Sunday, April 29, 2007

“Sure, I went to college. Got kicked out of three of them. Drinking and gambling. Not like you, huh? All right, so I’m a bum.
“I want to do something. Everything. I’ve got a theory – that you should do everything before you die. Have you ever driven a car, blindfolded, at 150 miles per hour? I did. I flew in a jet plane, too. Ffffffeeeew! Man that’s a thrill -- almost blew the sawdust out of my head. And I’m going to make a reservation on the first rocket to the moon.”
Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) fondles his tie clip as he discusses swapping murders with tennis champ Guy Haines (Farley Granger) in Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film of Patricia Highsmith's novel Strangers on a Train.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Self portrait with velvet jacket and super fantastic plaid dog neck tie which was purchased for the princely sum of four dollars right here in New York City.

Authenticity and Pop Music

The question of authenticity in popular music is a gnarly one. What's more real: Bon Jovi or Skid Row? Skid Row or Mötley Crüe? Mötley Crüe or Metallica? Metallica or Megadeth?

When I was in high school I asked myself those questions, opting to advertise my choices of the last two bands in black t-shirts and keep my Skid Row and Mötley Crüe to myself. Bon Jovi was too wimpy to bother with.

Add the element of race to the question and it gets gnarlier still. No white hip hop fan can ever feel quite as authentic as any black fan. Suburban white kids may argue about how race is a state of mind to justify and increase the legitimacy of their fandom. What they are trying to say is that race is cultural, and they may be right, but unless their peers are mostly black and their home is in the city, they share none of the culture promoted by their hip hop heroes. They have to manufacture it.

And in a way, that's what all fans are doing -- manufacturing culture. Punk rock was one of the most nakedly manufactured subcultures we've ever had. Was it any more or less authentic than hip hop in or out of suburbia?

What qualifies anything as authentic?

Last weekend I saw Kevin Spacey, Colm Meaney, and Eve Best in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten. All three actors were superb, especially Ms. Best, but what moved me most was to see Best crying when she came out for a bow. She so obviously believed in what she was doing, believed her part so completely that the tears were real. She wasn't faking it. That's authentic.

The question came up among a couple of my friends when I e-mailed them a review of Faking It: the quest for authenticity in popular music by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor in The New Statesman.

The title of the book, the review tells us, comes from a suicide note that Kurt Cobain wrote. By the time Cobain did himself in, I had relegated him to a has-been category of musicians whose public persona and self-indulgences eclipsed their music. Like Madonna or Michael Jackson.

So what can that big phony tell us about authenticity? The first chapter of the book discusses Kurt Cobain and Leadbelly, the blues legend. Reviewer Jeff Sharlet describes it:
Cobain's companion is Leadbelly, a favourite of folk aficionados who to this day perceive him as a giant of "black music", even though the vast majority of his fans were white. (When white producers brought Leadbelly to New York City in 1935 to play "traditional" music, Life magazine declared in a headline: "Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel".) Cobain's swan song, performed on MTV's Unplugged a few months before his suicide, was a cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", about a woman who wanders into the woods after her husband is hit by a train. Cobain, so deep into the authenticity trap by then that he'd never escape, seemed to be making one last attempt not to "fake it", by reviving a song by his "favourite performer", and exiting the stage without an encore.
It would be inauthentic for a presumably rich white musician to sing soulfully -- as if he'd had a hard life -- a song written by a black man whose life presumably was hard, a song about tragedy. But Leadbelly himself wasn't what he seemed. His white manager had him perform in prison clothes to make him look more ... authentic. Was he playing real "black" music, or was his music what his white manager thought white people would think sounded like "black" music?

When I e-mailed the article to my friend K, he questioned the very idea of criticizing pop music:
I like criticism, but I think it has little business framing low culture as something fixed and serious. Low culture is about simple pleasure, not engaging our highest faculties for mechanical introspection. Low culture can be quite introspective, but it is personal and attached instead of impersonal and detached.
Good point. Where is the listener in all of this talk of authenticity? When I'm moved by a song, what does it matter what the musician was thinking? Or where he or she came from?

I've found myself (inexplicably) moved by songs from artists as diverse as Ozzy Osbourne, Cyndi Lauper (why does "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" sound so sad to me?), the Rolling Stones, 60s pop princess Linda Scott, jazz legend Ornette Coleman, and the Norwegian electronic/folk singer Erlend Øye.

A search for meaning that doesn't take the artist into account has more weight in a world with fewer and fewer live performances. When the gulf between musician and audience is as huge as it seems to be today, it's easier to say the author's dead.

But don't we get something more out of learning about an artist's development? K thinks so:
Articles about the inspiration for music are my favorite music writing. I love hearing how much Catholicism has influenced James Mercer of The Shins. Tom Morrello of Rage Against the Machine has a Kenyan father, who owns a tea plantation. Duncan Shiek is a prep school kid. These facts about their lives let me make inferences about the art. It seems more fitting and more personal. Assessing authenticity is much easier when the artist's style correlates well with their history. Mercer's contemplative style fits the expanse of Catholicism. Morrello's elite father is the epitome of what Rage railed against.

