioneering works of modern design from Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bauhaus, Mies Van Der Rohe, and the International Style were either commercial buildings or private homes. None of those projects had the task of articulating public meaning. That was always the job of nasty boring old Classical architecture. Classical architecture began as public buildings intended to articulate meaning for the community, temples, basilicas, monuments. It was never originally intended for private homes or commercial buildings. I suspect that private homes and shops in Periclean Athens looked nothing like the monuments on the Acropolis.
Some early modern architects understood this distinction. Daniel Burnham's commercial architecture could be as up-to-date and forward looking as anything by Louis Sullivan. But, he continued to design public buildings in a very classical style. The same was true of architects like Cass Gilbert and Bernard Maybeck. You could design a commercial office tower with all the steel and sheet glass you desire, but City Hall needs columns.
Modern architecture did not begin producing major public buildings until after World War II. Hitler and Stalin killed off Classical architecture by using grotesque brutal parodies of classical monumentality to glorify all their epic criminality. Evil may well be banal, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, but it can also be astonishingly vulgar (contra Milton). From the United Nations buildings here in New York, to Le Corbusier's churches, to Brasilia, the jury is still very much out on the ability of modern design to fill the role that Classical design once performed.
The WTC now has to perform both commercial and monumental functions. I will say that almost all the proposals for rebuilding the WTC were improvements over the old one. Even the current thoroughly compromised design is a big improvement over what was there before. What disappoints me most about the current design is how conventional it looks. After all the juries and the public forums and the design competitions with some really dramatic and original proposals, in the end the design looks like any other big commercial development anywhere in the world. The Freedom Tower (I hate that name; it sounds like all the Orwellianisms to come out of the Bush administration, like a figleaf intended to conceal or distract us from something highly dubious) in some ways is an intelligent idea, a variation on the original design of the Twin Towers, but in the end looks disappointingly conventional. The worst part is that awful pedestal, a redesign dictated by the security concerns of the NYPD. They can put all the reflective material they want on its surface, it still looks as brutal as the surface structures of the Fuhrerbunker, only much bigger. The designers claim to have been inspired by Brancusi's famous sculpture Bird in Space, but I wonder just how closely they studied Brancusi's work. Indeed the relation between sculpted form and its base is a big part of Brancusi's work, but the Freedom Tower looks more to me like a static glass obelisk than the sweeping gesture of the sculpture in contrast to its very static base.
Probably the most successful part of the design is the Memorial. One of the developments in design over the last 40 years that is most striking is the success of Minimalism as a form language for memorials. Minimalism may not have been much as fine art, but as memorials it's remarkably effective. The most successful and famous example is Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. I cannot imagine any Classical figure group sculpture succeeding in any way comparable to Maya Lin's design. The same is true for the very spare design of the September 11th Memorial. A major weakness of the Classical monument is what was once its major strength, the ability to turn abstract ideas into compelling narratives. Any figurative monument is going to create a narrative, and thus a meaning, for the event. And in this age of little common agreement on the meaning of anything, such a monument would inevitably impose a meaning no matter how generous the intentions. For a personal work of art that might be appropriate, but not for a public monument in this day and age. Minimalism works precisely because it is so mute. It suggests emotions without articulating any meaning. It leaves people to create their own understandings of events. The spare bleakness of the original design of the Memorial (considerably softened by the addition of landscaping in the current design; I think inappropriately) expresses the common emotion of grief and loss that we all feel about September 11th without creating any interpretation of that event.
I'm glad the construction is finally underway. The current design may be a disappointment in its conventionality, but I think it's the best we can hope for under the circumstances. It is an improvement over the late Minoru Yamasaki's design for the old WTC (in all fairness, that project ended up far larger and more unwieldy than anything he had originally intended; Yamasaki should be remembered gratefully for keeping the thing from looking grotesquely totalitarian).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

September 11th

Here are photos I took from the roof of my building at 256 East 10th street in New York on that morning. They are published here for the first time. I arrived just minutes before the second plane crashed into the building. I ran out of film before the buildings collapsed.
I was off work that day, and I heard a bulletin on the radio that a plane hit the World Trade Center. Thinking it was probably a small private plane, I went up to the roof to take a look. Seeing that this was a major disaster, I immediately ran downstairs to my apartment, and managed to get a phone call out to my family in Dallas just before long distance went dead (and apparently before the news was broadcast, they knew nothing of what had just happened). I grabbed my camera that still had some shots left on it and went back to the roof. Here are the resulting pictures.

