Bam. Pow. Kablooie.

How to spot the bad guys? Great vocabulary. Terrible fashion sense.

How to spot the bad guys? Great vocabulary. Terrible fashion sense.

Anguish. Antagonist. Annihilate. Adept.

What do all these words have in common?

Venerable. Veritable. Volcanic. Variable.

I’ll give you a hint: I had learned to use all of them in a sentence by the time I reached the third grade.

Sinister. Selfless. Stygian. Saga.

Where does a kid who can barely reach doorknobs pick up a vocabulary like this?

Rickshaw. Radioactive. Restitution. Relativity.

Why, comic books, of course.

Like many boys my age, every time I could scrape up twelve cents (or even better, a quarter for the Giant Size Annuals) I ran downtown to the drugstore and bought the latest copy of “Journey into Mystery”, or “Strange Tales”, or the “Fantastic Four”, or “Superboy and the Legion of Super Heroes”.

Since those nickels and dimes were not always easy to come by, I could rarely indulge in the luxury of following one hero, one title, from month to month. The resulting story lines were fragmented to the point of meaninglessness, but I didn’t care: the images jumped off the page – vivid and exotic in those days before color television – and the writing was extravagant and overwrought, filled with words and ideas that Dick and Jane and their silly little dog had never even imagined. Every sentence ended in an exclamation mark, every thought, every utterance was gravid with significance.

When the evil Mano annihilated his own home world in the ultimate act of rebellion, the word was wedded to an image that made it impossible to misunderstand. When Doctor Strange’s ghostly spirit form left his body to go roaming, passing through walls and even mountains as if they didn’t exist, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what the writer meant by describing that transparent figure as ethereal. When the Mighty Thor pissed off his dad by falling in love with a mortal, there could hardly have been a better showcase for the meaning of wrath.

I saw in this morning’s news that a north Texas school had banned – and then un-banned – seven books, by authors that included two Nobel Prize laureates, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a prominent Native American diarist, among others. The books were banned because some parents were concerned about depictions of sexuality, of abuse, of racial injustice, and of philosophical self-examination that overstepped the conceptual boundaries they had set for their teen-aged children; un-banned, because the school authorities realized how meaningless that effort was. How many kids reach their teens without having been exposed – at least indirectly – to the weakness and wickedness that the human race is prey to? Red Riding Hood could have covered her eyes when the wolf approached her, but that certainly wouldn’t have prevented him making a meal of her; Rapunzel in her doorless stone tower was just about as safe from the influence of the outside world as she could be – right up until she let down her hair for the very first man who thought to ask her to do so.

This was not immortal literature. This was a handful of guys in smoke-filled rooms hunched over drafting tables, cobbling together outrageous tales of heroism and derring-do riddled with misspellings, continuity errors, and mind-bogglingly bad science.

What mattered was not the quality of the art form, but the fact that the heroism and the science — such as they were — were couched in a way that made them accessible and acceptable to the minds of children being inexorably conditioned to filter knowledge, discarding the unprofitable, the unpalatable, and the improbable on their way toward adulthood.

Foreboding. Felicitous. Fictitious. Feral.

And even more importantly, it was an unedited glimpse into the world of conflict and existential threat that we kids were about to inherit.

In the comics, nobody was sending us out of the room before the subject of nuclear armageddon was discussed; nobody told us that we were too young to worry about what pollution was capable of doing to our bodies; the conversations about racial tension didn’t suddenly slam to a halt every time we strolled in to ask for a cookie. Superman was saving the world, again and again, every month – which could only be happening if the world were at risk of being destroyed. In Dick and Jane’s universe there was no war, no violence, no murder, so there was no need for a Batman, an Iron Man, or an Invisible Woman to deal with those problems. We didn’t have to understand the social and economic pressures wrenching at the fabric of our society to know that Dick and Jane – and probably the dog, too – would not have lasted long in the world our parents were passing along to us.

Obviously there was a downside to this kind of back-door education. Problems, no matter how intractible, were always solved within a few pages, and usually by the convenient deux-ex-machina of super-powers, or super-science, or the application by the hero of an even greater level of violence than the bad guys could bring to bear. Those were examples that did not translate well into the “real” world of guerilla warfare, of the Kennedy assassination, of overpopulation, of the breakdown of traditional social structures. They did, on the other hand, demonstrate that ordinary people could be one radioactive spider-bite, one dose of cosmic rays, one science experiment gone awry, from becoming people who could save the world. They gave us an alternative to despair, and a list of new words to clothe the terrors that the best of parental intentions could not keep from us.

Ethereal. Elongated. Ectoplasm. Entomologist.

When I was a child, adults frequently objected to my reading material, comic books included. So much fantasy, so much violence, so much unreality – could this possibly be helpful or useful for the child?

The irony, of course, is that all this unreality, this fantasy, is sometimes the only tool a child has with which to make a meaningful connection with the “real” world. Without it, we would be forced to try to cope with the ills that beset our civilization armed with nothing but a spotted dog and a red ball. “A bunch of fairy tales,” goes the argument — oblivous to the fact that fairy tales of any given age are frequently a window into the terrible world that awaits a child, and in posing awful questions, sometimes suggest hopeful answers.

 

The price of pretty

wilgefortis

No, it’s not what you think.

Until the Church removed her from the calendar in 1969, July 20 long had the distinction of being the feast day of Saint Wilgefortis the Liberator, the protector and patroness of women suffering in relationships with abusive husbands.