Shiek's music is overly folksy and I bet it's a response to his stuffy prep school. You can't fix the flux of low culture. I hate when critics even try. Their rule is too straight and only their mass of previous work can give them authority. I'd rather hear it from the horses mouth.
Inauthentic would be if the musicians told us what we wanted to hear in an interview. If the musician didn't believe what he or she was saying. If the musicians weren't genuinely moved by their own music.

My other friend, I'll call him A, didn't like the review. The premise seemed pointless to him:
I think anyone chasing (or claiming to chase) (big-A) Authenticity as a record collector, critical listener, reviewer, etc. is after something that never existed in the first place. I thought the article was headed that direction with "great popular music is always a collage of cultures" but it was a dead-end. There are many ways to judge music, but this is not one of them.
That quote he refers to is the part of the review that I thought made the most sense, too:
The strongest argument of Faking It is for the endless "miscegenation" of music. Great popular music is always a collage of cultures, while the quest for authenticity all too often functions as a means of policing racial boundaries.
Or of collecting money from plagiarism suits.

To be fair, none of the three of us have read this book. We're all reacting to an article about the book. But isn't that just like pop music's development? Leadbelly plays a song he learned from black musicians who learned from white musicians who were imitating something they heard once from a black musician who would have played differently if he only had a better guitar. And then Kurt Cobain thinks he's playing something purely, authentically real decades later -- something more real than he could come up with on his own. In fact, he chose this song by this musician to cover because he thought it might lend him a little authenticity.

None of this is real. My friend A says it's safest to assume all rock stars are motivated by trying to earn a buck and impress the opposite sex. He wrote:
Why does anyone do anything at all? The whole world is fake...

It's not fake or inauthentic, it's self-interest. And it can be a powerful motivator to produce great art.
The only real thing we can each rely upon is what we feel when we hear the music. Even if it changes all the time.

If that sounds too wish-washy, try this:

1. Spending too much time criticizing ephemeral pop music is missing the point of pop music.
2. Looking too long for authenticity in popular music, a theatrical enterprise full of posturing and costumes, is silly.
3. All art inherits something from its predecessors.
4. There's no accounting, as they say, for taste. While I may hear something deeply sad and true in Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," A and K may dismiss it as pap.
5. To elaborate on the point above, as much as any artist brings to a song, both in its conception and performance, we as listeners bring our own set of experiences and preferences and predilections when we hear that song.
6. Any time we can learn about the artist and his or her artistic process, we add another layer to our experience of the art.
7. Even the phoniest artist can move us if his or her art is well-crafted.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

More smoke. Photo by my brother.

High-Speed Classics

I'm fairly well-read, but there certainly are some large gaps in my knowledge of classic literature. I have never, for instance read anything by William Faulkner. As an English major, this is just no good.

I thought of Faulkner because his name came up in Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, a daily e-mail newsletter full of literary and historical tidbits. On Wednesday I learned this about the novelist Padgett Powell:
He was a 20-year-old college student when he admitted to his favorite literature professor that he'd never read anything by Faulkner. She was horrified, and immediately gave him a copy of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! which changed his life.
So maybe I've got a treat in store for me.

I'll confess that I still haven't finished Moby Dick, even though I wrote a paper on it, but to my credit, I read The Great Gatsby on my own, and plan to read it again. I've never finished anything by Dickens, but I have read Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night. I've never delved into the works of Jane Austen, Emile Zola, and Leo Tolstoy, but I have read lots of Don Delillo and almost everything by Graham Greene and Kurt Vonnegut.

And as gap-ridden as my repertoire may be, I still feel that I can afford a bit of literary snobbishness. I once sought to barrel through Victor Hugo's enormous adventure The Count of Monte Cristo one summer, when, sitting on a northern Minnesota beach, I spotted some tiny white print on the cover of my edition that read: "Abridged Version." At first I didn't believe it; the book was still well over 500 pages long! I threw it to the sand in disgust. I would not read a Cliff's Notes of a classic, any more than I would watch one of those DVDs edited for content by Mormons.

Ask any abstract artist if he or she would mind if their painting were to be hung sideways or upside-down, much less cropped, and you will get a very loud, indignant response.

This was my reaction when I read in the Times Online about Orion Group's plan for some "Compact Editions" of Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, Moby Dick, Vanity Fair, and Wives and Daughters.

The effort, as many moralizing efforts do, began with shame:
Malcolm Edwards, publisher of Orion Group, said that the idea had developed from a game of “humiliation”, in which office staff confessed to the most embarrassing gaps in their reading. He admitted that he had never read Middlemarch and had tried but failed to get through Moby Dick several times, while a colleague owned up to skipping Vanity Fair.
The remedy Edwards came up with was to hack away as much as 40% of the "filller" that makes up these books.

Hearing this news, one of the proprietors of the London bookshop, Crockatt and Powell, wrote in the shop's blog:
Editing the classics is a bit like watching football highlights. It might be more entertaining in a "goals per second" way but to think it is in any way close to the real experience is pure delusion. Those who read the edited classics are missing the point.
I couldn't agree more. He suggests reading short stories by great writers as an easier way into the classics.

Incidentally, a Scottish friend once told me that Americans lobbied to speed up the game of soccer by making the goal larger, which would allow for higher scores. The rest of the world wouldn't have it. Goals, in soccer (or football, as the rest of the world calls it), are not the measure of a good game; rather it's what happens between goals. It's the finesse and the strategy, the dexterity.

