Monday, November 28, 2011

Thought For the Day

I never imagined that the New Deal policies my parents took for granted when I was growing up would become the fringey lefty dreams of young anarchists. I never foresaw The New Deal becoming the stuff of radicalism.

A Holiday Classic

A Little List

This bit of fake Gilbert and Sullivan is so cranky it makes me smile.

Seth MacFarlane may or may not be a threat to civilization, but he is very funny.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Heimat Sicherheit

Naomi Wolf on the coordinated crackdown on #Occupy. Someone is feeling very threatened by this. My friend David Kaplan thinks this is all perfectly obvious. The Establishment is deeply worried that this might catch on and spread. The fact that the whole movement (so far) is entirely pacifist and democratic makes them even more threatening to our rulers. Occupy would be so much easier to control and eradicate if it was a terrorist movement with a military command structure.

Ignore the numerous police informants (or use them to send misleading information). Beware the provocateurs. And don't be afraid. That's what our little union drive at Borders did 13 years ago.

Dan Sloan on Facebook cautions that this story of DHS coordination between police departments is still dubious with reasons for skepticism.
Dan Sloan adds:

I should add that Naomi Wolf isn't a journalist and the commentisfree section of the Guardian is open to anyone who wants to publish - no vetting or fact checking required.

The one advantage we've had over right-wingnuts is that we've had verifiable facts and truth on our side, even when they don't further our goals. But I've been seeing more Fox News style reporting and conspiracy theory spinning in liberal sources recently. I think that's going to hurt us if we don't call it out. Wolf may be right, but that article is flimsy and her sources are dubious at best.

I wonder if any real journalists (e.g. Pro Publica affiliated) might be looking into this story to see if there's any truth to it.

The whole thing seems to rest on the flimsy but tantalizing evidence of Mayor Jean Quan's admission to consulting with other mayors before her crackdown on Occupy Oakland protesters. If she meant a coordinated conference call among mayors, that's one thing. If she meant a phone call or two for advice, that's something else entirely.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Moral Christians

There are days when I think not even God can stand to be around those spiteful narrow-minded kill-joys who call themselves Christians.

Could it be, Maggie, that people are giving you a hard time over this issue because you are just plain wrong about it, and that you advocate effectively stigmatizing and disenfranchising whole classes of people? Could it be that the heat you feel coming back at you is because you enable those who dehumanize and harm lgbtq folk?

Both of these are from JoeMyGod. Joe Jervis has a cast iron stomach for this sort of thing.

Rather than argue against all of this myself, I'll let someone who was much better with words than I'll ever be make my point.

If Moral Virtue was Christianity,
Christ’s Pretensions were all Vanity,
And Cai’phas & Pilate Men
Praise Worthy, & the Lion’s Den
And not the Sheepfold, Allegories
Of God & Heaven & their Glories.
The Moral Christian is the Cause
of the Unbeliever & his Laws.
The Roman Virtues, Warlike Fame,
Take Jesus’ & Jehovah’s Name;
For what is Antichrist but those
Who against Sinners Heaven close
With Iron bars, in Virtuous State,
And Rhadamanthus at the Gate?

--William Blake, “The Everlasting Gospel”

EXTRA: As far as Maggie is concerned, I'm a hell-bound sodomite and a universalist antinomian heretic. Fine. If I must err (and EVERYONE errs in these matters), then I would err on the side of Love rather than Law.

Thank You Sweet Baby Jesus I Don't Work In Retail Anymore!

And they're off!

Hat tip to JoeMyGod. No reports -- yet -- of any store clerks killed this year.


No deaths yet, but apparently there have been some very serious injuries.

My best wishes go out to all of you retail clerks out there on the front lines dodging the shrapnel.

Oh Crap! It's Christmas!

Mel Brooks once said that the entertainment industry was the creation of Jews and gay men for the consumption of heterosexual gentiles.

You could say the same thing about Christmas.

Not exactly butch Johnny Mathis sings a Christmas classic by not exactly Presbyterian Mel Torme.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Imperial Storm Troopers


I'm grateful for so many things.

I'm thankful for Michael who has ended my loneliness, given me new courage, and a new home. I'm thankful for a whole new family as my old one passes away.

I'm thankful for old friends and for new ones.

I'm thankful for all the animals in my life, now and in the past.

I'm thankful for art. It's given me a reason to get up in the morning and be glad to face a new day for most of my life. It takes the random dull mess of life and fills it with wonder and meaning. It's one of those miraculous things we do despite our being mortal and fallible.

I'm thankful for my work and for all of its exceptional gratifications, for my colleagues, for my students.