Here are people gathered on the roofs of neighboring buildings watching the catastrophe.

As soon as the North Tower collapsed, I had no more TV or radio reception. Fighter jets flew overhead immediately and everyday for weeks. Everything below 14th street became closed to all traffic, so no deliveries and no newspapers and no milk or fresh groceries for days. I heard very little news in the week that followed the attack. The main avenues were lined with empty buses for evacuation just in case. On the afternoon of September 11th, First Avenue was filled with people leaving downtown on foot. All subway and bus service ceased. The restaurants and bars that had satellite or cable connections had their TVs and radios tuned to news and playing at full volume. Beth Israel and Cabrini hospitals had lines of people waiting to donate blood around the block, and were turning people away. The cops and fire department were recruiting anyone and everyone who was willing to go help dig down at the Trade Center site. Dust and smoke filled the air in my neighborhood for days after the attack. The air smelled like a giant electrical fire. Flyers posted by families and friends looking for the missing began appearing everywhere the day after the attack.
The crazies came out of the woodwork in the days that followed. I remember one old man in a construction helmet carrying a huge American flag walking up the middle of Avenue A through the dust and smoke shouting “Wake up!” at the top of his lungs, and then some long string of gibberish that I could not make out. I remember a woman standing in the middle of Astor place screaming obscenities at everyone passing by. I remember another old man clutching a Bible standing near Astor place in the dust and smoke listening to something on a pocket tape player, and laughing uncontrollably.
While this was the worst thing that I've ever seen and ever hope to see, I feel relatively fortunate.  I know people who were much closer and saw a lot more than I did.  One of them has not been below Canal street since.  None of my nearest and dearest were affected, though I knew people who lost a lot of friends and family.  The Fire Department lost more people in that attack than the total of all the deaths in the department since its creation.  Almost every firehouse in the city lost people that morning.  

 Seven years ago, 19 guys armed only with box cutters, succeeded where Hitler, Stalin, and the Japanese Empire failed. They sent the United States into a panicked tailspin from which it has yet to emerge.  We've made mincemeat out of our Constitution and sold away our birthright for the sake of National Security.  As Ben Franklin reminded us, those who would sell out their freedom for the promise of safety deserve neither freedom nor safety.

Here are 2 holy men endorsing the attacks 2 days later. I’m sure Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri agreed with every word.

So let’s remember just who it was that hit us that morning.

How many of those 19 hijackers were openly gay? ---------- 0
How many of them were women? --------- 0
How many of them were feminists? ------- 0
How many of them were secularists? --------0
How many of them were members of the ACLU? ---------- 0
How many of them supported abortion rights? -------------0
How many of them could be considered in any way liberal? -- 0
How many of them were “pagans”? -------0
How many of them were religious fundamentalists? --- 19

And why did they hit us?
Because, they see us as The Great Satan, as alien aggressors.
They see everyone of us as decadent liberal secularizing infidels out to profane all that is holy.
They are apocalyptic fundamentalists who see the world in the sharpest contrasts of black and white, who think of human beings as nothing more than cardboard cutouts in a radically simplified abstract view of the world. They prefer the sterile purity of death to the messy vitality of life.

The people who hit us were deeply influenced by the writings of Sayed Qutb, an Egyptian religious scholar who was horrified at the decadence of the United States after a visit here in the 1940s.  It amazes me that Qutb is so little known in this country.  He is to militant Islamism what Lenin was to Communism.  His thought is a major factor shaping contemporary global politics.   The hijackers were also influenced by the Deobandi school of Islamist thought (that began in India in the 19th century) who target other Muslims for too much contact with the decadent West, and for not clinging to their own very narrow legalistic form of religious fundamentalism.  The Deobandis were a decisive influence on the Taliban.  Again, it surprises me that this is not more widely known in the United States.  Are we so wrapped up in our comfortable little domestic narratives of evil secularist liberals vs. gun-toting resentful conservatives that we can't recognize the wolves that have been barking at our door for years now?  Perhaps because these wolves (who've been around for a long time) are so far out of our insular little frames of reference that we can't see them even when they attack us.   Our other comfortable little melodramatic TV narrative of Muslim = Bad, Christian American = Good has also failed us, especially since these guys are as much at war with the rest of the Muslim world as they are with us.  It appears to me that our leaders are much more interested in exploiting our shock, fear, and grief over the attacks to promote careers and ideological agendas than they are in doing anything really constructive about it.  But, to say so I suppose would be cynical.