It reminds me of a column in The Guardian -- John Crace's "The Digested Read." I have a collection of these quick summaries, which USA Today called "Modern popular fiction recapped in 400 words or less." The fun of the recaps, though, is that Crace does them in the style of the authors. Will Self's back cover blurb is apt:
With this indispensible volume you need no longer waste time and money on reading contemporary fiction.
Or Self's own book, Dorian, which is in this collection.

I don't believe that we all have to be well-versed in every bit of classical literature, art, and whatnot. When I'm in a museum I walk through and stop only at the pieces that catch my fancy. I'm done with treating art as medicine, reading every single wall label and scrutinzing every brush stroke. I find what I like, give extra time to the historically significant stuff, and forsake almost everything in between. Of course something different catches me every time.

Occasionally I'll challenge myself with something new. And occasionally I'll be surprised by what catches my eye. I've ignored Cy Twombly's work in books, but seeing his giant abstract works at MoMA, I was moved.

I'll ingest my culture at my own pace. I won't water it down with sugar to make it sweeter or put it in the blender to pre-digest it. I'd rather consume the stuff that's good for me along with the trash and the filler. I believe that merely knowing the plot of Anna Karenina is not enough, and beside the point. If we really wanted to feel the full force of these classics, we would be reading them in the original languages. I won't modify them further by extracting the boring bits.

The best thing we can all do to enrich our lives is to strike at the impulse that tells us 'I don't have the time to read Anna Karenina.' We may be as selective as we want to be, but when time is what restricts our intake of good things, there's something seriously wrong. We need to slow down, relax, and step back. Make the time to do the things you want to do.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Price of a New Museum

Last weekend my mother and I went to the Neue Galerie, the museum of Austrian and German art along Central Park across Fifth Avenue from the Met.

It's in a corner building from 1914, built by the architects who designed the famous New York Public Library. It was built as a private home. In 1994, the art collector Serge Sabarsky bought it with Ronald Lauder (of Estée Lauder cosmetics fame; he is her son) to house the former's collection of Austrian and German art. Lauder was ambassador to Austria in 1986, appointed by Reagan. He ran for mayor of New York in 1989 and has been the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art. The Neue Galerie opened in 2001 after a renovation.

The pride of the museum's collection is the painting above, Gustav Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I, an oil painting with gold and silver from 1907. The woman in the painting was the wife of an Austrian Jewish business man who made money in sugar.

The painting was fought over for years with the subject's niece on one side and the Austrian government, which claimed the painting and others by Klimt were willed to it, on the other. The family's claim was that their possessions were seized by the Nazis. The family sued the Austrian government in U.S. courts all the way to the Supreme Court. Eventually, the painting and four others by Klimt were theirs once again.

Last June, Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold to Ronald Lauder for the sum of $135 million dollars, the most over paid for a single painting.

It now hangs in the Neue Galerie, on the second floor, in a prominent place. It's a beautiful painting, but it was hard for me to focus on it -- I've seen posters of Klimt's more famous painting The Kiss hanging in girls' dorm rooms far too many times to be dazzled by any of Klimt's gilt and patchwork. It ceases to have any meaning for me.

It's worth pausing for moment to marvel at the price of the painting, though -- $135 million. To put that into perspective, no easy feat, consider the addition to Frank Gehry's first museum design, the Weisman Museum (1993) on the University of Minnesota campus. Gehry has the rare opportunity to design the expansion of his own building, something few architects ever live to do.

The addition will add 11,000 square feet to the museum's 47,000, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, an expansion of 25 percent. The museum cost $14.3 million to build, and the expansion is predicted to cost another $10 million. That's about one quarter of the cost of Ronald Lauder's Klimt painting.

It makes one wonder what it would cost to start a museum from nothing -- surely the price of construction is only a fraction of whst it costs to stock the damn thing. Alice L. Walton, the Wal-Mart heiress is doing just that. In 2005 she bought Asher B. Durand's famous American painting Kindred Spirits (1849) for about the price of the Weisman Museum's construction and expansion -- $35 million. She bought it from the New York Public Library to install in her planned Bentonville, Arkansas museum, which will be designed by Moshe Safdie (who recently completed the amazing Salt Lake City Library) and called The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Walton's collection already contains two famous portraits of George Washington, one (at right) by Gilbert Stuart (1797) and another by Charles Willson Peale (1780-82). The latter painting cost a mere $6.2 million.

Mrs. Walton could learn a lot from the painter Charles Willson Peale. He was also the founder of the oldest art museum and art school in America, what is now the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He started it with some other business leaders in 1805, decades after his own Peale Museum opened in 1786.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Smoke, as captured by my brother

Boos and Honks

A segment of The Brian Lehrer Show this morning on WNYC, New York Public Radio, was about booing at baseball games, particularly booing one's own team. Lehrer quoted a local sports writer who had a theory: on the East coast, sports fans see themselves as consumers and in the Midwest, sports fans see teams as extensions of themselves.

The East coast fans are quick to boo if their team lets them down, while the Midwestern fans take poor performance personally and would rarely, if ever, boo.

Is this part of a greater fundamental difference between the these regions of America? Has anyone out there ever been to a sporting event in the Midwest when fans booed their own team? I've always thought booing was bad manners. For me to boo, I'd have to hate, and sports merely disappoints.