I'm especially grateful for the satisfaction of knowing that after so many years of being told that I couldn't and shouldn't, I could and I did. I started out painting on canvas panels in my room when I was 10, using a pie tin for a palette, and now I'm an artist with a studio in Manhattan.

I'm thankful that I can pay my bills. A lot of people can't say that now.

I'm thankful that I have a job, and that I like it. A lot of people can't say that these days.

I'm thankful for relatively good health. I can still walk and talk. My vision is excellent for my age.

I'm thankful for the internet. It's made a profound difference in my life. I'm not sure that I'd have much of what I have now if it wasn't around.

Even though I'm always behind the curve and slow to catch up, I'm grateful for technology. The computer has made so much of my work a lot easier and more manageable. Tech continues to open up new possibilities.

I've done a little traveling, I've had some great adventures along the way, and I hope I've accomplished a few things which make life a little better for a few others.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

And The Silly Season Begins!

Just in time for Advent, Jesus has a "wardrobe malfunction." A video that has been flying around the internet.

Hat tip to Madpriest and a whole lot of other people.

And for Thanksgiving, here is an old classic. Be sure to sing along.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Here Comes Another Election Year (*Yawn*)

Another year where we have to choose between Coke and Pepsi, and NO this is not another rant about how the political parties are both the same. This is a rant about how none of the most important issues for the future of this country will even be touched in this election cycle. All of those crucial issues about the role of money in our politics, whether we really want a democracy, or whether an oligarchy would just be easier, don't expect to hear those even mentioned. And if we formally and legally transition to oligarchy, then what about individual rights or constraints on the powerful? Does fairness mean anything to an ideology of supremacism, national or social? Does that inscription over the Supreme Court Building, "Equal Justice Under Law" still mean anything, or is it a quaint antique and it's time to retire it? Do we really want to be the "Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave," or do we want to be just another empire lording it over a sullen world? Those questions will be addressed, but outside the political campaigns and outside the official public forum.

I'm predicting a very boring election year. All of the "debates" will be about what amount to tweaks one way or another of the Center-Right consensus that's dominated our politics since the 1970s. The idea that the whole political process is rotten, just so much legalized corruption, will never come up. The idea that public office is nothing more than a revolving door for plutocrats and their minions who go in to make regulatory law, and then go out to profit from those regulations will never even be mentioned.

God and Jesus will be invoked repeatedly will barrels full of oily public piety. The Prince of Peace will be dragooned into blessing a society increasingly coarse, brutal, predatory, and nihilistic, a society where "even three in the morning is lit up with the glow of money going rotten," to quote the late John Updike. The God of Love will be invoked to legitimize policies that stigmatize and disenfranchise entire classes of people. The One who said that "foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head" will be drafted into blessing those who have multiple homes at the expense of those who have none. The money changers will continue to be welcome into the Temple. Caiphas and the Sanhedrin will continue to believe that they are martyrs suffering for the cause of right, when in fact they believe with all their hearts and all their minds and all their souls that might makes right.

In the end, Russell Baker said it best, "Watching a politician claim the high road is like watching a hog take a bath."

Put on your wet suits everyone.

The President's hand holding a note slipped to him by an OWS protester in New Hampshire.

Robert Reich talks about an issue that certainly won't be mentioned in any campaign. Both parties have patrons that they cannot afford to offend.

When "Serve and Protect" Becomes "Comply or Hurt"

I was going to write a whole post about the militarization of the cops, and the increasingly free use of "non-lethal" weapons (never mind that some people have died from taser attacks and even pepper-spray).

But Digby beat me to it and wrote a much better essay than I could have.


James Fallows quotes extensively from two people with sharply differing experiences and perspectives on the police. This is a follow up to another post he made about the militarization of local police.

St. Cecilia's Day

Have a happy one all you musicians out there.

Those of us who are not musicians will always be grateful for what you do.

November 22nd

If you are from Dallas and are of a certain age, this date is unforgettable.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Silent Protest

This is extraordinary. I've never seen anything like this. The Chancellor of UC Davis walks out to her car and is met by a huge, but completely silent, student protest.


Apparently Chancellor Katehi is taking the bureaucrats way out, the old "time to move on and put this behind us" excuse in which we sweep the whole unpleasantness under the rug and get on with our lives. This, of course, leaves her and all others responsible free from any accountability. Where have we heard this excuse before over the last ten years? I can think of several places from Washington to Beizhing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lift Up The People's Banner

A May Day print by Walter Crane

A hymn from the Christian Socialist movement in 19th century England, a hymn no church will sing tomorrow, or the next day, or the next.

This is for all of those wounded and arrested by aggressive police crackdowns on peaceful protesters over the past few weeks.

