Friday, January 31, 2020

GILBERT'S HIGH FLYING LITERARY CAREER


Gilbert was staring at his new MacIntosh drinking an espresso. He had just finished a query letter to publishers describing his barely finished book, Death of an American Tourist. It was a comedy and had taken six years to write. A local editor had given him some free tips and he was ready to embark on the sad and lonely trip to public discovery. Sally Morton seemed to like his novel but was not so keen on Gilbert. He was grateful for the assistance but wondered why a renowned editor would be working with him at “Retail Barn” in Norristown, PA. Together they folded towels and dealt with unruly customers. Slowly, after several months she began telling him her story and giving him some encouragement. They were both English Majors after all.
Sally used to work in publishing in New York. She did well but relocated to Philadelphia after a messy divorce. Lots of “Barn” workers turn up that way. Together, they spoke about their dreams and near misses and had to endure the store’s ghastly muzak, Top 40 for teenage girls. The worst was the British band, Coldplay. So sickly, saccharine and devoid of hooks. Gilbert asked Sally if she minded hearing the song “Yellow” six times a day? Luckily, she preferred Tom Petty. Gilbert agreed, “He’d hate working here.”
Death of an American Tourist had gone through several stages. Some early portions still had telltale earmarks of the Reed College graduate. Twelve years working in advertising had not watered down the over zealous forms that reminded the reader of Beat Poets. When his career imploded he decided to tell the story. He was certain he had the skills but was unprepared for the curious arena that was authorship. It had taken two years simply studying other writers and researching material ­– mostly about one-off novelists – and writers with similar bones to pick and stories to tell.
Gilbert could never work out how notority was achieved. “How did Joan Didion waltz into a high profile career after college?” Gilbert did not travel in those circles. He had no circles. “It really is about who you know,” he figured. Same for Sylvia Plath. infamous poet. She went to Amherst to soak up Emily Dickenson, right? Then to NYC to work as an editor. Then a breakdown. Then she writes book, The Bell Jar (OK novel) about her experience. There was great acclaim before putting her head in an oven. Or was that afterwards? Of course, she married Ted Hughes, Great British Poet and lousy husband. There’s another one-off, the critically acclaimed, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Again, suicide follows. Leads to even more acclaim. Gilbert wanted to avoid the early death part but considered a fake one. “How would I pull that off?” he wondered. Let’s not mention J. D. Salinger. After a while, Gilbert’s prose hit pay dirt. Characters said things without permission. Plots developed without painful re-working. He was happy knowing that he may have captured the feel of his book in the letter with a few spirited catch phrases. He went as far as to envision glowing reviews: “Gifted writer re-defines the Great American Novel.” Was he afraid of being considered overly arch? Using too many adjectives?
Gilbert had also taken a class, How to Publish Your Novel, which went well. The teacher, Nancy Sprout had a successful memoir about her battle with cocaine addiction. She liked his work particularly, although the competition was stiff. Several women were struggling with sensitive stories where the heroines went through stages of failure and renewal. Their earnestness made Gilbert uncomfortable. He imagined these Eat, Pray, Conjugate memoirs were destined to have highly embossed covers and sell like gangbusters. It was a tough row to hoe. Staying up to date without falling into the trendy arena of books with clever, over-wordy sub-titles about the decline of the Middle Class or the imploding Middle East was not easy. Were those books written by publicists?
Eventually, Gilbert dropped the envelope in the big blue box at the end of his street. It was addressed to the agent of a young humorist who wrote pieces for the New Yorker. He said a small prayer and continued on to the local coffee emporium next to the Lesbian Bookstore. Their rainbow flag was limp and fading in the sun. In the Bean Salon, he ordered a regular Decaff in a big ceramic cup and sat down in the shade with a new notebook. Was there another writer he could emulate? He made a few notes on recent books he’d read then noticed the time. As the sun ebbed, Gilbert gunned his ancient Subaru off to the Malls just shy of the Suburbs and just shy of being late for the night shift. He swiped his identity card awkwardly and dashed to the employee changing room where he donned his brightly colored “Retail Barn” shirt ignoring the smell of feet. Or was in Doritos? Back in Textiles, he waved to Sally and threw himself into the towels.
Summer shoppers were the worst. Tanned, bullet-headed husbands in baggy cargo shorts walked the aisles, oblivious. Two-year-olds in carts gazed wide-eyed at small screens. Tattooed wives insisted on opening every towel to feel the moderately soft fabric. Sally had had a long day, “Would you mind re-folding that please, Ma’am?” The husky Amazon ignored the request, threw the towel back on the heap and aimed her face at Sally, “I believe that’s your job, honey.” Gilbert stepped into the breach and began sorting according to size and design. As the housewives retreated back to New Jersey, Sally glared. “Tramps! I don’t know how you put up with it, Gilbert.” He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, “It’s a Zen thing Sally. And you know we both have bigger fish to fry.” She brightened behind her tears and gave Gilbert a sweet smile. The high-five was a little tired.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Literary Agents as Critics?