Then again, I've noticed that when drivers honk horns in New York City, they are angry but for a moment, and then they move on. By the time a Minnesots driver honks, he or she is ready to kill, and will hold a grudge for miles.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Mormons, Explained

I'm quivering with anticipation over next week's PBS documentary on The Mormons, a two part, four hour extravaganza about this weird and influential church of 12 million. The Deseret News, the official church mouthpiece, says (through Mormon spokesman Michael Purdy) "We simply want viewers to understand that the church is the subject of this film, not its producer." The church cooperated but didn't fund the film.

It's a co-production between PBS's Frontline and its series American Experience, the first such collaboration, and it will air on April 30 and May 1. It will also be viewable online.

For a little preview into the Mormon mystique, check out this story from the Salt Lake City Weekly (September 2005) called "The Gangs of Zion." It's about the Tongan Crip Gang and their rivals, the Baby Regulators. One unpredictable result of the LDS (Mormon) proselytizing in Polynesia was the rise of gang violence in the Tongan and Samoan Mormon community that was created in Salt Lake City:
For young Polynesians, what started as reasonable self-defense against other ghettoized ethnic groups, or else grew out of the centuries-old rivalry between Samoans and Tongans, has become a monster that has disfigured their powerful family allegiances. The LDS Church, for the most part, has left Polynesian families to fend for themselves. Now, the resulting cycle of violence is crashing down through the generations.
We may not hear about that in the PBS documentary. The rest of the article gives a fascinating history of Mormon Polynesia, which started in the mid-nineteenth century. But wait, it gets weirder:
According to traditional church teachings, Polynesians and American Indians are Lamanites, a tribe of Israel that was wicked; as punishment, God colored their skin dark and banished them to the wilderness, where they would stay until the Mormons saved them.
That's right, most of the darker-skinned peoples of the Western hemisphere (and some of the Eastern) are considered the descendants of the people who committed genocide against the "good" tribe of Israel that settled North America.

On a lighter note, City Weekly's "Best of 2006" includes the following, under the heading BEST POLYGAMIST SIGHTINGS:
Starbucks at 700 East & 2100 South

If you live in Sandy, according to HBO’s Big Love, you only have to look out the window to see plural wives going about their business. While there may well be some truth to that, common lore has it that the one place you’re bound to see women in old-fashioned skirts is at Costco, buying in bulk. But if you want that more intimate, elbow-rubbing feeling, go to the Starbucks on 21st South, sit down at a table, and if you’re lucky, you might find yourself next to a man and one of his sister-wives deep in conversation.
So it's true! Polygamy (or more accurately polygyny -- Greek for many wives) is alive and well in suburban Salt Lake.

One last thing to amuse and delight you till next week: A sphinx with the head of LDS founder Jospeh Smith, carved by a devout mid-twentieth century artist named Thomas Child. Feast your eyes:
More on Child's art later.

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Today in the Park

While sitting on a lakeside bench in Brooklyn's Prospect Park late this afternoon, I watched a bit of wedding photography. I saw an androgynous character on a folding bike puzzling out how to pick some high-hanging magnolia blooms, and then I was greeted by a snapping turtle the size of a watch face as it crossed the path on its way to the lake.

And I observed a disgraceful quantity of garbage as it lay scattered about the park. I saw gum wrappers, beer bottle caps, cap-less lip balm, shreds of toilet paper, a SIM card from a cell phone, bright plastic bottle tops, and half a folding aluminum scooter.

Still, the grass was green and I could smell the magnolia petals even through my stuffy nose. And the loudest noises were birds and ducks and geese –- not horns and engines.

Later the sound of a race car intruded, and persisted. As it happened, it was a very small one, about the size of a shoe box -- a remote controlled car with a tiny internal combustion engine from the sound of it.

Then I saw a swan glide across the water smoothly and quietly.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


The Masticator's famous toothbrush collection features, from left to right: a double-ended canine brush, an Oral-B Pulsar brush with Split Head and MicroPulse Bristles, an imitation tortoise acetate handle brush with natural bristles by Swissco, a Butler GUM 2-in-1 tongue cleaner, a Radius Intelligent Toothbrush with two-minute timer, A Radius Original brush (right-handed), and another canine brush.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Is there a perfect hand dryer out there somewhere? Is there a Platonic ideal that all hand dryers aspire to, but merely imitate poorly? Doug Wilson's photographic series of 18 hand dryers from around thw world on the website Polar Inertia gives us an average to build on.

The caption on the first photo reads:
This is a study in the banal. The boring. The completely uninteresting. The things we see everyday. The utilitarian objects that become invisible. It's fascinating that the absolute banality of the objects is what makes them all so unique and interesting. These images are a culmination of an eight month trip around the world. During this time I documented hand dryers in public bathrooms everywhere from Sydney to Beijing, Cairo to Vienna.
Only when we see an unfamiliar version of the familiar do we take another look at what we see every day.

Collections of any common object, however banal, force us to look at them anew. Take my paper clip collection. I have American, Japanese, and Danish clips, along with a couple that came from I'm not sure where. I see the same sort of variation in a mundane object that is shown in the hand dryer photos or that a world traveler might notice in electrical sockets.