To the Tune of We Plow The Fields and Scatter

1. You faithful saints and martyrs
Who fought for truth and right,
We ask your prayers and blessings
To aid us in our fight.
Your faith shall be our watchword,
Your cause shall be our own -
To fight against oppression
Till it be overthrown.

Lift up the people's banner
And let the ancient cry
For justice and for freedom
Re-echo to the sky.

2. In many a golden story,
On many a golden page,
The poets in their poems
Have sung the golden age,
The age of love and beauty,
The age of joy and peace,
When everyone lived gladly
And shared the earth's increase.

Lift up the people's banner
And let the ancient cry
For justice and for freedom
Re-echo to the sky.

3. Today the tyrants triumph
And bind us for their gains,
But Jesus Christ our Saviour
Will free us from our chains,
And love, the only master,
Will strive with might and greed,
Till might is right no longer,
And right is might indeed.

Lift up the people's banner
And let the ancient cry
For justice and for freedom
Re-echo to the sky.

4. God is the only Landlord
To whom our rents are due.
God made the earth for everyone
And not for just a few.
The four parts of creation --
Earth, water, air, and fire --
God made and ranked and stationed
For everyone's desire.

Lift up the people's banner
And let the ancient cry
For justice and for freedom
Re-echo to the sky.

5. God made the earth for freedom
And God alone is Lord,
And we will win our birthright
By truth's eternal sword;
And all the powers of darkness
And all the hosts of pride
Shall pass and be forgotten
For God is by our side.

Lift up the people's banner
And let the ancient cry
For justice and for freedom
Re-echo to the sky.

6. Christ blessed the meek and told them
That they the earth should own.
And he will lead the battle
From his eternal throne.
O have no fear, my comrades,
Cry out in holy mirth!
For God to us has promised
His Kingdom here on earth.

Lift up the people's banner
And let the ancient cry
For justice and for freedom
Re-echo to the sky.


In some ways, I am still very bourgeois. I usually like to cut the cops some slack. It's a rotten job with rotten pay, but it's necessary. The Port Authority cops were very good friends to us underpaid bookstore clerks when we organized our union at the World Trade Center Borders many years ago.

And then I see stuff like this, and that very white middle class assumption that The Police Are Our Friends just melts away in horror and disgust. Of course, not-so-white folk have had very different experiences with the police since always. I doubt any of this would surprise them.

I can remember a time when folks used to turn over cop cars and set them on fire in response to stuff like this. What does it mean that people don't resort to that kind of thing in this video? Is it a measure of the protesters determination to be peaceful? Is it that they are afraid?

I'm wondering if there's a concerted effort between mayors out there to "make an example" of people to discourage potential protesters. The New York DA plans to press serious felony charges against protesters who refuse to take a plea deal (a lot of them). All of this force and violence is so disproportionate. It reminds me of the police over-kill during the Civil Rights protests. Someone somewhere is feeling very threatened by all of these dirty drug crazed hippies and their kooky flower power.

To me this is an extension of the crap that all of us have to live with these days: all of those penalty charges, debts, and interest piled on top of debts, threats and demands from insurance companies, that turn life into such a God awful treadmill of never enough work, never enough pay, a soul crushing chase after money money money, always just short of breaking free. The cops are the ultimate collection agency.

All of this money and manpower is being deployed against unarmed and peaceful protesters. Meanwhile, where are the raids on Citicorp? on Goldman Sachs? on Bank of America? on Chase? I thought so.

A friend of mine from Argentina made the point that middle class Americans are now getting a taste of what their government exported to all the rest of the world, especially to Latin America.

Justice in an age when EVERYTHING is for sale. You can sit in an expensive corner office suite and commit larceny on a cosmic scale, and there will be no consequences. Hell, our government will just write you a check to get you out of trouble.

But if you so much as step off a curb or bump a barricade, then God help you.

Here is a now famous picture of 84 year old Dorli Rainey in Seattle after taking a face full of pepper spray.

Because you're never too old ...


I took some students through MoMA today. It is remarkable that so many works in its collection which many people once found shocking and deeply offensive now wear the aura of "classic." It is amazing to think that the most recent work reproduced below, Johns' Flag, is more than 50 years old. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is now more than a century old.

I read somewhere a story related by Edward Mendelsohn about what people considered shocking and offensive in 1920s Paris. A woman stood up in the middle of a performance of a chamber work by Maurice Ravel (RAVEL?!!) and loudly asked if this was music suitable for war veterans or widows.

Here is a small sample of works in MoMA that once made legions of people furious.