As I sat listening to the eight panelists read the ever-important “first page” from would-be novels, I was hoping the next anonymous pick would be mine. What would the reaction be in the room full of fledgling writers? Would they get the sarcastic tone of the book, the sly references to Nabokov and Chandler? Would they get the level of spoof in the mock-detective story about a striving Philadelphia artist? I’ve read it aloud many times to small rooms of people and there was always a response, sometimes even laughter. The words had weight and were about something other than just the story at hand.
This was the “Talent Show” part of the Philadelphia Writer’s Workshop and the panel was made up of New York literary agents who would supposedly give practical advice. The rest of the day, aspiring writers gave manic pitches to them and received specific tips about publishing in return. As the contest began, I realized this was not Americon Idol but the Gong Show. If four hands were raised, the reading would halt. Several pages passed muster barely. Some received a little praise. They then dissed an awful “Romance” for being clichĂ©. Fair enough. By this time I’d stopped taking notes. Next, I recognized the beginning of Work Shy. Not a bad first line I thought: “Edgar Bloom was a buddy from art school who had recently died of an overdose.” I was ecstatic. This was my lucky day! I would receive encouragement and a small pat on the back. They would want to find out about the misadventure, “art school,” or the silly Rocky Statue in front of the Art Museum. 

This went south as the publishing professional flubbed a word or two and continued the rendition in what sounded like profound disinterest. The prose sank into a flat monotone and an agent’s hand went up, signifying dislike. More hands followed and the entire panel scowled and the reading (such as it was) ended. This was fascinating, I thought, but not disastrous. Surely, they would have some interesting criticisms, something I’d overlooked worth the cost of admission. The first inquisitor mentioned the fact that my first page consisted of one paragraph! What? Others concurred. Horror! It became apparent that they also disliked my updated Philip Marlow and his world-weary delivery. One agent put it down to a misguided “style” and mentioned James Joyce. Was I was being dissed because the prose was dense or I knew James Joyce? For those of you who’ve seen my Facebook page or this blog, Pocket Intellectual, Joyce is the jokey avatar. This photograph of me as Joyce was (is) going to be on the back flap of the “published” Work Shy. In less than a minute the panel had moved on unable to grasp my middling thriller writer, Douglas Frank and his inability to suffer fools gladly.
How can a writer’s self-promotion hope to break through the mass of clutter with these morons in charge? Sure, I know it all leads to Self-Publishing, even if you are a gifted blower of one’s own trumpet. Oddly enough, my earlier pitch with a local agent went well and I had a nice chat about marketing, websites and domain names. She suggested I write a “proposal” and send it to her. Do I need a proposal for a finished novel? And what is the difference between the query letter (that agents like these won’t read) and the synopsis? The elevator pitch I can do in my sleep! As I rode home on the train, I wondered why these particular folks were gatekeepers, these recently graduated snoots from “woke” colleges. No, there isn’t much comfort in the fact that they would’ve shot down Melville, Chandler or Hammett. Nor would Lee Child escape their simplistic bias. I imagined his character, Jack Reacher (my hero) knocking some heads! It took a few days to shake off the ego bruising and I figured I did learn something. I only wish they’d gotten to the second paragraph where my
protagonist tells his reviewers at the New York Times to “fuck off.” 