Seeing these versions of bent wire paper holders shows just what it is that makes a paper clip a paper clip.

Putting them next to each other, or photographing them carefully elevates them to -- perhaps not art -- self-consciously designed creations. They show us how one idea or one need can be realized in different ways. These are utilitarian objects, things that don't need to look nice. They are functional, and their design reflects those functions -- holding paper together, drying wet hands.

But if we imagine that an object that serves a function needs no fancy design, we still come up with variation, and get no closer to a Platonic ideal.

Monday, April 16, 2007

National Poetry Month

In honor of National Poetry Month, I've written a poem. I call it:
National Poetry Month

April is
National Poetry Month
But did you know
That it is also
Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month?


Sunday, April 15, 2007

We Should Can That

There's a scene in Steve Martin's The Jerk when Martin's character Navin R. Johnson, the adopted white son of black sharecroppers in the deep South, is being schooled in the ways of life before he sets off to find his way in the world. His father shows him a can of shoe polish and says, "Shinola." He points to something on the ground and says, "Shit."

"Right," says the dull-witted by earnest Navin, pointing to each in turn. "Shit. Shinola. Shit. Shinola."

The expression, "doesn't know shit from shinola" isn't in my Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, but it ought to be. According to the website The Phrase Finder, it refers to an old American brand of shoe polish called Shinola (pronounced Shine-ola), named with the same once-popular -ola suffix as the crayon company Crayola. Not knowing the difference between something that polishes one's shoes and something one wouldn't want to step in means one is very stupid.

The Phrase Finder says the insult originated with American soldiers in WWII.

I hate to think what Navin Johnson would have thought had he been confronted with a can of Shitto, a spiced pepper sauce from Ghana. A post on the Ghana Community Online offers a description and a recipe:
Shitor Din (or Sheto, Shito, Shito, Shitto; pronounced SHEE-toe) -- from the word for pepper in the Ga language -- is a spicy hot chile pepper condiment that, like ketchup in the United States and salsa in Mexico, is served with any- and everything in Ghana, and is sometimes used as an ingredient in Ghanaian recipes. There are two versions: a spicy oil with dried chile pepper and dried shrimp; and a fresh version made from fresh chile peppers, onions, and tomatoes.
Boing Boing co-editor Xeni Jardin's recent post on the subject has created a minor web shitto storm. It includes a photo of a stack of cans labelled Shitto.

What's delicious in Ghana sounds like something already eaten in English. It reminds me of the Norwegian word for cake, kake, which sounds just like the Spanish word for shit, caca. Growing up eating julekake (Christmas cake) and kransekake (a wreath-shaped almond cake), there was lots of room for amusing misunderstandings with my Spanish-speaking neighbors.

But there's no misunderstanding Italian artist Piero Manzoni's work. Nevermind worrying if you step in shit; what if you bought it, a can of shit for, say, $50,000? You'd better like it as art, because if it lost value -- and there's an outside chance it might -- you'd be stuck with ... a can of shit.

According to New York Magazine, Manzoni's 1961 project, Merda
d'artista no. 19
, was recently auctioned off at Christie's, and the estimated value was $50,000-70,000. It was, quite simply, a portion of the artist's own feces, canned, numbered, and signed in 1961. Apparently Manzoni made 90 of them and sold them for the price of their weight in gold.

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New York Finds Poetry in the Times

From New York Magazine's blog, the Daily Intelligencer, a poem created by arranging New York Times headlines "to bring you secret messages from the paper of record":
Hooking a Big One?
Revolution Begins at the Beauty Salon.

Sallie Mae Said to Talk to Suitors —
No Matter the Message, It's Delivered With Dazzle.

Mixing Poise and Panache
Parise Wastes Little Time in Firing Up the Devils.

Sharon's "Condition" Is Said to Improve:
Statistics Show Ups, Downs and Betweens.

When the Haunted One Turns Into the Hunter
Paris Believes in Tears (and Love and Real Estate).

From Call Girl to Kant Girl in a Flash of White Panties
Giving All for Her Country but Also Feeling the Pain.
The "poet" is Lizzie Skurnick. Go to the Daily Intelligencer to view the poem complete with original links to the articles from which the headlines are taken.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Sunday, April 08, 2007

What Easter Means to Me

I've been hearing a lot of people asking about the Easter Bunny, a holiday character that seems to have little or no connection to Christ and his resurrection. A character some may compare to the tooth fairy. The Easter Bunny, I assure you, is no mere corporate concoction. There are some of us who take him very, very seriously.

I'd like to celebrate Easter Sunday by sharing a little bit about my family's tradition. Every family has its own unique way of celebrating holidays, but I think mine may be rather unfamiliar to those outside of Minnesota. My family worships the Easter Bunny, also known as Peter Cottontail, or, as we know him back home, Petro Cottonnius.

What's normal in that folksy Midwestern paradise may seem odd to people today in, say, Brooklyn, New York, but our cultural heritage has deep roots in Ninth-century Eastern Europe, specifically the Balkans. My Scandinavian ancestors inherited the traditions from Viking traders who brought the holiday back to the Nordic countries, and we proudly carry on the celebration today.

I offer this bit of history not just for my readers' edification, but as an alternative to the Christian Easter tradition, which makes many of us very uncomfortable, what with all of its worship of the dead.