As with many medieval saints, the origins of Wilgefortis are vague and contradictory. The simplest backstory makes her the young daughter of a Portuguese nobleman, promised by her father in marriage to a pagan barbarian. In her desperation to evade this trap, Wilgefortis took a sacred vow of virginity; when this by itself was not sufficient to dampen the ardor of the proposed bridegroom she then prayed for some sort of disfigurement that would make her unfit for marriage.

Her prayers were answered: the young lady grew a full beard, and her husband-to-be took his interest elsewhere.

Wilgefortis’ father was not amused. Deprived of what had promised to be a profitable and useful political alliance, he turned his anger and disappointment on his recalcitrant offspring. He had her dressed in her finest clothes, as if for a wedding, and then crucified her and left her to die.

.   .   .

In the social environment that prevailed in Europe during the late Middle Ages women had not fared well. Salic Law, introduced by the Franks during the sixth and seventh centuries and adopted widely throughout Europe, did not allow women to inherit property or titles, and in many places local customs prohibited women from owning businesses or land without male oversight.  Marriage, especially among the nobility, was a matter of political expediency, and girls were used by their male kin as a form of currency to buy alliances with other factions and families.

The incomparable Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, was married off three times in schemes to benefit the political ambitions of her father and older brother.  Her first marriage was annulled when her husband came to be of no further use to the Borgia plans; her second husband was murdered, most likely at the instigation of her brother Cesare, having likewise outlived his usefulness; her third marriage, while loveless, was a material success, and Lucrezia’s own wealth and power survived the death of both her brother and her father.

 

The rights and interests of the young women involved were irrelevant. Peasants could marry for love, because there was nothing else at stake, but the nobility had obligations to dynasty, to tradition, and to political position that trumped any other concerns. Predictably, such marriages were often little more than business arrangements; apart from the need to produce heirs, there was rarely any emotional contact between the partners. The girl was simply a means to an end, and her feelings were of no importance as long as she played her part.

.  .  .

Depictions of Saint Wilgefortis traditionally show a young woman with a beard, often wearing only one shoe, crucified on a wooden cross. Frequently there is a fiddler or a beggar at her feet: according to legend, when a starving man once came to the feet of the saint’s statue to pray, a silver shoe dropped off into his hands (a story that I would find a bit suspicious under the best of circumstances, but I guess sometimes you just have to accept things on trust.)

In different traditions Saint Wilgefortis is referred to as “The Escaper”, “The Strong Virgin”, “Grief”, “The Liberated” — in England she was called “Uncumber”, as in “unencumbered”.  As is often the case with female saints in the Catholic hagiography, Wilgefortis represented defiance, personal integrity, freedom from oppression, but the message was a mixed one: a woman could exercise her freedom, yes, but she had to be prepared to pay the price.

Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, women and girls frequently face terrible decisions and terrible consequences, decisions forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control: the victims of rape or incest dealing with the resulting pregnancy; five-year-olds dressed up like Vegas showgirls and trained to parade their bodies before adult audiences who judge their value as human beings on the basis of how effectively they mimic adult sexuality; victims of “honor killings”, genital mutilation, and acid attacks; abused wives and daughters urged by ministers or relatives to stay with their abusers — or simply unable to escape. The world today is a better place in many, many ways than that of five hundred years ago, but ancient evils persist.

I don’t know why the Church chose to remove Wilgefortis from the calendar. More than likely it was due to the confusion that surrounds her origins and the tendency to conflate her with another female saint whose feast day was also July 20. To add to the confusion, a representation of Jesus on the cross, the androgynous Volto Santo of Lucca, has sometimes been mistaken for a that of a woman due to the long dress-like tunic the figure wears.

In any event, in a church that has not always been known for its embrace of originality, the bearded lady on the cross exercises a certain side-show hilarity, while at the same time the tabloid story of her life and terrible death evokes modern echoes that are not nearly so amusing.

 

 

Unintelligible at any speed

Satan's little helpers? The Kingsmen, 1965.

Satan’s little helpers? The Kingsmen, 1965.

In my younger days, my father often expressed concern that I was becoming prey to a languid intellectualism that he feared would leave me ill-equipped for life in the Real World in the unlikely event that I should ever shamble into it. In retrospect, he was probably correct: fortunately, he had a plan to address the problem.

Jobs. Lots of jobs.

No job was too small, too filthy, or too ill-suited to my temperament (which was, admittedly, opposed to work in almost any form) as long as it paid. From the moment I was old enough to get a work permit, Dad was unsparing in his efforts to get the most out of the twenty-dollar fee. Loading hay, working on a garbage truck, cleaning offices, flipping burgers: I was a busy boy.

One job that occupied me for a long winter when I was about sixteen involved working in the concession stand of a drive-in movie theater.  The owner of this particular picture-palace was our next-door neighbor, a gentleman with the unlikely name of Goggins. Three nights a week I would pile into the car with Mr Goggins and his son (a classmate of mine, although not someone I associated with otherwise) and we would go pop popcorn and serve up syrupy Cokes and Sprites to the masses who came out to shiver in their cars for such epics as “Reflection of Fear” and “The Candy Snatchers”.

Mr Goggins was an odd duck. He was convinced that the permissive sixties had left a stain on society that was going to overwhelm us all (rather like the skin that oozed out of the satanic skeleton upon exposure to water in “The Creeping Flesh”) without the constant vigilance of right-minded folk. His children (all of whose names, like those of both parents, began with the letter “R”) were at tremendous risk due to the hours every day that the older ones spent in school, away from the security of the family nest; every word, every gesture they made while at home were carefully scrutinized for signs of moral rot.