Auguste Rodin, Balzac

Pablo Picasso, Le Demoiselles d'Avignon

Meret Oppenheim, Luncheon in Fur

Kazimir Malevich, White on White Painting

Jasper Johns, Flag

The OWS "Bat Signal"

Weiben and I saw this whole show from the Brooklyn Bridge during the march on November 17th. The crowd loved it and read it all aloud and loudly. Traffic slowed down on the Bridge to look at it. I don't know why, but for some reason a lot of people (including yours truly) found this to be incredibly moving. This video is entirely silent. Those are not the conditions in which I saw this. I saw this on a cold windy night full of cheering and applause, car honking, and loud chanting.

The story behind this projection is itself remarkable and incredibly moving; creativity meets resourcefulness meets courage meets generosity meets graciousness,


Someone is feeling politically threatened by all those dirty drug-crazed hippies in tents, threatened enough to spend $850,000 on a publicity campaign to discredit them.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on Occupy's Birthday

Foley Square last night; the Federal Courthouse is in the center, and the Municipal Building is to the right

After attending a day full of meetings, I went to the biggest meeting of the day, the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Foley Square put on by various labor unions in support of the movement, and as a "family friendly" event for those who didn't want to go mano a mano with New York's Finest. Some people did take on the cops anyway. There were about 2 dozen arrests at this event, most near the Brooklyn Bridge where people tried to jump police barricades.

I met 2 friends there, Weiben Wang, an old hand at events like this going back to Anti-Apartheid demonstrations in the 80s, and another artist, James Middleton. I was very naughty and skipped my third meeting for the day to attend this to its finish. James left the rally early and went in my place, bless him.

Both Weiben and I brought cameras. Most of these are mine. Some are his.

Weiben's picture of me as the march across the Brooklyn Bridge gets started.

Here is dangerous incendiary Weiben Wang in a picture I took with his camera. Actually, maybe James took this picture.

Here is my picture of Weiben taken with my camera.

Here is Weiben's picture of me taking his picture. James is on the right.

Foley Square about a half hour before the rally started. People were already gathering. There was a huge police presence in the square and in the surrounding streets. The cops seemed determined to keep the whole thing penned in the middle of the square. In minutes, the crowd filled the square from wall to wall, and the barricades came down.

The rally begins.

I didn't get to move much during the rally. People were packed in tightly.


Fond memories of MLK and JFK who were there in spirit.

A passage from the Magnificat in Foley Square

The USA seems to be one of the few countries where it is relatively safe to bring small children to political rallies. I saw a lot at this one, and in all the anti-war rallies when the Iraq War started.

Lots of people gathered on the African American Memorial.

Signs from my union, PSC-CUNY (Professional Staff Congress, City University of New York); The SEIU, Unite!, the UAW, and other unions were heavily represented.

The march to the Brooklyn Bridge begins, and it takes forever to get these thousands of people through the bottle-neck on Centre Street in front of the Municipal Building.

Lots of Guy Fawkes masks, thank you Anonymous.

Occupy that ledge on the City Records Building!

The Woolworth Building at night with protesters.

A big reason for the bottleneck, police were determined to keep traffic moving on this street, a main artery for traffic off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Some of the unions like Unite sent parade marshals to put themselves between the marchers and the cops to prevent trouble, a tactic that seemed to work.

Finally, we're starting across the Brooklyn Bridge. My camera's battery died soon after this shot, so the rest of the pictures will be Weiben's.
The marchers crossed over the boardwalk above the traffic lanes. A lot of cars honked in solidarity with drivers waving us and giving us V signs. One woman in an apartment building on the Brooklyn side flashed her room lights and waved at us.

Someone somewhere had a Powerpoint projector and did an impromptu projection on the side of the Verizon Building where everyone could see it from the bridge. You can see it on the lower right of the building. Weiben's picture.

Here's part of that giant Powerpoint show on the Verizon building. Weiben's picture.

Weiben's picture of the crowds coming out on the other end of the Bridge. The mood of the marchers was festive, jubilant, and triumphant with vivid memories of an earlier attempt by Occupy demonstrators to cross this same bridge.

Here's a lot more of Weiben's pictures from last night.

Weiben characterized this march, and this movement, as "genteel." I'm not quite entirely sure what he meant by that. The crowd struck me as very middle class (James noted the remarkably correct spelling and grammar on so many of the signs). Even though minorities were substantially represented, the crowd remained far whiter than the proportional makeup of the city. Weiben is right about that. All ages attended, but most of the crowd was young, 20s to late 30s.

The press so far ignored last night's huge protest march in today's papers, but then they ignored the big marches against the Iraq War and at the 2004 GOP Convention that each drew around a million participants.