So here, dear readers, is the story of Petro Cottonnius, the Rabbit King of Albania, a story very close to the hearts of all Minnesotans.

In around the Tenth-century after Christ's birth, the people of Montenegro, righteous Unitarians all, were suspicious of what they saw as zombie worship with the resurrection of Christ. The medieval Unitarians firmly held that Jesus Christ was a mortal man -- a great one, to be sure (they gladly celebrated Christmas) -- but certainly not the son of God. And definitely not one who rose from the grave.

The Slavs of the middle ages were terrified of the notion of the dead arising, and rightly so after the reign of Viktor the Bleeder, the usurperious King of Albania who would kidnap peasant children and drink their blood. The story goes -- and this may be the earliest European vampire legend -- that King Viktor would bleed the stolen children dry and then bring them back to life as yellowed walking corpses who would in prowl the night wreaking havoc on livestock and crops.

Scholars today argue about Viktor's legacy; some say it was merely the way the following generations explained an awful king who mishandled a famine. But the suspicion of dead people who come back to life was real. The combination of this native fear and the theological belief that there was just one God (hence Uni-tarian, as opposed to Trinitarian), led to a different tradition.

The Montenegrans rightly sought a more jovial hero for this day, Easter. They didn't have to look far, for Easter, as it's celebrated today, happens to fall near the birthday of Petro Cottonnius, the Rabbit King of Albania.

Petro Cottonnius was called the Rabbit King for his abnormally tall ears and a deformity in his knees wherein the joints were actually reversed, giving Cottonnius a peculiar gait that some say resembled a hop. He was of noble birth, and became king during a time of great poverty in the Balkans. The Cottonnius family returned to the throne after Viking mercenaries (not yet Christians, it is interesting to note) defeated the vicious regime of Viktor the Bleeder.

There was much reconstruction to do, not just in the architectural sense, but also in the psyche of the common people of Albania and Montenegro. Rebuilding the trust of the children was on the top of the new king's list.

Legend has it the Rabbit King would hide eggs made from the royal stock of imported sugar (brought in by the aforementioned Viking trader/mercenaries) in the little hamlets of his kingdom. Children would find them and be delighted for the day, forgetting about their crushing destitution. But more importantly, the spectre of that gruesome kidnapper Viktor the Bleeder was no longer haunting families. The throne was a source of joy again.

The celebration of King Cottonnius came about more than a century after his death. While the kingdom was Christian in the sense that they followed the teachings of Christ, they weren't in the sense that they saw Christ as divine. This of course is true of Unitarians today. So the Balkan kingdoms never celebrated Easter until an influx of Catholics came with the widening of trade routes created by the Vikings.

When the Pope officially appointed a bishop for the Albanian region, the Unitarian majority reacted by redefining Easter on their own terms: a celebration of Albanian heritage, and of their Unitarianism. This was now a celebration of the Rabbit King Cottonnius. The practice of making chocolate rabbits didn't come about until some time after Columbus, maybe the 1600s.

Meanwhile, back in Scandinavia, parents had been telling their children the story of the Rabbit King for decades, ever since Viking traders brought back the story of the generous king who would hide sugar eggs for poor children. The Nordic version of the Rabbit King celebration was held in the Spring, but in May, for the Scandinavians had no reason to connect it to Easter.

At some point in the Nineteenth-century, about a thousand years after Cottonnius lived, the Scandinavian and Balkan Cottonnius holidays sort of merged. Both cultures celebrated the day on Easter, but now both held the Christian Easter to be more important. All that was left was a story about some bunny rabbit and an odd tradition of hiding colorful eggs.

But in Minnesota, and in some parts of northern Norway and Sweden and rural Denmark, as in Montenegro today, Petro Cottonnius reigns supreme on Easter.

And so in my family, a typical Minnesotan family, we would wake up on Easter morning knowing that old Petro Cottonnius had hopped through, hiding eggs and chocolate effigies of himself. We weren't suspicious of Christians the way some of our ancestors were -- we were too well steeped in the lore of the good Rabbit King to dwell on some walking dead. It wasn't until I moved to New York a couple of years ago that I realized how insulated I was in Minnesota. It seems that most Americans don't know the true history of the Easter Bunny. I hope this story helps clear some of the confusion about this jolly character.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Virgin Mother at Lever House

I like Damien Hirst's giant sculpture The Virgin Mother now, but when I first saw it, I was revolted. Even now I think it's scandalously inappropriate for its spot; maybe that's part of the reason it grew on me.

It's not the nudity that shocked me, it's the skin peeled back. This as neither a nude nor a skeleton, but a cut-away, and the flaps of skin that fold over on the woman's arm and leg show this so much more explicitly than if we were shown just the layers of skin. Here, by leaving the flaps, we understand that the 35 foot tall woman is being dissected before our eyes, and that is what appalled me.