The men responsible for conceiving and planning this attack are still wandering around loose in Pakistan after 7 years, and after thousands upon thousands of lives lost in military campaigns in places where those men are not and never were.

Through all the grief and rage that return to me every year at this time, I remember all the many people, firefighters, police, rescue workers, and ordinary people, who died while trying to indiscriminately save lives.
They spoiled the plans of those who died trying to indiscriminately take lives.

May all the saints of 9/11 pray for us.

Here is the complete list of all who died in the attacks that morning.

Monday, September 8, 2008

In All Fairness ...

The following is making the rounds of the InterTubes, and I think I will help it along here. It comes from Dah-veed of Mexico by way of Franiam:

If you’re a minority and you’re selected for a job over more qualified candidates you’re a “token hire.”

If you’re a conservative and you’re selected for a job over more qualified candidates you’re a “game changer.”


If you live in an Urban area and you get a girl pregnant you’re a “baby daddy.”

If you’re the same in Alaska you’re a “teen father.” (Actually, according to your own MySpace page you’re an F’n redneck that don’t want any kids, but that’s too long a phrase for the evil liberal media to take out of context and flog morning noon and night).


Black teen pregnancies? A “crisis” in black America.

White teen pregnancies? A “blessed event.”


If you grow up in Hawaii you’re “exotic.”

Grow up in Alaska eating mooseburgers, you’re the quintessential “American story.”


Similarly, if you name you kid Barack you’re “unpatriotic.”

Name your kid Track, you’re “colorful.”


If you’re a Democrat and you make a VP pick without fulling vetting the individual you’re “reckless.”

A Republican who doesn’t fully vet is a “maverick.”


If you say that for the “first time in my adult lifetime I’m really proud of my country” it makes you “unfit” to be First Lady.

If you are a registered member of a fringe political group that advocates secession that makes you “First Dude.”


A DUI from twenty years ago is “old news.”

A speech given without proper citation from twenty years ago is “relevant information.”


If you’re a man and you decide to run for office despite your wife’s reoccurrence of cancer you’re a “questionable spouse.”

If you’re a woman and you decide to run for office despite having five kids including a newborn with Downs Syndrome… Well, we don’t know what that is ‘cause THAT’S NOT A FAIR QUESTION TO ASK!


If you get 18 million people to vote for you in a national presidential primary, you’re a “phoney.”

Get 100,000+ people to vote you governor of the 47th most populous state in the Union, you’re “well loved.”


If you are biracial and born in a state not connected to the lower 48, America needs darn near 2 years and 3 major speeches to “get to know you.”

If you’re white and from a state not connected to the lower 48, America needs 36 minutes and 38 seconds worth of an acceptance speech to know you’re “one of us.”


If you give your wife a dap on stage, it’s actually a “terrorist fist jab.”

If your daughter licks her palm so that she can slick down your youngest child’s hair on national TV it’s an “adorable moment.” (Seriously, forget about abstinence only, teach these folks some grooming skills).


If your pastor rails against inequality in the United States of America, you’re an “extremist.”

If your pastor welcomes a sermon by a member of Jews for Jesus who preaches that the killing of Jews by terrorists is a lesson to Jews that they must convert to Christianity, you’re a “fundamentalist.”


If you’re a black man and you use a scholarship to get into college, then work your way up to being the president of the Harvard Law Review, you’re “uppity.”

If you’re a conservative and your parents pay your way to Hawaii Pacific University . . . you only have four more schools to attend over the next five years before you somehow manage to graduate (it might be five more school over the next five years. No one has yet verified whether or not Palin was actually ever registered at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. But, you know how shady people are who ever attended any kind of school in Hawaii).


