Journal: Monday, March 23

CruzThe ruler of the Aztec empire was called the “tlatoani”, which roughly translates to “the one who talks the loudest”. From the founding of Gran Tenochtitlan in 1325 to the final collapse in 1521, the Aztec civilization survived for a grand total of 196 years, during which time they had become so hated by all of their neighbors that even the rapacious Spanish invaders were embraced as the lesser of two evils.

Ted Cruz for President? Being the one who talks the loudest does not necessarily mean that what you’re saying is right, or smart, or good for your people, or for your country. In fact, it usually means that you don’t really care about any of those things: you simply want to be king, you want to sit on the big chair where everyone has to listen to you, like it or not (like the students at Liberty University this morning who were required to attend Mr Cruz’ announcement speech) — even as fundamentalist religion, anti-intellectualism, environmental collapse, and ill-considered military adventurism are bringing your nation to its knees, as they did in Tenochtitlan five hundred years ago.

I suppose that if you’re someone who believes that allowing same-sex couples to marry is the greatest threat the United States faces in the twenty-first century, then by all means, Ted Cruz is probably your guy. But denying me my rights is not going to protect you when the conquistadores arrive, and burning the books and crucifying the thinkers because they describe problems you don’t want to face is not going to make you better equipped to cope with the real world when it comes crashing through your gates.


Journal: Thursday, March 19

Richard Diebenkorn: "Girl and Three Coffee Cups" 1957

Richard Diebenkorn: “Girl and Three Coffee Cups” 1957

“Notes to myself on beginning a painting”
by Richard Diebenkorn

  1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.
  3. DO search.
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
  5. Don’t “discover” a subject – of any kind.
  6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Journal: Saturday, March 7

birdandfish_600My painting “Dialogue Between the Bird and the Fish” will be finding a new home this weekend, and I thought this might be a nice time to tell the story that the picture illustrates. So, without further ado …

A fly, hovering near the surface of a pond, finds itself suddenly the target of not one, but two predators: a bird who darts down from the nearby cattails and a fish who rises up unexpectedly from the depths of the water. Fortunately for the fly, his attackers are so startled that he has the opportunity to dart out of reach of either (only to be eaten later by a dragonfly — such is life).

The bird, retreating to an overhanging willow branch, stares at the interloper, who rises to the surface and returns her gaze with equal astonishment.

“Such a miserable beast!” the bird thinks, not without pity. “Unable to rise into the open air, never to perch in a tree to sing the dawn into being, lost forever in the dim and the wet. For him the sun can only be a dim glow, and the wind but a rumor. His sky is a ceiling beyond which he may never go, and summer and winter, spring and fall, down in the depths are all one. His song is nothing but a croak, and his feathers are hard as glass. How sad!”

The fish, for his part, finds the bird’s lot equally distressing. “Suppose the poor creature is traveling and wants to pause for a moment to admire the view; why, she would crash to the ground and be eaten by snakes in a moment. Only amid the obscuring tangle of the trees and shrubbery can she rest. And even then, she must be prey to wind and weather, extremes of temperature, never safe from sun and storm. Her scales are frayed and frazzled, hardly adequate protection from anything. And those sounds she makes, as though in terrible pain! Pitiful thing.”

The two stare, hesitating, until a hawk sounds in the distance and the bird darts away to her covert among the cattails, and the fish scents the approach of a pike and drifts down into a secure niche among the rocks of the bank, each filled with pity for the unfortunate other.

What looks nice over naugahyde …?

Vincent van Gogh, "The Night Cafe", 1888

Some eateries need all the help they can get.Vincent van Gogh, “The Night Cafe”, 1888


At the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, our local temple of culture, an odious sculpture from the generally delightful Claes Oldenburg was replaced over the holidays by a delightful sculpture from the generally odious Jeff Koons.

Oldenburg, a icon of the sixties and seventies, has always been champion of a kind of oversized, over-the-top whimsy, taking such commonplace items as badminton birdies and clothespins and blowing them up to the size of Atlas rockets: the piece at Crystal Bridges, “Alphabet/Good Humor”, is a giant popsicle composed of letters of the alphabet melting together like fatty entrails, all painted a horribly suggestive band-aid beige.

Jeff Koons, a glib former Wall Street commodities broker, cheerfully admits that he takes no part in the actual production of any of the art that bears his name — even the concepts behind his works are appropriations of existing photographs, artworks, or consumer products. The Koons work that replaced Oldenburg’s popsicle is a giant beribboned heart, a somewhat trite Christmas tree ornament blown up to epic size, made of stainless steel and given an old-gold mirror finish.