This attitude was a bit difficult to reconcile with the material being screened at the drive-in. The buxom stars of such titles as “Ginger” and “Sabrina in Prison”, while popular with audiences, were rarely more than lightly burdened with dialogue or clothing, and the moral import of “White Cannibal Queen” was totally lost on me.

One Saturday night that December, as we made our way out to the theater in Mr Goggins’ dusty Chevy Caprice, Goggins (Junior) turned on the car radio, perhaps not realizing that the AM radio station that played Gospel music throughout the week devoted two hours every Saturday evening to popular music of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The song that leaped out of the dashboard speaker was “Louie, Louie”.

The ensuing brouhaha was easily on a par with the pie-eating scene from the second reel of “I Drink Your Blood”. Goggins (Senior) flew into a frothing condemnation of the pornographic/satanic/communist nature of the Kingsmen’s quirky hit, while his son — never articulate even at the best of times — grunted and hissed like Professor Saxton’s alien anthropoid in “Horror Express”.

Obviously there was a significance to “Louie, Louie” that had somehow escaped me over the years.  What Mr Goggins knew and I did not was that in 1964 the FBI had launched a full-bore investigation of the song, J Edgar Hoover and company having become concerned that the song was, indeed, some kind of Trojan Horse by means of which free love and drug use — and probably Communist ideology — was being delivered to America’s impressionable young people.

In 1963 the Kingsmen, a garage band from Portland, Oregon, recorded the song under less than optimal conditions, playing and singing into a single microphone hanging from the studio ceiling, the lead singer wearing new braces that prevented him from speaking clearly, and no one able to quite recall which verses went where. The band was allowed only one take. The result was a disaster that became one of the most popular songs ever recorded.

Federal agents talked to a bewildered Richard Berry, the man who had written and recorded the song in the mid-fifties, only to have it come and go without a ripple. They interviewed executives from the record label that released the 1963 remake. FBI laboratories spent 31 months playing the song at varying speeds and backward, searching for the pornography or propaganda that had so horrified dozens of parents.

 There is an apocryphal story that during the recording of “Louie, Louie” the drummer dropped one of his sticks at a critical moment and blurted an expletive that might — had anyone been able to distinguish it from the background noise — have provided some justification for the excitement surrounding the song. It certainly would have kept it off the air for at least a decade or so.

Forty-nine years ago today, on May 17, 1965, the FBI released their report: Although there may or may not have been something pernicious hidden in the song, they certainly couldn’t make it out. They concluded that the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed”, and therefore posed no threat to the children of America.This did not prevent the governor of Indiana from banning the song anyway, but in the eyes of the law there was nothing more to be done.

Shortly after the “Louie, Louie” debate was so dramatically brought to my attention I gave up my job at the drive-in to take up a somewhat less hectic post stocking shelves in a mom-and-pop hardware store. I listened to the Kingsmen’s one and only hit several times after that, and found it catchy but, indeed, unintelligible.

What, exactly, was all the fuss about? We’ll probably never really know. Sudden erratic distractions are a part of our national identity — sometimes manufactured for a purpose, sometimes not. A lot was going on in the middle of that decade: the number of US troops in Vietnam was ramped up by two-thirds; the 1965 Voting Rights Act was enacted; Malcom X was assassinated; a Unitarian Universalist minister was beaten to death in Birmingham by white supremacists; the Watts riots devastated Los Angeles; a nuclear device was detonated in a weapons test in Alaska… the list goes on.

And all the while, the collective consciousness of the men and women of America was riveted on the dangers of allowing their sons and daughters to hear:

Three nights and days I sail the sea
Think of girl, constantly
On that ship, I dream she’s there
I smell the rose in her hair.”

— Richard Berry, “Louie, Louie”, 1955

 

 

Arrival from always, departure to forever

David and Pam In 1966, just as the war in Vietnam was hitting its stride, my father retired from the US Air Force.

Packing up the wife and three small children (the oldest — me — having just completed the second grade) he returned to the town of his own childhood, a place in the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama with the peculiar name of Boaz.

Moving was nothing new for us: by that time I had lived in military bases in Montgomery, Alabama (twice); Biloxi, Mississippi; Syracuse, New York; and had even spent a short spell in Boaz while my father was serving a stint in Vietnam. I knew that stability was fragile, possessions a burden, and that friendships had to be quick to form and shallow enough to walk away from without pain.

The final move to Boaz, however, was different. A military base is a special world for a small child, safe and vivid and full of excitement and mystery; Boaz was … well, quiet. No recruits double-timing down the street in front of the apartment; no decommissioned fighter jets parked in vacant lots, swarming with small children (for whom a chain-link fence was more an invitation than a barrier); no Commissary; no PX; no movie theater just around the corner; no library.

Despite having spent most of my life up to that point in the deepest Deep South, I did not have a southern accent — my mother, a transplanted New Englander, had bequeathed me her more precise grammar and neutral delivery. I was fairly well-read for my age (thanks to the easy access to books on base) and my previous schools had been somewhat more advanced that the one I now found myself attending. Teachers seemed irritated, even antagonized, by my efforts to please. Classmates were suspicious, sometimes hostile. The transition went from awkward to uncomfortable to excruciating in no time at all.

