A Likely Story

“It was a likely story. But then, all of his stories were likely.” – Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

In a somewhat pointless exchange on Facebook recently (but aren’t they all, usually?) a friend-of-a-friend, struggling to defend against a criticism of current US President Donald Trump, trotted out the “birther” trope: the assertion that Barack Obama was actually born in Africa.

When all else fails, you can always blame it on time travel.

Her conviction is supported by a widely-circulated image of an alleged birth certificate labeled “The Republic of Kenya” and dated August, 1961. The simple historical fact that the Republic of Kenya only came into existence in December of 1964, three and half years after the date on the certificate, is not a deterrent to this woman’s belief in the absolute integrity of the document. She has harnessed her wagon to that particular mule; that the animal is dead and decaying bothers her not in the least. It’s her mule, and she plans to keep lashing away at it until the race has been run.

Meanwhile …

In a throwaway segment on “Good Morning America” a few days ago, television presenter Lara Spencer listed the activities in which Prince George, future King of England, would be participating as he began the new school year: one of those activities was ballet, a fact that Ms Spencer seemed to find amusing – amusing not in a “let’s be happy with this child” kind of way, but in a “let’s all make fun of this little sissy” kind of way.

Ms Spencer, whose credentials as a journalist include such highlights as a stint on “Antiques Roadshow”, and the host slot on “Flea Market Flip”, implied that the young Prince would lose his interest in dance very quickly, because people like her would be making fun of him for it.

We all have our own sacred cows, ideas that are so deeply embedded in our psyches that we are willing to go to any lengths, make any sacrifice, to defend them. Unlike concepts that are patently stupid, like Holocaust denial or trickle-down economics or Adam Sandler movies, these are so intrinsic to our worldview that they are usually invisible to us. Examining them objectively is like trying to see the back of one’s own head. When they cause us to do harm, it’s not because we mean to hurt anyone: Ms Spencer, in laughing at the young prince’s interests, did not intend malice toward the boy but rather was basing her comments on a stereotype, then using that same stereotype to justify her comments.

“We’re making fun of him for his interest in ballet because we are convinced that he won’t enjoy it because people will make fun of him for it.”  Makes perfect sense, right?

It should be mentioned that, had Barack Obama in fact been born in the East Africa colony, he would not have been the only US President born under the British flag. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and William Henry Harrison were all born in the British Colony of Virginia; John Adams and John Quincy Adams were born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; and Andrew Jackson was born in the Carolina Colony. The first President actually born in the United States of America was Number Nine, Martin Van Buren, born in New York in 1782.

For the birther, it’s obvious that Barack Obama did not belong in the White House. She believes this because her background, her socialization, her identity all tell her that a non-white person cannot be President of the United States; but phrasing the issue in that explicit way conflicts with her conscious self-image, which says that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” – so she has to find a likely story that will mesh the very real revulsion she feels at the spectacle of a black man in a position of power with her view of herself as an educated and unbiased judge of persons and events. Toss in the (to her) unusual name, and the acknowledged fact that Mr Obama’s father came from the place that would eventually become the Republic of Kenya, and the solution is obvious: she can tell herself that her objection isn’t that Barack Obama isn’t white enough, it’s that he isn’t American enough.

“I don’t care whether the man is black or white; I’m just saying that the only way a black man could have been elected President is if there was a complex multinational conspiracy at all levels of government and society to put him there illegitimately. It has nothing to do with race.” 

I like to consider myself pretty reasonable: my worldview is not based on animist superstition or the even more bizarre pronouncements of Jenny McCarthy or Franklin Graham, but on science and observation. This is what I want to believe about myself. This is my “likely story”.

When a paper wasp from the colony living above my front door lands on my arm, I don’t dance and scream and flail: I just stand there and wait for her to get bored and move on. Paper wasps (genus Polistes) have incredibly painful stings, so the visitor represents a very real threat, but I am sufficiently rational that I can remain calm and avoid confrontation. On the other hand, if one of the absolutely harmless camel crickets that infest my basement jumps onto my shoe, I go flying out the door and across the yard, hopping and squealing like a three-year-old at a pool party. I explain this behavior in a variety of ways: the creatures are close relatives of the cockroach; they are slimy to the touch; they feed on the kind of nasty detritus that one finds in a hundred-year-old dirt-floor basement; and so on. None of my “logical” explanations are at all convincing, but I have to try, because otherwise I’d have to accept that I’m behaving in a completely ridiculous, irrational way, out of unthinking fear, and that’s uncomfortable for me.