Oldenburg’s piece was clearly not meant simply as decor. Especially in a restaurant setting, its gooey flesh-toned bulbousness is a bit disturbing; we’re supposed to respond to the idea as much as the image. Koons’ heart, on the other hand, is obviously nothing but decor. Like Mila Kunis or Channing Tatum, it’s there to be looked at:  no great ideas, no deep meanings, nothing to challenge the spectator to question his or her own expectations and assumptions. Even the basic idea, that of the trivial household item grown gigantic, is simply Oldenburg’s signature concept picked up by Koons and given a high polish and an even higher price tag.

A famous bit of Picasso lore has it that he was once approached by a woman in a restaurant who asked him to create a picture for her. With his usual panache, the artist grabbed a pen and executed a quick sketch on a napkin, which he then offered to sell the woman for a considerable sum of money. Shocked, the woman exclaimed, “But it only took you five minutes to draw that!” “Madam,” Picasso replied, “it took me forty years.”

Art as restaurant decor is certainly no new idea: Paris is littered with minor masterpieces by French artists of the last two hundred years that were tendered in payment for food and liquor in places like Le Chat Noir or Café de la Rotonde; Mark Rothko’s suicide is thought to have been at least partly triggered by his horror at the thought of a crowd of “rich bastards” sitting around in the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan chowing down on caviare and filet mignon under several dozen square yards of signature Rothko canvas. I myself paid a few tabs during my salad days by sketching portraits of waitresses and bartenders in Birmingham, Alabama.

The line between Art and art, between high-concept high culture and something nice to hang over the sofa, is a fine one, more of a suggestion than a barricade. Much of the work hanging in places like the Louvre, the Tate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art spent at least part of its history as a component of someone’s interior design scheme. After all, most of the people who buy art are not decking the halls of a museum: they’re buying something they like to look at, or that they think will be worth more some day than they’ve just paid for it, or — let’s face it — they needed to fill up a space over the sofa. Will the art of today be the Art of tomorrow? Who knows?

In art, as in politics, there are two final arbiters: money and history. Jeff Koons’ work brings in big bucks; whether it has any real significance as Art remains to be seen. Oldenburg’s floppy food and giant household items have been around for several decades now, and although they’ve lost some of their glamor as the goofiness of Pop Art has faded into the drug-addled mists of the nineteen-sixties, they still have a place in the art books, museums, and public parks of America. Arguably, Koons’ monumental balloon dogs and kitschy polyester statuary tableaux would not exist had Oldenburg not paved the way; at the same time, Oldenburg may retain some of his old-master status because of his role as precursor to more recent big-dollar snake-oil impresarios like Koons.

What will replace Koons’ “Hanging Heart” when the museum restaurant crowd gets bored with it? Since Damien Hirst is not American but British, we can assume that we won’t be treated to a pickled shark in a tank of formaldehyde or half a sheep under glass, but if history is any guide, the options are still limitless.

And that’s how it should be.

Journal: Sunday, November 16

I’ve just made my first artwork sale to a buyer in Canada. I am strangely pleased by this. Somehow it all seems more real when there are border crossings involved.

.   .   .

“The Kraken”

Out beyond the limits of the known
There be monsters
Tall as thunderclouds
Surging like tides
Scattering the sun’s jewels
In your path


Ahead there are
Storms and marvels
The kraken and the great whale
Dragons clothed in lightning
Cold and wet
Fire and thirst

The compass dances, spins,
Flings itself into the sea!
The sails fill with strange winds
Smelling of murder and orchids
And green rivers
Hanging dark with mystery

Turn back now and you
Will have stories to tell
And grandchildren to listen
With shining faces
Warm fires
Soft beds

Sail on, and you will see
Sail on, compass drowned
Charts burned
Lifeboats broken to splinters
Sail on

Sail on

And you will be changed
You will wear the stars like adamantine scales
And the moon like great pearly horns
And you will become splendid
And you will become vast

You will become a monster.

David Holcomb
Winslow, Arkansas, November 2014

Truth and lies.

My copy is somewhat more up to date than this one.

My copy is somewhat more up to date than this one.

I was poking around among the bookshelves a day or so ago, looking for something to entertain me as the first cool weather of the season settles in, when I spotted my rather tattered Penguin Classics copy of the Histories of Herodotus.

This is one of those books that I like to read once every decade or so. It’s long (over 620 pages in this edition), and the print gets smaller every time I pick it up, but there’s something cozy and comforting about it, like that sweater that you would never dream of wearing where people could see you, but that’s perfect for puttering around the house. There’s enough snob value in just having the book in your hand that you don’t have to slave over the really heavy parts; when the political stuff gets dull you can always skip to the stories about headless cannibals roaming the Libyan desert or the bedroom antics of the King of Lydia, his wife, and the palace guard.