The adaptability that goes with being a military brat assumes certain preconditions — an urban environment, a population of other kids with equally shallow roots, and the levelling effect of never being exposed to the same group of people for more than a year or two at a time. Boaz had none of these things. This was an environment where cliques had long since been sealed, newcomers remained newcomers for years, and everyone spoke with the same accent. I felt, sounded, looked alien. The only thing that kept me from diving under the bed and never coming out again was the idea, despite being told otherwise, that we would move again before too long, return to the real world, the world of tanks and books and soldiers singing rude songs as they trotted down the street.

“… Look down through the five senses like stars/To where our lives lie small and equal like two grains/Before Chance — the hawk’s eye or the pilot’s/Round and shining on the open sky,/Reflecting back the innocent world in it.”

 

— Lawrence Durrell, “The Pilot”

Within a matter of months, just as the terrors of the new reality were taking firm hold, a family with a daughter my age moved in next door.

They were also from elsewhere, they were Air Force, they were also well-travelled, and Pam talked just like me. Naturally, we became friends — not in school, oddly enough, we were rarely in the same classes — but we spent much of our free time together, riding bikes, climbing trees, romping around in the cornfields (long since built over) behind our houses, tormenting our younger siblings, and talking, talking, talking.

After a year or so, Pam and her family moved around the corner, but remained within shouting distance. As time passed, we drifted in different directions — Pam was athletic, bright, heedless, the sort of person who excelled without obvious effort, while I was shy, small for my age, brainy, but an underachiever, irrationally terrified of my classmates and my teachers — but our bond endured.

By high school we had moved almost entirely into different worlds: apart from band (characteristically, I played clarinet while Pam played trumpet) we had little in common, and we each spent more and more time pursuing our separate interests.

College brought us together again, closer than ever, for a couple of years. We became almost inseparable. Teachers referred to us as brother and sister, and classified us as bright, but doomed.

Despite that renewal of our friendship, the separation that followed was more than just a relocation around the corner: Pam moved to Huntsville, fifty miles north, married, divorced; I moved to Birmingham, ninety miles south, stumbled through two more years of college, and then wandered off into a long and labyrinthine passage to adult life.

In the decades that followed we both moved, and moved again, changing as we went, putting ever more distance between us. By the time we reached our thirties, I had washed up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Pam had come to ground in San Diego, California — we had finally managed to place an entire continent between us.

We still met, at widely spaced intervals, almost always in Boaz, on neutral ground. Pam had remarried, with stepchildren to look after, and I was building a career, so the visits were often brief.

At our twenty-fifth-anniversary high-school reunion, we made up for lost time, spending the last few days of the holiday in New Orleans, reliving the past, lying to each other about the future. Pam drank a bit, and smoked a lot — these were habits she developed early on, and polished as time went by. (I smoked for some years, but finally gave it up as simply requiring too much effort, and never had much capacity for alcohol.) By our mid-forties the differences in our lifestyles had become deep, but even on Bourbon Street at four a.m. I still kept seeing the girl next door behind the haze of jello-shots and nicotine.

A few years ago Pam and I saw each other — for the last time, as it happened — while she waited for a connecting flight at DFW Airport in Dallas. I drove out to the airport to meet her and we sat on a bench in the Texas sun for a couple of hours and chatted, just as we always had. Despite the heat, she was cold, bundled up in a jacket and furry boots; thinner than I had seen her, smoking one cigarette after another, her conversation wandering, clicking, sometimes stumbling, sometimes dancing. She was ill, but I did not understand that — perhaps I refused to understand that: I believed that she wasn’t taking care of herself, that she was over-tired, under-eating, typical Pam. For me, nothing else was possible. I avoided looking too closely, asking questions.

In the years that followed I failed to keep up, to maintain contact, more concerned with sustaining my illusions than with the person who wore them.

This week Pam moved again, moved even further away, and the continent that lies between us is one that can only be crossed once, and then only in one direction. She’s gone further from me than I ever thought possible, and I am less now than I was.

We spent more time apart than we did together over the last forty-eight years, but that means that there was little time for bad memories — our moments together were precious and important.

Even there on that airport bench, sitting in the sun watching the taxicabs creep past us, the shouting men, loaded with luggage, shrill women in uncomfortable shoes — even there, I remember clearly that, different as she was –as different as I was — one thing had not changed: I could hear forty years of echoes every time she laughed, and with every smile we were children again, strangers in a strange land, sharing.

 

Journal: Friday, January 18

I’m currently working my way through a series of critical biographies of American painters of the mid-twentieth-century: I’ve finished Rothko and Arshile Gorky, and now I’ve begun Willem de Kooning. Two suicides and an Alzheimer’s victim — compared to the Abstract Expressionists, the Surrealists were a stroll in the park.

The one unifying characteristic that seemed to prevail in American painting mid-century was the prevalence of European immigrants struggling against very difficult personal legacies: Rothko was a Latvian Jew at a time when Jews were being blamed for the upheavals tearing the Russian Empire apart; Gorky was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey; the Dutch de Kooning survived a terrible childhood of poverty and emotional stress only to succumb to alcoholism and eventually dementia in his adult life. Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, but his Western upbringing left him little better prepared for life as a New York artist: he was struggling with alcoholism before his career had even begun.

The European Surrealists, such as Max Ernst, Paul Eluard, Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Andre Masson, were also uprooted by war and economic turmoil, and all seemed to share a profound emotional instability that left them incapable of lasting emotional attachments, but they seemed to be able to externalize their problems, making life difficult for those around them but leaving themselves relatively unscathed.