If you’re 18, white, and get a 16 year old girl pregnant “life happens.”

If you’re 18, black, and impregnate a 16 year old girl, you’re a “registered sex offender.”


If you spend 18 months building a campaign around the theme of “Change,” it’s just “empty rhetoric.”

If one week before your party’s national convention you SUDDENLY make your candidacy about “Change,” that’s “red meat.”


And lastly:

If you are a Democrat, an Independent, or even a moderate Republican, if you’re female, male, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, bi-racial, multi-ethnic, or GLBT, if you’re a Jew, Gentile, Muslim, agnostic or atheist - “Yes, we can!”

If you’re a pitbull with lipstick from Alaska, “Yup, yup!”

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The North Koreans...

... make the Chinese look like damn dirty hippies.

The Chinese

They make us all look like damn dirty hippies.

How do you like that human jumbotron in Tien An Men Square?

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Power of God Writ in the Book of Nature; Frederick Edwin Church

Niagara Falls, 1857

Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860s

Frederick Edwin Church was arguably the first, and one of the greatest, artists of Manifest Destiny, the idea that God had destined the American wilderness for the American people.
Church was no non-conformist boho artist type. He was quite "mainstream" in his beliefs and fully shared in the growing conviction of the years just before and during the Civil War that it was the destiny of the United States to settle, civilize, and make fruitful the land God gave to the Union of the States.
Church was that peculiarly American combination of literal minded factual recorder and religious visionary. One of his great heroes was the German naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt whose famous expeditions and exhaustive cataloguing of natural phenomena lead him to the reassuring conclusion that they revealed the hand of the Creator. The worst loss for thoughtful Victorians was not that Darwin and Wallace contradicted the creation stories in the Bible, but that they undid Humboldt's work, which had provided great consolation in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Like Humboldt, Church takes a microscope to the facts and finds God.
The painting of Niagara Falls above was one of Church's first great public successes, and remains arguably the finest painting of the Falls. The Falls had been known since the 17th century and had already been a common subject for artists for a century. Church's painting is a little misleading. There is a total absence of people and settlement in the painting. In fact, the area around the Falls had already been densely settled for some time, and was already a famous tourist destination. Otherwise, no one painted the Falls with such close attention than Church. Perhaps no other artist captured every bit of foam and wave without resort to impression; quite an accomplishment considering this is a vast amount of moving water.
For a pious public steeped in the Bible, the rainbow rising out of the foam would be an immediate clue that Church was out to do much more than record the facts. Church's painting of the Falls was intended to call to mind the Great Flood of Noah described in the Bible. A demonstration of natural power reminds us of God's power.

Twilight in the Wilderness was painted sometime in the midst of the Civil War. Like the painting of Niagara Falls, it is a very factual painting that points to something much more than the facts. It is one of the most dramatic sunsets painted since Turner, and the most elaborate that Church ever painted. The vermillion in the clouds certainly is an accurate record of actual sunsets, but it is made to suggest something much more. The painting has a certain dread and melancholy about it, especially around the edges. The art that came out of the Civil War is always oblique in its references to the suffering of the war, but no less powerful for being indirect. In the center, the warm glowing light of the setting sun beckons us westward beyond the blood red clouds and the empty melancholy wilderness.

In case we still don't get it, here's a very unsubtle sunset by Church. Colored lithograph copies of this picture were distributed to Union troops during the war.

Our Banner in the Sky, 1860s

The Nation in the Wilderness

George Caleb Bingham, Daniel Boone Leading Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap, 1852

I sometimes think that people outside the United States fail to appreciate the power of the religious ideas behind the American self image. The United States as a specially chosen nation with a messianic mission to the world is not the exclusive property of the political right, or even of the religious. The American Special Dispensation shapes the rhetoric and the platforms of both presidential campaigns this year. There certainly are secular versions of this same idea, among groups as diverse as the Libertarians and the Greens. I'm not quite sure there is anything else quite like this idea in the rest of the world. The closest to this concept of messianic nationhood that I can think of is Holy Russia. This is a 19th century idea born out of pan-Slav movements and religious revival in Russia. It's coming back with a vengeance in 21st century Russia with the active support of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. America The Promised Land, The Shining City On The Hill, has a messianic mission to save the world from itself (and so does Holy Russia).

The Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham painted this scene of Daniel Boone over 30 years after Boone's death. Bingham very explicitly likens Boone to Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness. Boone would not have approved. The real Daniel Boone died in Missouri after a lifetime of dealing with creditors, greedy speculators, and ambitious politicians. He ended his days preferring the company of the Indians to that of his fellow whites. The real Daniel Boone died in 1820 so that the Daniel Boone of legend could take over, the archetypal American frontier hero, the tough fearless fighter guarding the women in the wagon (the real Daniel Boone, certainly a courageous fighter, was born into a Quaker family and always opposed breaking treaties, forced relocation, and war against the Native Americans).
As we shall see, artists like Bingham painted the westward expansion in explicitly Biblical terms; the chosen people wandering through the wilderness to settle in the Promised Land and battling the Canaanites who were already there. The west was the land destined by God for American settlement; and in the minds of many, this was not a metaphor.
There is a very disturbing racial element in all this. In most of the paintings and rhetoric surrounding the westward expansion, the Chosen People going west to their Promised Land are almost always exclusively white and Protestant. Never mind that the actual settlement of the west, especially the second wave, was as cosmopolitan an enterprise as the rest of American history. The western half of the Transcontinental Railroad was built by Chinese immigrants, the eastern half by Irish immigrants. About half of the cowboys who worked the legendary cattle trails were black. The cowboys most in demand for their skills were Mexican vaqueros. Nonetheless, the conventional narratives around the conquest of the west remain very white stories.
The westward expansion was an imperial enterprise. The primeval west was not empty. It was the homeland of nations that had their own histories going back centuries. Those nations were assigned the role of the Canaanites in the narrative shaped around the westward expansion. One of the main reasons for all the Biblical metaphors in the official imagery and conventional narratives was to absolve people of the guilt of conquest. A holy people went out and claimed the land that was given to them by God.


The party of "Get the hell off my lawn!"

Paul Krugman reminds us that we should NEVER misunderestimate the power of resentment in politics.  Nixon built a whole career on it.  My late father always voted his resentments (and Nixon could play him like a violin).
Rick Pearlstein has some similar reflections in his commentary on Sarah Palin's speech.

Speaking of the resentments of middle class white people, here's another tidbit from this morning's liberal elitist NYTimes.
   Thank God for Christian fundamentalists and Chinese Communists!  They are probably the last groups left who take art seriously and believe that things are at stake in it.  They both take it seriously enough to feel threatened by it.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"Westward the Course of Empire..."

Speaking of America,

When I resume my long meditation on art, modernity, and spirituality, it will be on American art after the Civil War, especially about the second wave of westward expansion, and about some uniquely American forms of spirituality that have lately been either largely forgotten, or gone out of fashion.

Emmanuel Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1862

John Gast,  American Progress, ca. 1872


Sometimes I think that the most amazing thing about the United States is that we've had only one Civil War.

We are three hundred million socially awkward people who hate each other's guts.
We've always seen the lone rider coming over the horizon as a threat.
We are polarized racially, regionally, economically, religiously, ethnically, sexually, etc..
Politicians have always built careers on our fears and resentments.
Entire political ideologies have been built on our spite and resentment.
Whole religious theologies are built on our fear and hatred of The Other.
We built this country on greed and racism just as much as we built it on hope and idealism.
We are not, and never were, "innocent" or absolved from history.