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Sunday, November 17, 2019

NASHVILLE CRUSH


When traveling, tourists are compelled to consider buying a souvenir tee shirt from every shop, luncheonette, historic site and rock & roll show. This can get expensive. There were some nice ones to choose in Nashville covered in flags, eagles and guns for the neo-patriotic. There were also many advertising Pulled Pork. I preferred to visit “Boot Barn” for some inexpensive Western Wear that is not available in the North East. I was hoping to be mistaken as an out-of-town musician at the Americana Festival or possibly William Burroughs. I am learning that “Americana” is a much broader category and not to be confused with straight up “Country,” the kind that Garth Brooks parented in stadiums and Taylor Swift personified before her morph to pop. (She still uses that ghastly auto-tune). This music is not to be confused with Classic Country of Hank Williams, George Jones or Patsy Kline that some misguided folks think sounds corny. Both types of Country Music are appreciated in Music City but the new version has always been a bit suspect; more Southern Rock blues-power than mournful “three chords and the truth.”
In Nashville, my crush developed. It could’ve been the free biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Then there’s the huge lunch of shrimp and grits. (I’ve outgrown Waffle House) You make room for that by tramping around all the attractions in Music City. The place buzzes with cranes and new construction. A former industrial wasteland called the “The Gulch” is an ad man’s dream. It is now a destination for Urbane Cowboys (like myself) who brunch. I was reminded of LA where all antiques are repurposed by fancy designers and sold back to us as Heroin Chic. If it is not up-scale food, it’s music. Even emporiums like “Two Old Hippies” have a stage. My Mecca, Third Man Records is just outside the Gulch adjacent to a Mission where real hobos eat lunch and urinate in alleys. In ninety-five degree heat the smell was pervasive and not for the faint of heart. Here, the P. T. Barnum of Low-Fi, former White Stripe, Jack White upholds a high level of street credibility. His store is an intense experience for Vinyl Aficionados. This was my second time and I was again impressed by White’s entrepreneurial skills. The traveling record shop (a big van) was parked outside and the small recording booth was inside. Is this what heaven looks like? I bought a couple of seven-inch singles, a Margo Price tee-shirt and an awesome White Stripes bumper sticker that was illegible! After that we stumbled over to see some live music on the strip but it was a bit early for Honky Tonkin.’ I gave a lonely busker five bucks.
Nashville’s boom is infectious and the history and economics go far deeper than being the home of the Grand Ole Opry. We finally visited the Hatch Show Print factory. They’ve been producing those fabulous posters since the nineteenth century. The Country Music Hall of Fame was the glitziest destination we made. As much Las Vegas as Nashville, it was educational and full of near religious artifacts like Elvis’s limo, Waylon Jennings guitar and Gram Parsons Marijuana-leaf “Nudie” suit. The history of the “Armadillo” in Austin, Texas was interesting. I call it the “crossover,” when hippies and truck drivers agreed on music and partying if not haircuts. Cannabis brought everyone together, lapels grew and Country got loud..
Even on a Wednesday, the Broadway strip is full of cover bands playing varieties of Country old and new. Everyone dressing as a favorite icon provided real diversity. The four floors of Acme Feed & Seed was a blast, full of Beer, Bluegrass, grits and retro-Country. We ended up on the roof watching the skyline. I felt right at home even though my cowboy hats were in Philly. Upon reluctant return to Philly I was committed to watching Ken Burn’s Country Music documentary from start to finish, all 12 hours. I was hoping it would fill in some gaps. It did. The solid thread ran through it linking the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers and Bill Monroe to modern antecedents. Up my street was the look at Chet Atkins and the development of the “Nashville Sound.” I own a few of those “Countrypolitain” records and play them at parties. They sold well but the production did not work for Willie Nelson’s personality or Waylon Jennings’ outlaw sound. More about the “Armadillo” period. Burns had no difficulty dealing with the past via old photos – I’d never seen so many of Hank Williams – but the present day throws him. The music industry is no longer quaint and caters to “big hit” algorithms rather than the developing of alternative musicians. Many veteran stars looked a bit rough on camera after surviving the Eighties hair days and Nineties chin tucks. Check out the recent CMA! Dolly to Riba. Burns tiptoed around race issues like the guide at the Civil War Plantation we visited. Are Rap and Country diametrically opposed? Not according to the 2019 summer hit, Old Town Road or the Gangstagrass theme to TV’s Justified. Not “Country” enough? Good Ole Boys listen to both while driving F150’s to Nascar. 