Was it the nature of each group’s work that had such deep, but different, effects on their emotional lives, or were they all drawn into their respective universes because of each individual’s personal charactistics? In other words, did Abstract Expressionism make artists self-destructive, or did only self-destructive artists become involved in Abstract Expressionism?

 

Journal: Sunday, December 15

Art exhibit at Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Art everywhere!

My friend Erin and I spent all day yesterday at a holiday art function, milling back and forth in front of a display of our respective work, shaking hands, smiling and nodding, chatting with the visitors whenever the opportunity presented itself, generally being sociable. The word, I believe, is schmoozing.

This sort of thing is not something I’m particularly good at: my recent works include a very precisely-rendered pen and ink representation of a carnivorous beetle, shown eleven times natural size; a realistically-modeled life-sized human heart studded with shards of broken glass; a trilobite fossil built up out of trash; and a large acrylic painting of the serpent lurking in the Garden of Eden. Light cocktail conversation about my artworks is sometimes a bit difficult to bring off.

That said, the event was fun. Sometimes you get lucky and you find yourself facing a crowd that is interested in the plastic arts not just as decor but also as a form of expression, no less valid than a novel or a film; this was that kind of audience. They asked the right questions, and they were interested in the answers. There were other artists there whose work I admired, and whose opinions of my work I solicited and valued.

Tiring? You bet. Worth it? Definitely. Very slowly, step by step, I’m beginning to learn how to go beyond just producing the art to actually presenting it effectively to people who might appreciate what I’ve done. I still have a long way to go, but I feel as though this weekend has taken me an appreciable distance down that road.

 

Journal: Thursday, December 5

I’ve had a string of good luck over the last few days: a package of artwork that had gone astray in New York City finally found its way to the intended recipient, who is delighted with the pictures; a possible complication to Hartley’s spay surgery cleared up on its own; I was able to get a fresh supply of propane for the cabin heater mere hours before the roads closed and the truck would have been unable to reach me; we’ve had no interruption in our electricity all day, despite the ice storm outside … All in all, it’s been a good week so far.

Despite that, I find that the sleet and freezing rain outside, the darkness, the sense of isolation, is wearing on me today. Winter storms like the one we’re experiencing tonight and tomorrow seem to increase the distance between towns, between houses, between people, between the lighted windows in the dark.

Snow I can handle: snow is different, lighter, more like a natural expression of natural forces; but ice … ice is sinister, destructive. Snow reflects the light, ice absorbs it; snow shelters the birds and beasts, ice paralyses them, crushes them, smothers the spark.

We have tonight and tomorrow to contend with — that’s all — and then the sky will begin to clear. Temperatures will still be brutally cold, but at least there won’t be all this ice falling everywhere. Another week after that, and temps will work their way back above freezing.

I think I’m just going to pull the covers over my head and hibernate until then.

Journal: Friday, November 22

classroomOn a whim yesterday I wasted twenty minutes on a quiz on the Christian Science Monitor website: it was a condensed version of a test that 8th graders in a Kentucky school district had to take in 1912 to determine whether they were fit to proceed to high school.

How hard could this be, right? This is test aimed at kids who are — what? Thirteen? In Kentucky, in 1912.

It was a humbling experience.

The only area in which I can say I excelled was geography; everything else was a struggle. Math? I produced pages of meandering calculations resulting in lame guesses. English? I didn’t know my adverbs from my adenoids. American history? You would have thought I was born and raised in Latvia. (I know that the Civil War took place somewhere in between the War of 1812 and World War One, but questions about individual battles? Individual generals? Forget about it.)

A study presented at an American Heart Association conference last Tuesday suggests that kids are less physically capable than their parents were at that age: slower, weaker, less agile. This comes as no real surprise to most people, since we’ve long been aware that children are becoming more sedentary as video games and the internet — coupled with more parental anxiety about allowing kids to run around outside — replace bicycles and baseball. The question of intellectual achievement, however, has always been measured between and among groups of children contemporary with each other: we worry that American students don’t perform as well on math tests as Korean students, or on geography as well as German kids, but we aren’t comparing American students of 2013 with their American counterparts of a century ago, possibly because we know that it’s a contest they can’t win.

I’m a long way from the eight grade. At my age there is a certain “I’m sure I used to know this, but …” factor, but that’s a slim excuse at best. I should be able to compete with my grandfather as a child — I’ve had more time to forget, true, but I’ve also had more time to learn.

Another excuse we often hear is that there is just so much more to know now than in previous generations. This also is a pretty weak argument: yes, we have things like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the personal computer to keep up with, but our ancestors in 1912 were coping with the invention of the telephone and motion pictures, the electrification of the cities, the arrival of the automobile, and with the collapse of the Ottoman and Hapsburg and British Empires. Keeping up with current events was no easy task then, either.

I scored 86% on the test — not bad, but hardly stellar. The average score for visitors to the CSM website? In the mid fifties, a definite failing grade.

What does all this mean? Are conservatives right when they tell us that the more sophisticated curricula and powerful teachers’ unions of today are diluting the value of education? Or is it that we aren’t going far enough to empower teachers and upgrade materials, as progressives insist?

I certainly don’t know the answer, but after struggling through that test yesterday, I’m definitely thinking more about the question.

 

Journal: Sunday, November 17

"Niobe" - mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

“Niobe” – mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

Some time back I wrote a  journal post here in which I bemoaned the fact that a couple of pieces of artwork that I had just completed seemed to be falling flat with my usual public. In retrospect, I realize that I may have sounded petulant, and perhaps even just a tiny bit snobbish.