There are members of my family who felt very deeply the resentment of "outsiders" telling them how to run their own states and businesses, especially in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. They feel profoundly and mortally threatened by huge waves of "outsiders" (especially brown ones) swamping their identity and their very existence. They've always resented what they see as the patronization of the fortunate privileged who presume to know better than they do. On the other hand, I know people who see my native region as a vast wilderness of ignorance and bigotry and regard it with a reciprocal fear and loathing. They have other more direct and vivid memories of the Civil Rights era, memories of people who suffered and died just to be treated as human beings and not as some higher form of farm animal.
As someone who daily straddles the vast cultural chasm between my native Texas and my adopted New York, I sometimes carry all sorts of conflicting resentments within myself. The truly sad part about the whole thing is the knowledge that none of those fears and resentments is entirely wrong or unrealistic, though they are always unfair. I'm sure the folks in Weatherford, Texas see themselves as patriotic embodiments of authentic small town America -- brave, enterprising, conscientious, dutiful -- and perhaps rightly so. On the other hand, Chinatown here in New York City is actually older than Weatherford, Texas. Chinatown here in New York, like all Chinatowns in the USA, exists because people never considered the Chinese immigrants (whose labor built the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s) as authentically "American." Chinatowns were created by segregation, by the refusal of other Americans to welcome them among their own. And yet, Chinatown provided soldiers for every American conflict going back to the Spanish American War. The Chinese don't fit into the commercial mainstream vision of America (blond, blue-eyed, apple-cheeked, with 2.5 impossibly adorable children, living comfortably in a leafy suburb or small town filled with sunshine, where the elderly are always "spry") but then, neither really do the inhabitants of Weatherford, nor does anyone in the United States, now or ever. Maybe it's time to ditch that "mainstream" image that's been assigned to us. It's bamboozled a lot of people (especially mine), has harmed a lot of other people, and hasn't helped anyone.
Texas is, and always was, a much more complicated place than most people, including most Texans, assume. Like this big city that attracts so much of the resentment of Texans, Texas is a very cosmopolitan place built out of the hopes and expectations of poor misfits (and that was true long before Stephen F. Austin arrived). I've seen a lot of courage, enterprise, conscientiousness, and selflessness in this huge boiling cosmopolitan city of New York, built for better and for worse out of the dreams of very poor people from around the world, a city that has always attracted a lot of the world's fears and resentments.

I can only conclude that the social contract that binds us all together in a single unlikely country is greater than each of us who make it up.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Detroit Moment

MoTown wasn't the only thing to come out of Detroit 40 years ago...

just a little relief from all the aggressive dorkiness that's been parading all over the air waves lately.

"Come Up To The Lab and See What's On The Slab"

Surveillance video of me at another day's work in my studio:

Even after 80 years, this movie is still so awesome cool.

I hear that a complete copy of Metropolis surfaced in a library in Italy recently.  All the copies that are out now are missing over a quarter of the original premiere release.  I'm sure that they are busy restoring it right now.  I can hardly wait!

Wedding Bells and Shotgun Shells in St. Paul

Here he is, the man of the moment, Levi Johnston, the happy soon-to-be-father and soon to be son-in-law of a political family, the family of Veep candidate Sarah Palin. Even though the press is going ape with his Facebook comments full of teenage bravado, I feel sorry for the poor shlub, and for the poor girl who has to marry him in front of a convention hall full of people that no one would want to see on a jury if they were on trial for their lives, and in front of the world press.

Dude, there are times when it pays to keep your pants on.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Monet Paints His Dying Wife

Claude Monet, Camille on Her Death Bed, 1879

Claude Monet married Camille Doncieux in 1870.  She became ill with tuberculosis after years of sharing her husband's poverty in 1875.  She died in 1879.  Monet many years later wrote the following account of the genesis of this painting to George Clemenceau.

... One day, when I was at the death bed of a woman who had been and still was very dear to me, I caught myself, my eyes fixed on her tragic forehead, in the act of mechanically analysing the succession of appropriate color gradations which death was imposing on her immobile face.  Tones of blue, of yellow, of grey, what have you?  This is the point I had reached.  Certainly it was natural to wish to record the last image of a woman who was departing forever.  But even before I had the idea of setting down the features to which I was so deeply attached, my organism automatically reacted to the color stimuli, and my reflexes caught me up in spite of myself, in an unconscious operation which was the daily course of my life - just like an animal turning his mill.

"My God, What an Eye!"

Claude Monet, Poplar Trees, Evening, 1891

My students love Monet. There have been times when I've had to limit the number of papers on him. Monet's paintings in the Metropolitan Museum are the high point of many a field trip.
And who can really argue with them? These are lovely paintings full of color and soaked in light. This painting in particular is one of my favorites in the Met. Monet beautifully and convincingly recreates a very fleeting moment of sunlight. The setting sun brilliantly illuminates the trees in the background, while the trees lining a canal in foreground remain in shadow creating a kind of screen between us and the bright distance.