The genetic differences between a “black” American and a “white” American are often no greater than the distinctions between two people in a single family. Race is an artificial social construct that has no biological basis. The very definition of “black” or “white” is ambiguous: for many Americans a blue-eyed blond with one Nigerian grandparent can’t be considered white, while for others having a white mother meant that Barack Obama was about as black as Tilda Swinton. The terms of the argument are so deeply flawed that the argument itself can’t be anything but meaningless – yet, here we are.

Likewise, the idea that Prince George deserves a certain amount of ridicule for enjoying ballet derives from two completely valueless premises: one, that people will assume that he is gay, and two, that being considered gay will justify his being ridiculed. Both of these assertions have weight only because the people using them to support their beliefs give them that weight.

“My argument is valid because it is based on premises that are valid because the argument I’m making that is based on those premises is valid …”

I’ll be damned. There it is.

In the end, the birther lady on Facebook slunk away, outraged that nobody bothered to challenge her, to give her a forum to vent some spleen, but instead just treated her like a doddering relative appearing unwanted at the dinner table: “Bless her heart, she doesn’t know what she’s saying, poor old thing …” Lara Spencer, meanwhile, published a non-apology on Instagram, accompanied by a picture of a lovely, but quite empty, landscape: in a more prescient individual, one could interpret that as a bit of self-deprecating humor, but … well, it’s probably just the first picture she found that wasn’t a selfie.

Barack Obama continues to bask in very high popularity numbers, and presumably Prince George will have a good time learning his pliés and I wish him well in the struggle he will face to find an identity for himself in the goldfish bowl in which he and his family live their lives.

Me? I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got. Camel crickets still give me the heebie-jeebies, and I’m still no better at examining the back of my own head than anybody else, but at least I try to remember that it’s there.

Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.

card_catalog_2I don’t like country music. The yodeling vocals, the whining guitars, the relentlessly predictable lyrics about faithless babes, abusive bubbas, pickup trucks, disreputable nightspots in the middle of nowhere … An hour of this, and a visitor from another planet would marvel that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line had not long since slid off into the Gulf of Mexico, crushed into slurry under the weight of all that drama and all those tears.

“Wait just a gosh-darned minute!” I hear someone shouting from the back row. “Yes, a lot of country music is like that, but it’s not all the same. You’re being unfair.” Continue reading

Bonfire of the Vanities

Just can't have anything nice around here ...

Just can’t have anything nice with you around here …

During my survey of the art news this week I happened upon a provocative headline from the Daily Beast: Why Artist Gerhard Richter Destroys His Own Art. The title of the article is a bit misleading: the writer asks the question but she does not actually attempt to answer it; instead she merely elaborates on the fact that Mr Richter has destroyed a considerable number of his own paintings over the years. She did, however, get me thinking about artists and their emotional relationship to the products of their craft — because I, too, often feel the desire to haul a big load of my artwork out into the yard and set it on fire. Continue reading

Seeing it all in black and white.

zebraFor much of my childhood (up through, I believe, about 1970) all of my family’s television viewing was on an RCA portable of late 1950s vintage, a clunky plastic thing with an extensible antenna on top and a wood-grain panel on the front decorated with dials and knobs that read “On/Off”, “VHF”, “UHF”, and “Fine Tune”. Inside the unit’s scorched yellowy-beige backside brooded a clutch of humming, glowing vacuum tubes, and its strangely convex twelve-inch screen delivered the Kennedy funeral and I Love Lucy reruns alike in a palette consisting entirely of gentle, hazy grays. Continue reading

The Barbarians at the Gates

"Get off my lawn, dammit!"

“Get off my lawn, dammit!”

Last Tuesday, in a California courtroom, a judge sentenced 23-year-old Casey Nocket to two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service after Nocket pleaded guilty to seven counts of damaging government property. Over the span of about a month in 2014, Ms Nocket had used indelible markers to paint large cartoonish figures on prominent rock surfaces in various national parks in California, Colorado, Utah, and Oregon; she had then posted photos of her doodles to Instagram.