The press coverage since the beginning of Occupy is hostile, patronizing, or indifferent. And yet the movement continues to expand rapidly despite that hostility. I very much wonder how different press coverage would be if Occupy was a far-right movement demanding no regulations on the financial industry, and demanding further punishments on "undeserving" poor people, especially if they are black, brown, or young. I would imagine Fox News would give them prime-time live coverage praising as heroes and patriots those mostly white, elderly, and affluent people who would man such an occupation in heated prefab huts supplied by some corporate PAC (that 84 year old protester in Seattle who got a face full of pepper spray would be officially designated as either amusingly odd or senile). Fox News would write the panegyrics and the rest of the press would sing the choruses. It's not necessary to resort to conspiracy theories to explain this. It's simply a matter of "who pays the fiddler calls the tune."

As you can see from the photos, these folks are not the dirty drug crazed hippies described by Fox News and parroted by everyone else who's had little or no direct experience with the protesters. A lot of the ones around us last night were professional people. Indeed, the core of Occupy seems to be very well educated professionals who found themselves marginalized, or who voluntarily left what they saw as a corrupt mainstream (recent veterans are disproportionately represented in the Occupy movements). The creativity and resourcefulness of this whole movement continues to astonish me. Occupy emerged out of those very middle class virtues of initiative and independence to fight those very middle class vices of conformity and hypocrisy in order to take on a serious threat to democracy.

One of the very few reporters to actually talk to and get to know some of the protesters in Zuccotti Park before it was cleared was Michael Greenberg in his article in the current New York Review of Books. One of the protesters he talked to was a young documentary film maker originally from Tomball, Texas who left behind politically right wing and fundamentalist Christian parents to pursue her own path (sounds familiar). Another protester Greenberg got to know was a doctor newly minted from medical school and residency who put his career on hold to work full time for this movement. A now famous casualty of the police raid on Zuccotti Park is the Occupy Wall Street Library run by an all volunteer professional library staff complete with their own website including a complete online catalog of their titles. Until its recent destruction, this was the only public library below Canal Street. Since Borders closed, there aren't even any bookstores in the neighborhood, the fastest growing in New York, and one of the fastest growing in the USA.

It remains to be seen what the future will be. Who knows if this movement will survive the loss of their permanent settlements, or if this is really a blessing in disguise. There certainly are divisions within over the direction to go. Part of it is a reawakened left (which attracts the support of unions; for them, the kids in tents are a godsend breathing new life into a movement long on the defensive), and a middle class newly wakened from its 30 year long political slumber. Professionals woke up to find that they are now reduced to the status of wage-earners. Students woke up to the prospect of finding themselves indentured as debtors for the rest of their lives. While the movement attracts a lot of minority support, it still needs to make a more serious effort to incorporate minority populations (who also have found themselves on the defensive fighting the erosion of hard-fought gains over the last 3 decades).

My role in all this is only as a cheer-leading spectator. I'm not really a participant. I've attended a couple of "General Assemblies," but only to watch. I have no idea where all of this will ultimately lead, but I continue to have high hopes. After 30 years of bitter resignation, that in itself is a major accomplishment.


Here's an interview with the folks responsible for the Verizon Building "Bat Signal." No, it wasn't Powerpoint. Thanks to Frank Episale for sending this.


Matt Taibibi's essay in Rolling Stone is the best I've read yet on OWS. Here's a sample:
That's what I was thinking during the first few weeks of the protests. But I'm beginning to see another angle. Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It's about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one's own culture, this is it. And by being so broad in scope and so elemental in its motivation, it's flown over the heads of many on both the right and the left.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I Will Be There In Spirit

Alas, I will be in meetings all day into the night today.

Who does these posters? They are brilliant! Anyone who can remember back to 1989 should recognize the image immediately.

*Actually, there's a 5PM rally in Foley Square. If the Library Committee lets out early or on time, I could make that one before the next meeting at 7PM.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I'm rotten at multitasking. All of my efforts to master it so far are ending in profound frustration and regret.

I can't wait for the semester to be over.

I can't wait for Xmas and the holiday madness to be over.

I look forward to at least a temporary break from the depression/ insomnia two-step I've been doing for weeks now.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Crassus Wins

... for now.

Bloomberg Clears Out Liberty Plaza

Poster by Shepard Fairey

No democracy for YOU!

--At the moment, according to the radio, protesters are marching from Foley Square to City Hall and are attempting to block off the gates to City Hall while Bloomberg holds a press conference there.

--Hundreds of people are now gathering at 6th avenue and Canal street with the intent of marching back to Liberty Plaza. Unions are now making plans to join the protesters later today.

--A judge has now ruled that the protesters may return and bring their tents. The mayor filed an immediate appeal and is keeping the park closed.

--At a press conference the mayor claims that the raid is in the name of "public safety." Occupy unofficial spoksesperson Jesse LaGreca calls the mayor a "third world dictator."