My students look at all this loveliness, and insist in paper after paper that these paintings are about some kind of spirituality. I'm afraid not. There's nothing the least bit spiritual anywhere in Impressionism or in this picture (unless you want to really stretch the whole spirit-as-metaphor business).
Monet's paintings are about seeing, and in a very literal and direct sense. He studied the new science of optics, everything from Newton's spectrum and color wheel to the theories of Fresnel. He was  acquainted with the new physics of light and color pioneered by Fresnel that described visual light as a series of wave lengths. Red was one wave length and green was another.  Monet discarded the traditional classical palette layout that arranged colors by tone (from white to black on the gray scale), and divided them between warm and cool.  Monet created a new palette based on the spectrum.  He banished black entirely from his palette.  The scientists described black not as a color itself, but as the absence of light and color.  Claude Monet was one of the first artists to take advantage of the wide range of brilliant colors made newly available by industrial manufacturing.  Bright colors were once very expensive, rare, difficult to make, and chemically unstable.  Ultramarine blue was once the most expensive of all pigments, made from imported and ground up lapis lazuli and very difficult to make.  Now the exact same color, identical in chemical content and even superior  in quality, could be made cheaply from coal tar.  New brilliant pigments made from cadmium, chromium, and titanium became available and were relatively inexpensive. 

This painting is about how a whole moment of evening light is made up by the colors of the spectrum.   Just as in the Boulevard des Capucines, everything in the painting is given the exact same attention and the same stroke of the brush.  Now, each stroke contains a separate color from the spectrum creating the warm lights and cool shadows of the early evening light.  The screen of poplars and their reflection in the water in the foreground create a beautifully simple framework on which to arrange these nuances of light and color.
Picasso once said of Monet, "He was only an eye, but my God, what an eye!"

"Black Tongue Lickings"

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1873

It is hard for us to imagine a painting like this causing such a fuss. To us, it is an appealing, and entirely innocuous, example of Impressionism, perhaps the most popular art movement ever. But the critics, and the public of the day, found this picture to be deeply shocking and even offensive.

This painting appeared in the first Impressionist Exhibition in April of 1874 held in the studio of the famous photographer Nadar. The subject of this painting is the view out the window of the very studio where this painting was first shown. We can clearly see the influence of photography here. It looks very much like a now famous early photograph made almost 40 years earlier by Louis Daguerre. The camera sees and takes in everything without distinction. Monet gives exactly the same attention, the same broad brush stroke, whether it's trees, buildings, balloons, the sky, carriages, buildings, or people. That is what the critics found so offensive and so shocked the public. Human beings, the human figure, the very center of the Classical aesthetic and the center of the humanist philosophies that sustained it, were now reduced to a few indefinite strokes of paint, "black tongue lickings" in the words of one hostile critic. The people in the street are reduced to the role of color notes equal to every other color note in the painting.
There is no central focus in this painting at all, nothing specific that Monet fixes his gaze upon. The center of this painting is an indefinite mass of umber paint that is supposed to be tree branches. The painting is not about any one thing. It is about the whole over all effect in light and color, an "impression" of the whole scene.

The Impressionists began as a very loose group of about 30 artists, most of whom are forgotten, who wanted to bypass the whole state Salon system (a series of annual exhibitions organized by the government to showcase the nation's talent), and exhibit independently. about the only things they had in common were their attention to the reality of modern urban Paris rather than to myth or history, and a broad sketchiness of execution. If the public was behind, then it was only by one step. They soon overcame their hostility, and by the end of the century the influence of the Impressionists was global inspiring imitators in Germany, America, Russia, Spain, and even in Mexico and Japan.
Claude Monet was not born into money like Edouard Manet. Monet was the son of a grocer. The public hostility cost him very dearly. In his younger years, he was so poor that fellow artist Pierre Renoir stole bread to rescue him and his wife from starvation. He even attempted suicide. By the beginning of the 20th century, he was one of the most famous and successful artists in the world. He was inducted into The Legion of Honor, and the famous and powerful (especially Clemenceau) called upon him at his estate in Giverny down the Seine from Paris.