After digesting Ken Burns, I discovered the glamorous soap version of “Nashville” from ABC, perfect binge material for post-vacation blues. Six seasons! Amid the drama are real clubs and weekly guest cameos, the ever present and icky Brad Paisley. Reality TV kills music. Vince Gill showed up too. He was one of Burn’s spokesmen in the documentary and looks a little like an accountant now. The music penned by industry stalwarts ain’t half bad and is available on disc and can be seen live! I am intrigued how quickly the characters write heartfelt songs on old Gibson guitars and deliver them immediately the same evening at the Bluebird CafĂ© without rehearsing. It is now on my list of places to visit. In the meantime, I’ll be researching Nashville on HULU. There’s only sixty episodes of left! 











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Monday, August 19, 2019

ONE SMALL WALKBACK FOR MANKIND


There was a spate of documentaries this summer about the space race and astrology. One was quite alarming. Apparently, our sun is going to get larger and hotter and expand to envelope and destroy Mercury and Venus. The Earth will then be the closest to our star and possibly too hot for habitation. This got me worried. Although it’s going to happen in 5 billion years, I am concerned about my legacy and all the art-work that will be burned up and forgotten. Luckily many things are stored on the Cloud and can be stationed on a base on Titan, a moon of Saturn. Apparently we have pictures from there taken by a satellite of ours (Huygen’s Probe) that landed in 2005! I had been totally ignorant of that fact. Neither did I realize that the Mayans were the only ancient culture to accurately measure the calendar year. Wow. I have been aware through art history that there was use of pyramidal structures across cultures early on, all trying to connect to the heavens. Some practiced blood sacrifice. So what are we aiming for now?
The documentaries about Apollo Eleven got very long winded but I enjoyed the refresher course. I was thirteen when my parents woke me up to watch the grainy and garbled event in real time that summer of 1969. I remember Nixon saying hello with his gravelly voice. “I’m glad you men didn’t die on prime time.” It was cheerful news compared to the war, riots and assassinations. Fifty-year celebrations of Moon Walks or Woodstock bring up all kinds of new issues within our present day political forum. Most of them are exaggerated by media, smart phones and bogus-influencers and their naff pop psychology. I was mildly shocked at the Social Justice view of the moon landing in the three-night PBS film, Chasing The Moon. Has virtue signaling found its way into everything? Civil Rights Leader, Ralph Abernathy wanted to know how much could be spent on poverty instead. Can you go to the moon and still spend money on poverty? Of course you can. The head of NASA then gave his group tickets to the launch.
The Sixties space race is now depicted as a colonialist competition with the Russians instead of a self-evident search for knowledge. True, there was tit-for-tat ballistics matching the Red’s achievements (they are still the bad guys) but Mankind had fantasized about space travel for thousands of years. Now we have to re-tread history and squeeze minorities into the larger Cold War narrative. The film, Hidden Figures filled in racial gaps and made me cry but it’s far too simplistic and sentimental. To be fair on America, the original Star Trek featured foreigners and people of color (an attempt at inclusion) even if it was based in the future. Do aliens count? Not everyone was a racist in 1960! OK, Werner von Braun helped us out. No back-pedaling here, Hitler’s “Rocket Man” was crucial. This didn’t pass un-noticed; he was spoofed by Tom Lehr and in Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick’s 2001, a Space Odyssey came out in 1968. Freaks dug it!
The wider sociological comparison interests me. Landing on the Moon cannot be separated from the post-war era and narrative of improvement. The Sixties/Seventies were icing on the cake: The Generation Gap was widening but it paralleled the “Great Society.” The “American Dream” was still filling out, opening up and soon to plateau. See Oil Embargo. The Lunar landing coincided with Woodstock and escalations in Vietnam but consciousness raising still had a long way to go. Eventually, everybody got hip and grew their hair. Even my parents (Silent Majority) sported massive lapels. Ghastly apparel was commonplace.
Without Grand Narratives we spiral into unknown territory and stagger, confused, especially when the achievements are stripped away historically. We hammer away at the picket-fence cohesion. Call it Hamiltonizing. Forget about the progress that was made over this time. We have access to excellent coffee drinks. We are privileged to live in consumer heaven. And think about all the excellent Rock n’ Roll Music, a multi-racial project. Things may not have worked out to everyone’s satisfaction but the opportunity was there in spirit. In my costly research, I listened to Whitey On The Moon by Gil Scott Heron. There was a lot to complain about then. Equality was new for everybody. But now? Systemized victimization is de rigueur and, via Hip-Hop, exaggerated. Tupac and his subculture mean a lot to some people but he was no Gil Scott Heron.
There is a disconnect between the dwindling of Sixties space exploration and the new attempts to set up colonies on the Moon and Mars. They are trendy and Silicon Valley inspired. Everybody is landing on the moon now. Soon there will be Chinese food available and a Curry House. But it’s small potatoes. Compared to the daring feats of the Sixties, our present science fixation is a big yawn. Armstrong landed the Lunar Module with 17 seconds of fuel remaining and a damaged Radio Shack keyboard. It was good he was wearing diapers.
I suggest that America’s progressive movement had reached its end much like the Sixties space program. Why can’t people see this? It is explained in Post-Modern texts. Does no one read? Today we obsess on theories of the “Other” and the “Outsider.” They make you feel righteous. The notion is expanded and compressed it into a fierce imperium, a dictat that my local NPR station eschews. One show explained how the full moon was making my sleep intermittent. I have always suspected that. Don’t get me wrong; “Summer of Space” has been good. The Moon inspired programs interrupted the constant pandering to overbearing Queer Studies. They will not rest until there is a token “Trannie” on Tranquility sporting a rainbow flag and glitter ball.