--The Transit Workers Union together with some other unions will rally at 3PM in support of the evicted protesters, on the same day that contract negotiations begin for transit workers.

This ain't over folks.


Keith Olberman tells us what he really thinks of our plutocrat mayor, and pulls no punches. Thanks to Paul (A) for sending this in.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Michael and I dressed to the teeth on Sunday for his sister Linda's wedding. She married her longtime boyfriend Evan down at Brooklyn Bridge Park on the East River between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. The park is a popular spot for weddings and wedding photos. Lots of brides posed on the river rocks in frothy white for various photographers.

Here we are in our best. I look so much like my Dad. He looks nothing like his Dad.

Michael took this picture of us together. The hat comes in handy. I don't know how much longer the comb-over will last.

A very elegant Michael

Myself looking like Karl Malden without the nose.

Michael with the radiant bride. We both agreed that her choice of 1930s glam over standard issue Victorian bridal froth was truly inspired.

Here are the lovely young couple. They met in college 9 years ago.

The ceremony by the river. Vive l'amour! I took this picture, and I'm real proud of it.

Johnny Cash

He sings a cover of a beautiful Beatles' song. I love this.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Economics As Morality


Italy is now about to join Greece, becoming effectively a dependent colony of the EU governed by appointed "experts" from Brussels and from various central banks. Whatever dysfunctions peculiar to the way Italy has run its affairs over the past century, the experts will impose severe austerity measures that ultimately do nothing for Italians, but assure the banks that their losses will be minimal. The various leaders of Europe from Angela Merkel to David Cameron will trot out the usual sermons about "responsibility" and "consequences" and say nothing about the willingness of banks to lend despite their own knowledge of the risks and despite their own dubious lending practices.

In this country the suggestion that people might be poor because of the way society is so ordered is rank heresy. That people are poor because of their own fault is the conventional wisdom, and has been since the mid 19th century. And now, it's the fault of people that they are only middle class in a world where being middle class counts for less and less, where professionals are frequently reduced to the status of wage earners. This is an extremely convenient and self-serving world view if you are loaded with money and assets. It absolves you of any responsibility toward your neighbors and allows you to turn a deaf ear to their sufferings.

This point of view fails to take into account something that has always been true, and is still true. People never choose the circumstances into which they are born and that the playing field of life is never level or fair, and never was. Those who have will always tilt the tables and rig the game in their own favor and at the expense of those who have not. The very rich among us do this at the expense of all the rest of us, and we do this together at the expense of the rest of the world, and we do this without even thinking.

The real morality play in this world is not the irresponsible debtor, but that our ease and convenience always depends on someone else's misery. The sugar that I put in my tea always came at a high human cost. Modern slavery began in the 16th century in order to satisfy the insatiable sweet tooth of Europe. My insatiable sweet tooth still requires the hard brutal labor of harvesting and processing sugar cane, and the setting aside of sustenance crops for a lucrative cash crop.

What we call history, society, and even civilization is frequently nothing more than the natural struggle for survival and supremacy projected into the social realm. We should remember that the phrase "survival of the fittest" was coined not by Charles Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer. Spencer coined the phrase not to describe the natural world, but the economy. Cornelius Vanderbilt described labor as a class to be sacrificed for the good of civilization. The novelists of the 19th century from Dickens to Thackery to Edith Wharton wrote about the savagery that lay just underneath the thin brittle veneer of respectability in the Victorian world. That savagery still lies at the heart of our own world, and still inspires writers to draw back the veils of our own social conventions. It seems to me that so often what we call "values" are ultimately survival skills. Our leaders drone on and on about "values" in a capitalist world that denies the very idea of "value," that anything has any intrinsic value apart from use and exchange.

Despite all of our technology and all of our political and social progress, we are still miles and miles away from the Great Good Place where we can all be happy, one and all.

Police beat a striking child garment worker in Bangladesh.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait in Tehuana Dress (Thinking of Diego), 1943

Frida Kahlo photographed in 1931 by Imogen Cunningham

My students love Frida Kahlo. I get many papers about her every year, some of them very good, and a few are excellent. I frequently can’t tell if they love her work or if they love her. Usually, they get so caught up in the drama of her stormy life that they forget to write about her paintings. Whichever the case, Frida Kahlo seems to have struck a nerve with so many people these days, and not just women. She’s just as popular a topic with my male students. Frida Kahlo is now the object of an entire industry built on her story from calendars to a feature length movie. Her fame now eclipses that of her once very famous husband, Diego Rivera, the most well known of the great Mexican muralists of the early 20th century. Indeed, one of my male students referred to him as Frida Kahlo’s husband. Probably more than any other early 20th century figure in art or in literature, Frida Kahlo really speaks to people these days. But, how great an artist was she really?