News accounts of Ms Nocket’s exploits invariably use terms like “vandalism” and “vandalized”. This was a characterization to which the defendant objected during the court proceedings, and I would have to agree with her: real Vandals don’t deserve such a comparison. Continue reading

Journal: Wednesday, August 19

Khaled al-Asaad

Khaled al-Asaad

Frustrated ISIS militants holding the city of Palmyra yesterday beheaded 82-year-old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad.

When Islamic State fighters first began to move in on the city — a UNESCO World Heritage site which dates back to Roman times — Asaad, the director of antiquities for Palmyra, moved everything portable into hiding. Once the city had fallen into ISIS hands, the militants began looting the site, hoping to sell priceless artifacts to wealthy collectors in the US, Europe and Asia to help fund their activities in the region. They captured al-Asaad and tortured him for a month, before finally beheading him yesterday and leaving his mutilated body hanging from a post.

Khaled al-Asaad never revealed the hiding place of the treasures that he was holding in trust for future generations.

As an artist fascinated by history, places like Palmyra resonate for me on many levels; I can’t help but see its survival into my lifetime as a bridge reaching across two thousand years, connecting me with the Romans who built the city and created many of its treasures. People like me depend on people like al-Asaad to protect that bridge.

I’m not one of those people who believes that all victims are automatically heroes, but I think Khaled al-Asaad deserves to be called a hero.

Nothing if not critical …

"The Art Critic", by Normal Rockwell

“The Art Critic”, by Normal Rockwell

The death of writer and television personality Robert Hughes in 2012 was an event that did not exactly shake western civilization to its roots. His television shows “The Shock of the New” (1980) and “American Visions” (1997) had brought him some fame in the rarefied air of the BBC/PBS universe, but despite a long and wide-ranging career – he penned an  overview of the early European colonization of his native Australia, he contributed to an array of newspapers and magazines, and he even hosted (for one week, before being replaced by Hugh Downs) the ABC television news magazine “20/20” – to most people outside the art world he was almost unknown at the time of his death.

With or without fame, in his views on art Robert Hughes was passionate, pompous, often obnoxious, but he was also unfailingly erudite and articulate, and he left us more aware and better-informed than he found us. Continue reading

Journal: Monday, April 20

It always amazes and amuses me to see how a whole nest of unconnected obsessions can manage to circle around and overlap when you least expect it.

"Orithyia", 2015, by yours truly.

“Orithyia”, 2015, by yours truly.

I finished a painting a couple of days ago to which I gave the title “Orithyia”. The name refers to an incident in classical Greek myth in which Boreas, the god of the north wind, takes a shine to a woman (or possibly a nymph, depending on your source) named Orithyia. When his courtship — admittedly clumsy, as Boreas is the rough north wind, not the suave west wind — does not win her over, he simply carries her off in a whirlwind and has his way with her anyway.

Orithyia becomes mother to four children over the years, daughters Chione and Cleopatra (no, not that Cleopatra, although probably the source for her name) and sons Calais and Zetes. The boys take after their dad and grow wings; they eventually became Argonauts, members of Jason’s merry band of thieves determined to steal the Golden Fleece from the king of Colchis.

Now let’s skip from ancient Greece to Austria in 1914, where artist Oskar Kokoschka produces what many consider his masterpiece, “The Bride of the Wind”. The painting depicts a pair of lovers cuddled up in the midst of a violent storm, the woman asleep, the man looking harried. “Bride of the Wind” was my first choice for the title for my little painting, but then I decided it sounded a bit too sturm und drang so I opted for the more straighforward title instead. My painting does not refer to the Kokoschka picture in any way, but I knew that my first title had been used before and under what circumstances.

"Bride of the Wind", 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

“Bride of the Wind”, 1914, by Oskar Kokoschka

While “Orithyia” is based on classical myth, “Bride of the Wind” is autobiographical: it depicts the stormy and destructive relationship between Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, who ultimately dumped the artist, sending him into a decades-long spiral of craziness.

If Alma’s last name looks familiar, that’s because she was by that time the widow of Gustav Mahler, in my opinion one of the greatest composers of symphonic music in the twentieth century. Like magic, we have the inevitable Mahler connection.

Interestingly enough, though, it goes even further: I have always been fascinated by the guiding principles of the Bauhaus, the design school founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919. After being Gustav Mahler’s bride, but previous to becoming Oskar Kokoschka’s “Bride of the Wind”, Alma Mahler had had another lover: Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

Greek myth, Gustav Mahler, and the Bauhaus. Whirlwind, indeed.


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. Continue reading

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?