What’s changed since then, you may ask? Last week a total stranger walked into the shop where those particular works were on display and purchased one of the pieces in question — by far the more challenging of the two — “Niobe/The Immaculate Heart”. This was not a friend or relative browbeaten into making the purchase just to shut me up, but someone I didn’t know, an out-of-towner who just happened to be in the market for art.

In fact, “Niobe” only hung on the wall for a couple of months before finding a home. Like all artists, I can get a bit needy sometimes, looking for some sort of approbation or validation for my work from the people around me — these squirrelly little objects are like children to me, and it’s all too easy to interpret an apparent lack of enthusiasm from the public as rejection. In the grand scheme of things, however, two months to find a purchaser for something as intense as “Niobe” is pretty darned good: the weakness was not in the public, nor in the art, but in me, in my own confidence. It was me who didn’t appreciate the value of the art, not the public.

Consider me chastened.

Sales are still slow, and I realize that some pieces will probably end their lives packed away in my basement, or cannibalized for parts, or devoured by wild beasts — and some of them probably deserve such a fate — but but what matters is that I am making a connection, at least part of the time. It’s still worth doing.

I may know a lot about art and books and Bugs Bunny and the history of the Byzantine Empire, but I can see that I still have some things to learn about having a bit of faith.

 

See what you made me do…

Not my fault! The devil made me do it!

The devil made me buy this dress …

The thing that I find most disturbing about Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s ongoing meltdown is not the crack smoking, or showing up stoned at a charity function for wounded soldiers, or calling a south-Asian taxi driver “Paki”, or threatening — on video — to grab an automatic weapon and slaughter his political opponents. What shocks me most are his constant expressions of outrage and wounded pride at being called to account for his actions.

So many elected officials — not just here in the US, mind you, but even in the sedate world of Canadian politics — seem to reach a certain point in their careers at which they feel that they are beyond the need for apologies, beyond accountability, beyond all personal responsibility. When the shit hits the fan, they blame the fan for the mess that ensues.

Perhaps this is simply an extension of the cult of celebrity that surrounds many elected leaders today: they are described as “media darlings”, “rising stars”, “shining lights” — the same sorts of expressions that might be applied to a pop singer or a professional athlete. Intelligence, hard work, and dedication may be there, but those don’t make very compelling news copy: we’re far more interested in how quickly the individual has risen to prominence, or in whose company, or on the back of what theatrical rhetoric. When faced with this sort of deification day after day, who wouldn’t begin to feel as though he (or more rarely she) is somehow beyond the ordinary rules of right and wrong?

  • Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, called to account recently for a string of obvious and egregious plagiarisms in his public speeches and writings, has made it clear that the skunk in the woodpile is not the high-profile political figure who steals from others, but the press and pundits who keep catching him at it.
  • Former US Representative Anthony Weiner, when caught sending sexually explicit text messages and photos to a series of young women around the country, offered a somewhat half-hearted apology then turned on the media for “persecuting” him — after which he continued to send sexually suggestive messages to women, still complaining all the while of his mistreatment by the press.

In centuries past, public officials viewed bribery and extortion as a perquisite of the job. Why else would anyone subject themselves to the aggravations of holding office? “Baksheesh”, a Persian word that became widespread in the days of the Ottoman Turkish empire, could mean a tip, a contribution, or a bribe, interchangeably; today we pretend that these things are actually separate and distinct, but in politics, little has changed. The line between a campaign contribution and a bribe is drawn with a very light pencil; “personal time with friends” can mean anything from a weekend of golf courtesy of the Koch brothers to a drug-addled rampage in a suburban crack den.

Marion Barry, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Kwame Kilpatrick: the list is depressingly long. In so many cases, the individuals involved had no prior history of corruption or sexual misadventures or substance abuse: only after achieving positions of power and prominence did the imp of the perverse take control. (Admittedly, until these men became important, the mainstream press was hardly likely to be interested in their pecadilloes, but given the microscopic scrutiny that politicians must undergo during the endless cycles of campaigning and politicking, it seems unlikely that ongoing problems of such severity would have escaped notice.) More importantly, once caught with their hands in the cookie jar (or down their boxer-briefs) they are invariably shocked — shocked — that people might hold them responsible for their own actions.

According to British historian Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1834–1902): “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This is a phenomenon that is not difficult to understand, even by those of us who have never had the opportunity to wield — or abuse — power. What Lord Acton doesn’t mention is the inability of powerful men to accept the blame for their own sins, which I personally find much harder to accept. We all make mistakes, but not all of us have thousands, even millions, of other people depending on our honesty and integrity, trusting us to do the right thing — and when in the wrong, to ‘fess up, to make amends, and to make a real and sincere effort to do better in the future.

Whenever Geraldine Jones — frisky alter-ego of funnyman Flip Wilson in the early 1970s — would find herself caught in an indiscretion, she didn’t lash out at her accusers: she generally had the good grace to admit her mistakes, and her excuse — “the devil made me do it!” — was certainly as good as any I’ve heard lately.

 

Taking a line for a walk

"The Precocious Whispering of Desires", mixed media, 20 x 12 in.

“The Precocious Whispering of Desires”, mixed media, 20 x 12 in. ©David Lee Holcomb, 2013

I just completed a piece of artwork that is both a departure and a return to basics for me. It’s essentially a drawing, scribbles of glue and black ink in layers, each layer painted over with off-white gesso and sanded, then elaborated with textural passages in black ink and red, sepia, and brown watercolor, accented by areas covered in pure white acrylic.