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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

VELVET BUZZSAW

  My interest in any movie about the Art World is complicated. The first question is “has Velvet Buzzsaw ripped off my unpublished novel, Work Shy where an artist’s reputation is made after an early, suspicious death?” Secondly, does it add to the canon of movies that really describe that alien world like maybe Basquiat or Pollock?” There is already a memoir from Australia with the same title as my book. That shook me up. Luckily, it is the memoir of musician, Dave Raney who’s a legend Down Under. He used to sing with the post-punk band, the Moodists. Oddly enough, I met him once upon a time. Hopefully, his effort will not infringe on my up and coming brand. I was worried about Velvet Buzzsaw since the story tells of an Outsider Artist made famous and “wealthy” after death. My view is that the Art World is dangerous enough without any added drama. “Outsider Art” is now big business and dealers have their own Art Fairs to milk the tortured and deceased artists who were frequently poor and mentally challenged. What a relief to see the film and realize it is a different sort of fish – plotted around the meme of artist as supernatural serial killer ­with a nod to A Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) – so I don’t have to sue the Director, Dan Gilroy. Speaking of Art Fairs, it could be that the release of Velvet Buzzsaw was timed to create extra buzz for the opening of the first Frieze LA this month. Lord knows, there are enough rich celebrities in Hollywood who can afford to be high-level collectors if you can pry them off the red carpet.
There are not a lot of films that deal with the realities of the Art World much less its connection to most artist schlubs and their day jobs.  I had researched this arena for inclusion in my own story starting with way-old films like The Horse’s Mouth (1958) with Alec Guinness as the near crazy English painter, Gully Jimson. Artists are frequently depicted as insane (Van Gogh) or charlatans (Warhol). Add to that the Faustian painting pact with the Devil, Oscar Wilde’s, Dorian Gray. High Art (1998) did a fine job with Ally Sheedy and friends depicting ‘intellectuals’ leading up to the ‘adventurous’ Lesbian love scene. Content like this is now ubiquitous and can be seen as family viewing every night on HBO! The most recent send-up was Art School Confidential (2006) that had a great take on flakey, first year students. It was originally a “cartoon” graphic novel by Daniel Clowes. Of course, Hollywood added steroids and the movie fell short with a superfluous murder plot. It is not a coincidence that John Malevich is in both films playing a similar disenchanted professor/artist. He is the perfect over-the-hill narcissist. ASC also featured the wonderful Steve Buscemi who I mention all the time in my novel because it is the right thing to do.
Art snobbery starts way down the food chain and only grows with the money. I recognize the syndrome from my own time on the margins in NY, London and even Philadelphia. Local curators are referred to as the “Art Mafia” by my fictional and disenfranchised Work Shy characters. Even in Philly art careers are made by the governance of certain players. I won’t say the local art criticism has much to do with the rise and fall of artists but one can see when the flavor of the month is being nurtured in the press around Pew Grant time. The buzz has been severely diminished lately by the disappearance of the old hard-copy weeklies and normally stops at the city limits.
Although VB falls short of any meaningful, in-depth depiction, it is a lot of fun as it falls into a well-worn kill-all-the-snobs horror movie; it could have been titled Das Nicht Schadenfreud! But how little “scare” there was as the Outsider Art comes alive. Normally I would be hiding being the sofa when a scary painting rips VIPS into parts. Could it be that the creation of these movies for the flat and smallish screen limits the scope? I really didn’t feel vindicated when justice was dispensed or I didn’t hate the critic (Jake Gyllenhaal) and curators enough. How can you hate Rene Russo? There was an attempt to get behind the stage like in The Player (1992) but it wasn’t wise enough for that. Even my un-edited manuscript devises to include a cinematic version of itself! Pretty fucking clever. I only hope Malevich or Buscemi will still be available. It is disappointing to think what VB could have achieved. The title’s mash up of Velvet Underground and Buzzcocks strikes me as a wholly contrived bid for punkish street cred very far from today’s slick concern for auction prices. I remember Basquiat (1998) having some real 80’s SOHO feel only a painter/director like Julian Schnabel could deliver. Fact and fiction merge literally with David Bowie’s Warhol. The film I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) was also informative. Not many know the story of Valerie Solanas. The seamy underside still resonates. Warhol and Basquiat had some mysterious connection that finished them off within a year or so of each other. Weird. I am glad that we have another movie about the art world but wish that Velvet Buzzsaw had a few more creepy notes of Polanski or David Lynch. It could have been a cult classic rather than standard Netflix fare.
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Monday, January 7, 2019