Herotodus lived and worked during the decades on either side of about 450 BC, born in what is now Bodrum, Turkey, then a Greek town called Halicarnassus. We know that he traveled a lot and talked to a lot of people – although how much he traveled and how many people he actually talked to is a subject for some debate.

The Roman orator Cicero, some three and a half centuries later, called Herotodus the “Father of History”.

More recent commentators have called Herodotus the “Father of Lies”.

. . .

Every now and then somebody reading one of my blog posts takes exception to a bit of data – a statistic, a description, or some discreet character assassination – that I may have included without having identified my source.

If what I was doing was serious research, or scholarly investigation, or even journalism, this would be a valid and important concern, but these essays are just my personal ruminations on subjects that interest me: I strive for accuracy, and I am prepared to defend any factual data that I use, but I don’t think footnotes are really necessary.

And let’s face it: some of my posts are long enough as it is.

A few of the folks who worked with me during my years in television newsrooms will no doubt remember my obsession with factual accuracy. I’m a product of an era when the comments of “unnamed sources” did not make it into front page news, and phrases like “some experts have suggested” or “individuals close to the case have indicated” were systematically – and sometimes brutally – rooted out of the aspiring journalist’s repertoire by the time he or she graduated high school.

When I’m assembling information for a blog post, I usually begin with a topic with which I am already pretty conversant, and then fill in the blanks from there. I look for primary sources where I can find them – if I am going to quote from the book of Genesis, for example, I go get the Bible down and look up the chapter and verse: I don’t pull something from the collected wit and wisdom of Jimmy Swaggert and hope for the best – and if primary sources are not available, I make sure that whoever I’m relying upon has the right credentials.

I’m not trying to expand the scope of human knowledge: I’m looking for context and connections. I’m just an interested amateur talking about things that I think are worth talking about.

History, like political commentary, is one of those fields that attracts a lot of amateurs.

The chemist or the molecular biologist is not likely to feel any sort of innate personal affinity with a hydrogen nucleus or a molecule of adenosine triphosphate. The subject matter demands rigor and discipline; nobody just assumes that he’ll be able to pick it up by reading a couple of articles in Discover magazine. The history buff, on the other hand, is dealing with people just like himself, flesh-and-blood men and women who got up in the morning and ate breakfast and argued with their children and fed their pets and worried about the rent just like everybody else. It’s easy to feel that you know more than you really do. There’s something very subjective about history: once you get past the names and dates, there always seems to be a lot of room for interpretation.

. . .

Over the centuries Herodotus has drifted in and out of fashion. As more scientific methods of approaching historical research led to new insights in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholars began to downgrade the old personal-narrative style of historical writing; Herodotus, Procopius, Tacitus and others were increasingly viewed as, at best, commentators, and at worst, fabulists and liars, using history as a vehicle for political, social, religious or cultural illustration without any real commitment to objective facts. This did not necessarily diminish their popularity as authors, but their contributions to modern understanding of the times in which they had lived were viewed as less meaningful from a historical perspective.

History, like the sciences, had become focused on attempting to document an objective reality.

In practice, of course, there is no such thing, at least not in terms of our ability to observe and communicate what we are able to learn. Everyone filters reality through a prism of personal experience, cultural expectations, and social limitations. [see also House of Mirrors, a previous essay in this blog] In today’s information-saturated world, separating fact from fable has become so difficult that we often don’t even bother any more. We’re like ants standing in the path of an avalanche of sand.

Herodotus wrote of a race of ants the size of bobcats living in the deserts of what is now Afghanistan who dug  through the sand for gold with which to line their tunnels.

News outlets routinely present a view of reality that owes more to the expectations of sponsors and stockholders than to any commitment to documenting real events. In Colorado and Texas educational authorities are working at this very moment to rewrite history books in order to remove anything that offends their present-day political outlook. Everyone has an axe to grind, or a skeleton to hide.

Father of History/Father of Lies: who do we trust?

What really matters in the end is not what the writer is doing, but whether the reader has the critical capacity that will allow him or her to categorize and qualify what is being said, separating useful data from the distracting overlay of the writer’s intentions. We’re not just hollow vessels waiting to be filled with information: each of us has the ability to apply logic and reason to the information, developing a context, a matrix against which we can judge each new fact as it appears.

Father of Lies/Father of History: does it really matter?

It’s not up to the historian – or the politician, or the preacher, or the pundit – to decide what is fact and what is fiction. All they can do is explain their particular point of view, to build up that mountain of sand grain by grain.

It’s up to us to find the particles of gold in it.