For a long time, I never thought much of her art. I considered it to be formally slight and solipsistic, and there are still a lot of critics who feel that way. Recently, I’ve begun to take another look at her work and to rethink my former opinions. So have the critics. Not long ago, the consensus of critics saw her work as appealing to exclusively feminist tastes. Now, a new critical consensus is emerging saying that Frida Kahlo, and not her husband, was the greatest Mexican painter of that generation of artists inspired by the wave of nationalism in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of about 1910 to 1920. A lot of critics today would say that she belongs to Mexico as much as to feminism, and that her ties to specifically Mexican art and heritage are more authentic and subtle than those of Diego Rivera’s art for all its vast size and national ambition.

What a change from Frida’s own lifetime.

When she was alive, people always thought of her as Diego Rivera’s eccentric wife who just happened to paint too. Whereas her husband painted frescoes on a vast scale, Frida Kahlo always painted small easel pictures. Her work appeared dwarfed just by the sheer scale of her husband’s work, just as Diego’s immense physical size dwarfed her small and slight frame.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Frida Kahlo, Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931

Most people thought of her as a peculiar amateur, certainly not the equal of her husband. There were some notable exceptions. Andre Breton, the leader of the Surrealists, enthusiastically admired her work. Diego himself also admired it, and took Frida’s paintings quite seriously. There was no shortage of admiring collectors who bought her work. There was a strong current of rivalry that played a large role in their conflicted and stormy marriage.

Diego Rivera, Panorama of Mexican History in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City

Diego Rivera gave up a brilliant career as one of the best and most poetic Cubist painters in Paris, apart from Picasso and Braque themselves, to return to Mexico to help his fellow citizens rediscover their national identity through vast walls of color. He completely rejected the poetic Cubism that made him famous in Paris for a much more directly communicative art of the human figure, an art that he concocted from memories of the great Italian fresco painters of the Renaissance, and from native Mexican sources. To my eye, what Rivera came up with in the end looks more like Art Deco than like any ancient Meso-American frescoes from Bonampak or Teotihuacan. He painted vast crowded panoramas of the whole history of Mexico on the walls of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City.

W.H. Auden once wrote that “Mad Ireland” hurt WB Yeats into poetry. Frida Kahlo was quite literally hurt into painting. She took up painting to fill the time during a long recovery confined to a body cast and to bed after a horrific accident. A bus she was riding collided with a tram in 1925 breaking her spine and pelvis in several places, shattering her left leg, and impaling her through the abdomen with a guard rail. Doctors thought she might not live. Her injuries caused her pain all of her life. She went through 35 surgeries in the course of her life to fix the damage and to relieve the pain. The damage to her pelvis and from the impalement left her unable to carry a child. Her injuries forced her to terminate 3 pregnancies. Even before the accident, she was not in the best of health. She survived a childhood bout of polio that left her right leg crooked and stunted. Her lifelong pain and ill health caused her to feel profoundly isolated, as indeed she was.

Frida Kahlo’s art is primarily about her own suffering and her life. Her greatness lies in her ability to universalize upon very personal catastrophes, to cause them to resonate with people who’ve never experienced such disaster and suffering.

She chose to record the events of her life, and other events, in the form of a retablo.

A retablo from 1885 showing a father praying to the Virgin Mary to cure his daughter's madness

Retablo ex votos are a peculiarly Mexican variation on a Latin American art form, a kind of devotional picture made in thanksgiving for prayers answered, or in expectation of some kind of divine intervention. Anonymous artists with little training in large workshops made retablos. The Mexican retablo ex voto usually showed the miracle or divine intervention with an inscription recording it on the bottom. Frida Kahlo would use this format repeatedly over the course of her life.

Some of her most striking retablos are not about her, but about the misfortunes of other women. One of her most striking pictures was made on a commission from Clare Boothe Luce (of all people; I’d never imagine Frida Kahlo and Clare Boothe Luce in the same room, but apparently they were friends). Luce commissioned a memorial for her friend Dorothy Hale who died the previous year by suicide.

Frida Kahlo, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, 1938

Dorothy Hale married a successful society portraitist named Gardiner Hale. His death in an auto accident left her in great debt. She unsuccessfully tried her hand at acting and modeling. Finally, in despair with foreclosures and bankruptcy on the near horizon, she threw herself out of a window of the Richmond Hotel in New York.