CIVILISATION(S)


History ain’t what it used to be and the new BBC documentary Civilisations (plural) proves it. After dismal footage of Isis demolishing Palmyra there is a short primer on Greek sculpture revealing it to be just another ancient tradition rather than the foundation of all Western art. Simon Schama, the host of the excellent Power of Art (2006) apologetically underscores that these terrorists are the worst kind of iconoclasts and their violent desecration illustrates the opposite of what civilization means. Take that Isis! By the end of the series we are back pedaling fast to eject our cozy deep connections to Greco/Roman heritage. I may be old fashioned but you can’t just whistle away the past by seeing Hamilton.
In the throes of thinly veiled Identity Politics, an art historian from Harvard starts the engine debunking colonialism and begins retrieving art from cultures in arbitrary parts of the world. They are especially keen on Mezo-American pyramids covered in glyphs. The Spanish were the worst, of course. They built cathedrals over the Mayan Temples and dabbled in ethnic cleansing. Should we send in fundamentalists to knock that Baroque number down? Sorry, I have caught a whiff of a disconcerting subtext planted here that it’s OK to take a sledgehammer to classical art in Syria and behead the curator?
The documentary (now on NetFlix) follows ineptly in the footsteps of Kenneth Clark’s original Civilization from back in the day (1969) that could have been ripe for a Monty Python parody. Clark’s tone equated Art with Civilisation. Seems self-evident to me. The revisionists purport that All Art is Equal. Not the same thing. There is a reason all public buildings, banks, libraries and courthouses are neo-classical. By the end of the series they are undermining my favorite patriarchal tropes about genius and masterpieces.
I admit I am a sucker for Greeks and Romans but I spent my formative years wondering why modern life and the western world and was so underpinned by these Dudes. Aren’t TV and Rock n’ Roll more important? The Odyssey was so wordy and history old and out of date. They were all misogynists. Did Troy even exist? Yet here I am defending those snobby proto-toga wearers from multi-culturalists!
A good case can be made for the rest of the world being left out of the Western narrative. They were not part of it. So the aim at correction is overblown. These cultural backlashes are parallel to distorted political tides to and frowing; the swing to Obama (Yes We Can) after Bush (Shock and Awe) and the swing way back to our current (Great Again) Bombast-in-Chief. All that makes me want to create a middle ground where logic presides over emotion. Art is a slower mechanism, thank goodness. Or it should be. The Western narrative makes us what we are today and popular culture cannot pretend to offer enough substance to undo 3000 years of history and myth no matter how the Oscars and Grammy’s struggle to “equalize” the silly barometer of skin color. If Civilisations really needed a woman artist to balance things, they could’ve used Artemesia Ghentileschi (1593-1656). She was nearly as good as Caravaggio and her auction prices are up! Check out her Judith Beheading Holofernes and picture Harvey Weinstein decapitated instead.
It’s fine to add multiple cultures to the Global Contemporary canon but re-writing history is bogus. Superimposing our present beliefs over ancient ones seems arrogant and self-serving. Some Roman Emperors did practice Damnatio Memoriae, eradication of their predecessors painted or carved images (often sons and brothers) but luckily it was not a policy written in stone. Up to recently, political art was a third rate form ostracized by Modernists! So, how did Identity Politics manage to go so far as to challenge Art History in such a short time? Not sure. It started with safe spaces on campuses quite recently. Can a populist and superficial zeitgeist replace such well-worn and researched paradigms?
The documentary goes further south when it brings Civilisations into present day virtue signaling. Kehinde Wiley paintings may serve as example of a right-on wit used to bolster the case but what is this to do with world cultures? I have always found his paintings sophomoric: Rap stars shown in poses cribbed from art history? Sure it’s perfect for evincing the present day and perfect for President Obama’s portrait. Kara Walker has more weight. A well-regarded contemporary, her work has always challenged a reading of the past and doesn’t rely on a populist sentiment. Her work predates Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and has always shocked. Unfortunately, it doesn’t benefit by being used illustratively in this broad context. She is seen with some humor describing her views on Georgia’s Stone Mountain (she’s from Georgia) depicting Robert E. Lee, ‘Stonewall” Jackson and the nasty Jefferson Davis. True, the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world is a touchstone for the alt-right and it is right to mock but smashing up Robert E. Lee seems a sop to the safe-space mentality. Remember, war memorials have always pulled from a long line of equestrian sculpture starting with Marcus Aurelius and he was a cool guy. Sure, Stone Mountain was begun by Gutzon Borglum, the nutty sculptor of Mt. Rushmore, and it deserves an over-the-top award but demolition? I hope Rushmore itself isn’t under threat. Are we going to burn the hundreds of thousands of books on the military history of the Civil War? They give such great solace to nerds like myself. Maybe what is needed is better and more honest interpretative writing?
On the flip side of victim culture is Anselm Keifer. He is interviewed by Simon Schama as someone darkly obsessed with Germanic history (what a surprise) and he doesn’t sugarcoat it. His contrarian brooding on Germany’s awful legacy is as potent as ever and his latest jets made out of lead are menacing and virile. “Embrace” the past or you forget it.