Described like that it sounds pretty mechanical, and in a way that’s exactly what it is.

I generally avoid doing art that might be described as “abstract”.  Although I enjoy such work by others, for myself I prefer to remain grounded in the material world whenever possible. A piece like this, however, is about process, rather than an image of something: the mechanical, physical acts involved in creating the thing provide the driving force, rather than some predetermined theme or subject.

Dribbling paint (or ink, or glue, or tar, or whatever) onto a flat surface and then working with the result is hardly a new concept. When Andre Breton, the godfather of the Surrealism movement, finally accepted visual artists into his exclusive little club, one of the techniques that he regarded as most valid was “automatism”, in which random processes — rather than conscious, planned decisions — guided the painter’s hand. In practice, of course, this is impossible, since even if the painter is relying on something as supposedly “random” as dribbling paint, he is still guiding the dribbles onto the canvas instead of the floor, toward or away from each other, toward or away from the edges, etc. — not to mention deciding when to stop.

So is my picture abstract? That’s a word that we use an awful lot in describing art, usually any time we find ourselves unable to see something familiar, concrete. Mirriam Webster defines “abstract” as “relating to or involving general ideas or qualities rather than specific people, objects, or actions”. When something is “abstract”, it is unreal, unbounded by physical reality: “beauty” is abstract, a beautiful woman is not; “nature” is abstract, the tree outside your window is not; “death” is abstract, the departure of a loved one is not.

When we slap paint or tar or glue or whatever onto a surface, we are already moving away from true abstraction: the surface and the medium applied to it are solid physical materials, defined by physical laws that affect what the artist is able to do with them, grounded in the “real”, phenomenological, world.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)", circa 1506

Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)”, circa 1506

“We should remember that a picture — before being a war horse, a nude woman, or telling some other story — is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a particular pattern.”
— Maurice Denis, Definition of Neotraditionism. Originally published in Art et Critique in Paris, 23 & 30 August 1890

But now we have a problem: if we view the concept of abstraction by this strict interpretation, no plastic art (meaning art created with physical materials, as opposed to singing a song, or playing Hamlet) can be considered truly abstract, and we’ve just lost a century’s worth of art terminology. So let’s unclench a little, close the dictionary, and look at some of the common terms.

For the sake of brevity I’m going to leave sculpture, installation, film, and so on out of the discussion now and focus on painting alone:  If we take as given that a painting must be physical at some level, or in some degree, most pictures separates out into some basic categories (or sometimes combinations of more than one):

Illusionary — this is a painting that offers what appears to be a window into a three-dimensional space, occupied by physical objects. When we look at the Mona Lisa, we interpret the picture as a woman, sitting in a chair in front of a window or parapet — which is, of course, nonsense: what we’re looking at is nothing more than a thin piece of canvas covered with little smears of colored matter, but with a little effort we have no difficulty suspending our disbelief and recognizing the woman, the chair, and the landscape beyond.

Cubist — this is also illusion, but intellectual, rather than purely visual. While still creating an illusionary three-dimensional space, cubist painting is extremely aware of the flat surface of the canvas, and incorporates that plane into the overall work. The 3-D illusion is never very strong, and the “fake” space depicted is very shallow, never far from the skin of the canvas. In a cubist painting, the representation of the space is more important than the objects that occupy it; it may even be impossible to determine what exactly the artist was looking at — all we see is a kind of schematic of space and volume.

Geometric — here, both objects and the space they occupy have been abandoned. Geometric art depicts mathematical concepts like the square, the circle, and the line, without any effort to provide a visual — illusory — narrative tying the picture to some scene or object existing under “real-world” conditions. We can all agree that pure mathematics are abstract, but what about painting based on math? Well, there’s the rub: a picture of an abstract mathematical form is still a picture of something, so — yes, a circle is an abstract concept, but is a picture of a circle?

Abstract expressionist – this category is a bit of a hybrid of a number of things, a sort of convenient umbrella of the kind popular with art critics that doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal to the artist. At its heart, however, the idea is that the abstract expressionist painting is attempting to depict an emotional or philosophical state — “nature”, “beauty”, “truth”, etc. — without relying on any illusion whatever. Here, the surface of the canvas is embraced, the materials exist as themselves — the paint is simply paint, not part of an apple, or a woman, or a tree — and if the viewer wants the picture to tell a story, he has to come up with it himself. In a sense, an abstract expressionist painting is the least abstract of all: one of Jackson Pollock’s classic “drip” paintings is a picture of paint, and of the process of getting paint onto the surface; no naked women, no bowls of fruit. The paint is there, physical and obvious, not pretending to be a chair or an eyebrow — just paint. If we see something more than that, it’s coming from us, not the artist. [I should mention that many abstract expressionist work do have evocative titles, like "Autumn Rhythm", or "Vir Heroicus", but these are arbitrary, they label the picture without describing its content.]