Clare Boothe Luce was horrified when she received this picture, and had to be talked out of destroying it. She expected a kind of portrait, but got instead a retablo of her friend’s violent death. Hale appears 3 times in the picture jumping out of the hotel window and falling toward us through the clouds and haze. She lies bloodied on the bottom wearing the very same black dress and corsage that she wore when she killed herself. The inscription below, in blood red paint, records the circumstances of her death. Clare Boothe Luce obliterated the part of the inscription that noted that she commissioned the painting.

Another painting in the form of a retablo is this one, A Few Little Pricks. It is based on a lurid murder that appeared in the local newspapers.

Frida Kahlo, A Few Little Pricks, 1935

A man stabbed his wife repeatedly in a frenzy of jealous rage. He defended his act in court with the words, “But it was just a few little pricks!” Kahlo shows the murderer standing calmly in the center of the picture above the corpse of his murdered wife. The painting seems filled with blood, on the bed, on the floor, on the murderer’s cloths, even on the frame of the painting. Black and white doves hold up a banderole with the murderer’s excuse. The pathetic quality of the excuse stands in stark contrast to the cold violence of the murder scene before us.

Kahlo painted this during a very turbulent period in her marriage to Diego Rivera. Neither of them were models of faithful spouses. Both Diego and Frida had affairs and they both knew about it. Frida had affairs with men and women. Diego tolerated her affairs with women, but exploded into rage when he found out about her affairs with men. She suffered his affairs mostly in silence. Frida ended that stoic silence when she found out that Diego was involved with her younger sister Cristina. Kahlo moved out, and by 1939, the two artists were divorced.

Frida Kahlo painted one of her most famous pictures shortly after Rivera divorced her. It is a painting about her profound isolation and her conflicted sense of herself.

Frida Kahlo, Two Fridas, 1939

She portrays herself twice in the same picture sitting in a completely empty landscape. She sits on the right taking the hand of herself on the left to console herself. Both Fridas have exposed hearts connected by a thin artery. The Frida on the left holds another artery with a surgical clamp that continues to bleed conspicuously upon her white dress. The different dresses play a large role in this painting. They refer to Frida Kahlo’s dual ethnic heritage. She claimed that her Father, Guillermo Kahlo, was originally a Hungarian Jew. In fact, he was a German Protestant. Her mother was Amerindian with some Spanish ancestry, and was a devout Catholic. The Frida on the left wears a white very European dress. The Frida on the right wears the traditional dress of a Tehuana.
Her divorce seems to be creating a crisis of identity. The Tehuana Frida, while holding a small portrait of Diego, consoles the European Frida who slowly bleeds to death. Perhaps she feels that the intensely nationalistic Diego is rejecting that European part of her as insufficiently Mexican, and that is the part that suffers the isolation most acutely. Such a rejection must have been a very bitter blow for Frida Kahlo who identified so closely with the Mexican Revolution claiming for years that she was born with the Revolution in 1910. In fact, she was born in 1907.

The pain of her injuries only grew worse as she grew older. She went through more surgeries to try to relieve it. Her deteriorating spine forced her to wear a metal corset in order to stand up straight. She commemorated that suffering in the painting, The Broken Column.

Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944

She appears again in a barren landscape to show her isolation. She rises before us baring her upper torso. The skin of the torso opens for us to reveal a classical column broken in several places. The scaffold of the metal corset appears to compensate for the crumbling column only at the cost of great pain. That pain appears in the form of nails that pierce her all over calling to mind famous religious images of suffering from the crucified Christ to St. Sebastian. The oblique religious reference may be mocking, a rejection of the facile consolations of conventional religious doctrine.

While she rejected religious belief, in the last year of her life she turned to Marxism with a religious fervor, using the language of religion in her work.

Frida Kahlo, Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, 1954

She throws down her crutches like a pilgrim healed at Lourdes. Karl Marx appears in the role of God the Father strangling the Great Satan of the USA while sending his large hands of dialectical materialist compassion, complete with a watchful Eye of God (i.e. Almighty Dialectic) in the palm. The Dove of Peace plays the role of inspiring Paraclete. She devoutly hopes that what religion failed to deliver will come through political ideology. The painting is both deeply moving and profoundly sad.

Frida Kahlo died in 1954 soon after this painting was completed. Her husband Diego Rivera was devastated. He died soon after in 1957.

No other artist of the 20th century so clearly foretold the insight that is a commonplace in our century, that the personal is political and the political is personal. In our time, that once clear line between the public and private has become very blurred. As Communist ideologues of the previous century wanted to swallow up the Private in the Public, so in our day, Libertarian ideologues would see the Public annihilated by the Private. Both proposed solutions to our dilemma are abstractions that are no solutions at all. Neither of them speaks to actual experience as we all live it between the home fire and the public forum. Frida Kahlo testified so eloquently to that frequently painful place we all dwell in now where our private affairs resonate in the public realm.