Today we have convinced ourselves that art is whatever it means to the viewer no matter how uninformed or ignorant. When I was an art history professor, I used out-takes from Clark’s Civilisation to show students how one opinion can be better than another. They didn’t get it. The class textbook was Art Through the Ages (a Global History). Most students refused to buy the book or even look it up on-line. The editors had particular trouble defining recent Contemporary Art without offending anyone. As devil’s advocate, I also used The Story of Art, a British primer by E. H. Gombrich, first published in 1950. His bias was what you’d expect from a privileged Brit of the period but it’s solidly written text was an excellent place to start a dialogue. I assigned it to students so they could hear a voice that was not washed down academic speak of the PC variety. Since then the progressive walk-back has grown more pervasive, homogenous and eager to expunge the actual things that make us diverse in the first place. Perhaps, we should go back to a healthy conservation of Art and give a little more thought as to what culture is and why Islamic State hates it so much.

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Monday, July 9, 2018

COMING APART


Before Roseanne Barr insisted on imploding her new hit reboot with a stupid tweet, I was writing a review comparing the show with the book, Coming Apart by Charles Murray. Still notorious for The Bell Curve of 1994, (co-authored with Richard Herrnstein) he can now speak as part of the growing ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ whose thinkers inhabit the world of podcasts. They are thoughtful opposites of Right Wing talk show hosts whose invective has hijacked the world and the Left Wing activists who seem to have lost their minds. I feel stuck in a middle place. It might be a strange exercise to compare this rather data driven book with the return of TV’s Roseanne – there are similarities – but I feared she brought the whole enterprise down by utilizing a medium that links her with other idiots who tweet like the president as a narcissistic and unhinged power play.
Both ventures attempt to illustrate and make sense of White America from 1960 to 2010 and the new sit-com further serves to underline the gap since it went off the air in 1997. Quite a bit has changed. Broadcast is no longer king. Nanocast phenomenon now rules bringing every tiny communication (by ninnies) into wasted scrutiny. What was News is now a comic strip starring celebrities large and small. I won’t mention the First Lady Immigrant’s low-rent (bad taste) coat gaff. Have we ever seen such antics?
The world (compared to 1960) is a marvelous place with decreased poverty, medical wonders and less war, but some folks may find these are fanciful generalizations if their standard of living is stagnant. Some of them voted the Reality TV ticket. Author, Charles Murray (who is not a shithead) gives us the facts. His approach is conservative ­– where have all the good times gone? – but he delves deep sometimes referring back to the Fall of Rome. The empire fell apart from within. Apart from the corny viewpoint, I can understand his implied condemnation of single parent families as a widespread reason for social decay. This nugget has been in the conservative canon for a while but not aimed at working whites particularly. I wonder why Murray doesn’t mention Obese America or Tattooed America? He also warns that we will soon become a European-style socialist state. Not a good thing, he says.
In the 1960’s, according to Murray, we weren’t all that different. Both rich and poor wanted a Cadillac. There was nothing but a future for my dad’s generation.  Not sure why it couldn’t continue. Something to do with an Arab Oil Embargo. 50 years later another new group dominates. Murray describes them as the New Upper Class. They are well educated and self-sustaining. Unfortunately, they are corrupt, possibly because they don’t interact with regular folks. These tech-savvy global citizens no longer want Cadillacs.