New York Magazine asked some people around town what they thought of the sculpture when it first appeared outside the Lever House Restaurant in the public courtyard under the famous Lever House building. A curator named Reneé Riccardo said this:
It’s about life and death, repulsion and beauty. See the pose? She’s like the Degas ballerinas. Hirst is making a connection to science. In his show at Gagosian, he had the male anatomy, and now this. He’s a father, too, so this piece is especially personal.
He's right about the pose. It's very similar, with the exception of the hand over the pregnant belly. An operations manager for an investment firm said this:
I like it. New York is too conservative with its art. In Italy, there are nudes everywhere. I’m not saying [Hirst] is Michelangelo, but in Mike’s time, he probably got the same reactions. I work in this building, and we’ve gotten calls from clients who want to know who’s responsible for this.
Yes, who is responsible for this? It's Aby Rosen, a real estate developer and art collector who owns the Lever House.

It's jarring, and maybe shocking, but I don't find it offensive. The foetus is a little disconcerting, though.

There was another one cast for London, last May. The statues weigh 13 and a half tons and are among the biggest bronzes in the world, according to the BBC. It was built in 18 separate pieces over a year and a half. A third was planned.

Jerry Saltz, writing in the Village Voice, reviewed Hirst's 2005 Gagosian Gallery show, and had some words about the sculpture:
Worse than the paintings because it's permanent -- not to mention marring the entrance to the beautiful Lever House on Park Avenue -- is Hirst's hideous Virgin Mother, a 35-foot bronze eyesore of a naked pregnant woman with a cutaway view of her womb. Here, Hirst is doing what he's always done: trying to imitate Jeff Koons. He put things in vitrines after Koons did and started painting realistically after Koons. In attempting to equal Koons's stunning Puppy, Hirst has created something even more revolting than Jim Dine's figures on Sixth Avenue. Virgin Mother should be removed straightaway and those responsible for placing it here should be fired or whatever is done with reckless, imbecilic billionaires.
Jeff Koons' Puppy is a giant (43 feet high) sculpture of flowering plants around a wire frame built to look like a cartoonish dog. I don't agree with Saltz's vitriol, nor do I have any idea where it comes from, but he's probably right about Koons' influence (let's put it diplomatically) on Hirst.

My one complaint about The Virgin Mother is with its title. It's too easy to call any female form a "virgin mother," referencing Jesus and Mary, getting credit for one's deep insight into the buried soul of Christianity; I don't buy it. I don't think it's sincere. I have the feeling, though I have no basis for it, that the title was applied after the piece was completed to give it some further cultural and art historical anchoring, and not during the idea phase of the sculpture. In other words, the title strikes me as cynical.

Otherwise, I like The Virgin Mother because it's provocative. I like how it references Degas' ballerina sculpture in such a hideous way. What does it mean? I don't know. I don't think it has anything to do with abortion, as some have said. I like how it fits in its space at the Lever House. It's a surprise when you see it in the courtyard. And as inappropriate as it is for the corporate environment, it works very well in that space amid the glass and steel. One might compare the woman's "inner workings" to the way modern architecture (of which the 1952 Lever House is an excellent example) displays its steel structural frame in ways brick and stone structures never could.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Barry Flanagan in Union Square

A Barry Flanagan sculpture in Union Square. Flanagan's show at the Paul Kasmin gallery in Chelsea recently closed. His rabbit/hare theme is represented in a sculpture in the Walker's sculpture garden in Minneapolis.

The numbers on the building in the background of the photo above used to count down the minutes to the International Olympic Committee's decision about New York as a site for the Olympic Games. Now it just flashes random numbers.

[UPDATE: A friend has informed me that the numbers in the photo show the actual time. Not random. Time of day. Hmmm.]


Performance Art's Reluctant Stylist

New York Magazine's longtime art critic Mark Stevens is leaving as the full time art critic. He'll be replaced by Jerry Saltz, one of my favorite critics, who is leaving the Village Voice for New York.

Stevens never really wrote anything that caught my eye (his non-review of the Munch exhibit last year at MoMA was particularly uninspired). His sentences are usually too abrupt. His writing isn't as fluid as, say, Jerry Saltz's, and it lacks a distinctive voice. Until he covered Britney Spears' head-shaving as if it were performance art:
What the press, which was busy moralizing ("her poor little boys") and faux-empathizing ("she needs help"), never acknowledged was that Spears's crack-up was the most interesting performance of her life. She seemed to be trying, with befuddled brilliance, to tell the truth. She recoiled from celebrity culture by mortifying her own flesh. She stripped herself, publicly, of her sexuality. She presented herself as a grotesque. Few gestures are as symbolically rich as the shaving of a head. That's what monastics do when they reject the flesh to dedicate themselves to the spirit. In boot camp, soldiers lose their individuality with their hair. Delilah cut off Samson's to make him defenseless. The French, after the liberation, shaved the heads of collaborators.
Yes, Spears has finally stumbled upon something real, and so has Stevens. But he's moving on. Stevens is leaving to write a book about De Kooning, but he'll still be a contributor.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Quote of the Day: Keith Richards

"The strangest thing I've tried to snort? My father. I snorted my father."
Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones guitarist legendary for his capacity for chemicals and bacchanalia, confessed this strange inhalation to the British magazine New Music Express. He's saying that he took a bit of the ashes of his cremated father's corpse and snorted them as one would a line of cocaine. In fact, he cut a bit of his father into his own stash of coke.