Mark Tobey "Night Celebration", 1971

Mark Tobey “Night Celebration”, 1971

Color/Energy field — here is another term that means more to people who write about art than to people who do it. “Color field” painting relies on large, usually featureless, areas of pure color, sometimes alone, sometimes a few colors grouped on a single canvas.  Drama is introduced by placing particular colors next to each other, or by dividing areas of color with simple linear boundaries, but the colors themselves are the subject of the painting. In “energy field” painting, even color becomes unimportant, and the surface becomes animated by patterns or strokes or squiggles that cover the entire surface, without a single focal point and sometimes without a clear recognition of the edge of the canvas. Energy field painting is usually saved from becoming little more than wallpaper by introducing a certain amount of randomness in the patterning or the type of marks used, so that some areas appear slightly more dense or less dense, like poppy seeds sprinkled onto a piece of paper. While an abstract expressionist may create a painting about the artist’s emotional state while in the process of painting, a color field artist is creating paintings about color and an energy field artist is creating a painting about distributing marks on a surface, again without narrative, without illusion.

So. What about my picture (remember where we started?) Is it really abstract?

The word “doodle” is actually a bit of slang, dating from the Great Depression, probably coined in the American Midwest in imitation of a word used by German immigrants, dudeltopf, a simpleton or fool, a “dawdler”. German-Swiss artist Paul Klee spoke of his artistic process as “taking a line for a walk”, which I think is a great definition of a doodle.

I’m going to call it a doodle. The word itself sounds a bit silly, so we tend to shy away from using it to describe a serious work — and the doodle I opened this essay with is, I believe, serious work — but it’s a good word, and it works. A doodle is universal: anyone can do it, we all understand the process; it also adapts itself to a wide range of artistic techniques and styles. You can doodle with color, with line, with shapes; you can create illusions, or avoid them; you can fill up the available space, or wander around in it, drifting over the edges of the page or canvas, or shying away from them. So again: is it abstract? I think it is — there is no overriding concept or visual intention in a doodle, it is its own reason, its own purpose. There’s no attempt to fool the viewer into believing something that isn’t true. Even if there are recognizable images scattered here and there, they have no concrete meaning, they’re just — well, doodles within the doodle.

Is it art? This question I’ll leave for you to decide for yourself.

Journal: Tuesday, September 24

"The Triumph of the Nightingale" - mixed media, 7 x 14 in (17.5 x 35 cm).

“The Triumph of the Nightingale” – mixed media, 7 x 14 in (17.5 x 35 cm).

In spite of my head cold, trips to the vet, money woes, and general malaise over the last couple of weeks, I did manage to get two new pieces of artwork done.

One is a fairly whimsical intellectual exercise, a “sequel” to the Max Ernst painting of 1924, “Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale“. My take on the theme — called “The Triumph of the Nightingale” — reuses several elements from the Ernst painting, such as the garden gate, a suggestion of the peaked roof of the little shed, and the flying bird, but condenses everything down into a vertical format, and folds all the pieces together more tightly. Ernst’s panic-stricken children are reduced in my work to a single body part.

Someone familiar with the original will almost certainly get the connection; someone who has not seen the Ernst painting can still appreciate the visual appeal of my picture, and perhaps enjoy wondering what it all means.

At least that was the theory: in practice, this work has not really gotten much traction with anyone. I don’t know what the problem is, really: is it too “pretty”? Too obscure? Too sterile? Too hermetic?

This sort of problem is not unique to art: when my friends make comments about sporting events, they often use language that is, for them, a convenient and accessible shorthand, but which for me is completely meaningless. They are so immersed in their context that they are not able to objectively assess the reach of that context — a creature born and bred in the deep ocean may easily forget that some organisms live entirely in open air. Likewise, my knowledge of art and literature can be a handicap when I’m looking for universal themes, since what I believe to be universal may only be so within a defined intellectual or cultural environment.

On the heels of that debacle, the next piece was an assemblage dealing with the idea of grief — drawing on my upset over the death of my cat Sebastian — called “Niobe“. In the story, the queen Niobe has a brood of beautiful, talented children whom she adores so much that she proclaims to one and all that they are even more wonderful than the twin children of Leto, Artemis and Apollo. Comparing your offspring to those of the gods is always a recipe for disaster in classical literature, and this instance is no exception: Artemis and Apollo are sent to teach Niobe a lesson in humility, and they do so by killing her children; one by one her sons and daughters die in her arms.

"Niobe" - mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

“Niobe” – mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

To illustrate the theme, I modeled a realistic human heart, studded with shards of glass, reducing the concept to its most visceral (pardon the pun) and physical level.

Here again, the piece failed to take hold with my usual fans. I did get some very positive responses from Mexican friends, who saw a parallel with the pierced heart that symbolizes the Virgin in much religious art in Mexico and Central America — they understood what I was doing immediately, and connected readily with what was, for them, a familiar image. Context made all the difference: a North American audience who sees a naked human heart as the stuff of horror films experiences something completely different than Latin American viewers familiar with the stark but comforting images of the wounded Immaculate Heart of Mary.

This is not a case of relying on a story that was not familiar enough; I think the image speaks for itself even without the context of the myth. Unfortunately the message varies widely from person to person.

Like riding a unicycle along a tightrope, constant forward motion is essential in what I do. If I hesitate, if I stop to think for too long, I tumble off the wire. I have to keep working even if what I’m producing is not succeeding, because it’s all too easy to let my native laziness take over if I give it any excuse at all. Finish one piece, start the next; if I get bogged down, set that one aside, move on to another. Introspection and contemplation — like what I’m doing here — are fine, but only so long as I can do them without coming down off the wire.

I’m not unhappy with these two pieces of work. They did what I wanted them to do, they feel right, they just don’t resonate well with the world outside my head. I’ll take note, and perhaps this experience will influence the next piece, or the next. More importantly, however, I will keep pedaling, and stay on that tightrope a little longer, and see what happens next.