Coming Apart illustrates the differences in classes of Whites with detailed graphs in black and white. Do you smoke? Have you owned a pick-up truck? Do you attend church? If yes, you are Lower Class. Or a Cowboy! The New Upper Class is too busy preparing their children to continue in high-level colleges and creating ‘cultural currency.’ These Movers and Shakers have a bubble to die for. Murray calls the next stratum the Narrow Elites. They live in enclaves called Super Zips (zip-codes) and he locates in them high castles outside Washington DC and similar places. They don’t share post-codes with minions. This is why there is so much division (literally) and so little mobility. 
The Conners are old-fashioned, disenfranchised Blue Collar and represent Baby Boomers who can’t escape their lot. The new Roseanne checks all the contemporary boxes, possibly too many: Gender Bending, MeToo and Mixed Race grandchildren seem a sop to progressive Hollywood. Do we spend too much time on these distinctions? They are part of the reason we have a crude, rich guy in the White House as payback. What if the wise-cracking Darlene had graduated college instead of falling pregnant? What if she had success like the actor who plays her, Sara Gilbert. Gilbert is rightly pissed off at the cancellation of the show by ABC. Broken Marriage runs through the show echoing Murray’s book. Laurie Metcalf as Aunt Jackie (in her Pussy Hat) steals many scenes as the older (single) mother. She could live in Fishtown! Murray makes a good case. Kids prosper with two parents and a 401K. They achieve mobility the Conners can only dream of. All this may be a knock for feminism but it is decent comedy from Middle America. Roseanne for Trump.  Jackie for Hillary. The same rift exists world-wide and in my family. This is where Roseanne differs from the well-employed and irritating middle class characters in Modern Family.
I hesitate to use my own middle class upbringing as an example but after reading all the charts and statistics it is clear that a similar fate has befallen us. Though we followed the rules of the 50’s – go to college and get married – we end up like the Conners. A few snags are ignored in Coming Apart. One was called ‘The Counter Culture.’ Did that not speed up change and turn values upside down? The ‘Culture Wars’ followed. That was the ‘Post-Modern’ period and I was a fan once. Before the fascinating critical theory about ‘the Other’ expanded into monstrous Identity Politics and ‘The Master Narrative’ was dispensed with. This is when things began to unravel. My dad fought Germans when it was fashionable, went to college twice, stopped smoking and achieved middle management. He sent us all to college but it still this wasn’t enough to push us upwards. Maybe if we’d been high achievers? As it is, we have all (conveniently) come to acknowledge the limits of mere education. In social terms, we remain where we started and unfortunately, staying in the middle means you lose standing as all around (diversified or not) rise up. How they do it? I am still none the wiser. 
At the end of the day, the future of this American Experiment is in the hands of the Super Rich. Do they care about the division within class? No. They live in a Silicon Valley Wonderland with only token minorities working towards an uber meritocracy. Murray seems to be on the fence here. He puts stock in re-vitalizing American values like Honesty, Spirituality and Ambition (I read Judeo-Christian ethics) but his conclusions are confusing. Who are these elites? What do they look like? Are they on both sides of the political divide? Murray’s only clue at the beginning of the book is a mention of TV’s Thirty Something. Those 80’s characters were Yuppies!
I was right to see a correlation between Coming Apart and Roseanne. The TV show gives a face to one side of the class divide and its political core where Murray’s facts only go so far. Perhaps he should be more inventive and include stats on media viewing in the Heartland? It’s those Reality TV folks he needs to warn.

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