The NME article, now being quoted with abandon all over the Internet, isn't an interview, or even a true question-and-answer; it's more a fill-in-the-blank, presumably because Keef's mind tended to wander. One can imagine the interviewer jotting down Richards' rantings like an acolyte in front of a great seer:
They forgot the roll and they only kept the rock. The roll's the whole damn thing dude, the rock is nothing, deal with it, the roll is king. Unfortunately most cats don't get behind the roll.
'Right,' mutters the young acolyte, as he jots it down, 'there ... is ... no ... roll.'

That young acolyte is writer Mark Beaumont, who happens to be amazed by the publicity his interview got. He says he didn't even meet with Keith. "I may have only interviewed him over the phone," Beaumont said in NME's blog, "but he totally lived up to my expectations and he had so many stories to tell." Now Beaumont's getting calls for television interviews of his own.

Snorting dead people isn't unheard of in entertainment -- some clubbers did it in an episode of HBO's Six Feet Under. Anytime you've got powdered substances around coke fiends, bad ideas germinate. "You'd expect nothing more from a hedonistic legend like Keith Richards," Beaumont said. You wouldn't expect anything less, either.

I saw a photo of Richards with his father once. He was a jolly looking round-faced man with a white beard, and he had a healthful well-fed glow about him -- in stark contrast to the thin, leathery, cadaverous Keith. He also looked very proud of his son, whose arm was around him.

"He was cremated and I couldn't resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow," Richards told NME. "My dad wouldn't have cared, he didn't give a shit. It went down pretty well, and I'm still alive." Indeed. An old Kentish factory worker -- in powdered form -- ain't going to gum up the works of Keith Richards.

There's a rich tradition of stars snorting foul things in rock and roll. It will take a lot more than inhaling your old man to top Ozzy Osbourne's doing a line of ants. Devotees of VH1's Behind the Music will recall the Mötley Crüe episode, in which a flabbergasted (and shockingly articulate) Nikki Six describes Osbourne's approaching a line of ants emanating from a melting Popsicle in the street. And then Ozzy snorts it. Ants.

And then there's the story -- which I'm almost certain Stevie Nicks denies -- that she had some lackey assist her in her cocaine addiction by blowing the powder, via straw, up her rectum. Some say it was to save her singing voice. Other say it was because her nose was already too ruined by the substance.

Rolling Stones spokespeople are now telling the media that Keith was actually joking, which, I suppose they are obliged to do. I don't have any proof, but I choose to believe Keith was telling the truth. Why would he make that up? It's like what Keith said about having brain surgery, after the incident where he may or may not have fallen out of a coconut tree, severely injuring that otherwise durable brain: he's got to try everything once. "Yes, I've been trepanned," he told NME:
That's quite an interesting experience, especially for my brain surgeon, who saw my thoughts flying around in my brain. I've got pictures of it mate, yeah. They cut my head, brain, skull open, went in and pulled out the crap, and put some of it back in again. But that's the way it is, I mean, shit, Keith Richards has got to do everything once.
And I don't think any of us wants to see a list of the other things Keef's tried once.

If there's a punchline to this whole affair, it's that NME is asking the big question: Who gets to snort Keith Richards when he's dead?

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Danger of Art Interpretation

The Edge Foundation's annual question for 2006 was "What is Your Dangerous Idea?" The book version came out recently.

The responses, from a diverse group of scientists and intellectuals, range from "We have no souls" to "Our planet is not in peril." But one caught my eye because it had to do with art.

April Gornik, a New York-based artist wrote the following, under the heading, The Effect of Art Can't Be Controlled or Anticipated:
Great art makes itself vulnerable to interpretation, which is one reason that it keeps being stimulating and fascinating for generations. The problem inherent in this is that art could inspire malevolent behavior, as per the notion popularly expressed by A Clockwork Orange. When I was young, aspiring to be a conceptual artist, it disturbed me greatly that I couldn't control the interpretation of my work. When I began painting, it was even worse; even I wasn't completely sure of what my art meant. That seemed dangerous for me, personally, at that time. I gradually came not only to respect the complexity and inscrutability of painting and art, but to see how it empowers the object. I believe that works of art are animated by their creators, and remain able to generate thoughts, feelings, responses. However, the fact is that the exact effect of art can't be controlled or fully anticipated.
The reverse of this, I think, is that beautiful-looking art, art that by all appearances looks quite benign, can be created by artists who have ideas that are repugnant to many of us. Ideas that aren't necessarily obvious in the art.

My favorite example of this is Edgar Degas, a great painter and anti-semite who renounced his Jewish friends after the Dreyfus Affair (in which a Jewish military officer was falsely accused of treason in France).

How much of Degas' racism seeped into his painting? What would his paintings and sculptures have looked like if he had not been an anti-Dreyfusard? Must we take his racism into account when we seek to admire his ballerinas and bathers?

My question, then, is how much of art comes from the creator and how much comes from the viewer? This is the essence of April Gornik's "dangerous idea."

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Building Falling Down

I was walking down Houston near Broadway on Saturday night when I saw this mess: one side of the street was closed after this building started to collapse. It was scheduled to be demolished by developers to make way for a luxury high-rise apartment building, but "an unspecified violation" stopped it. And then it started to go on its own. An observer told the New York Times he heard "a big bang." When I happened by the fire department and an impromptu demolition crew were helping the building down.

Gothamist says the FDNY used the building for training in February.
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