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In art, one idea is as good as another. If one takes the idea of trembling, for instance, all of a sudden most art starts to tremble. Michelangelo starts to tremble. El Greco starts to tremble. All the Impressionists start to tremble.
This quote by de Kooning came to me by way of my friend Nada Farhat. Like Jenny Saville whose eye sees violence in everything, from a cadavar to a painting by Degas, we are all filtering reality. I know my filter can change quickly, from rose-tinted to dark and back again in a very short period of time.
One of the most successful cineatic demonstrations of that shifting vision is the movie, My Dinner With Andre. At the beginning of this conversation-as-movie, Wallace Shawn is overwhelmed by his life—he is a financially strapped artist who remembers his childhood of wealth and luxury—and the film begins with a heightened sense of that reality. The New York City in the film’s first few minutes is a hard edged and inhospitable place. But at the end of the film, after his eponymous and enlightened dinner with Andre Gregory, Shawn’s cab ride home is through a city that feels magical, all alit and gorgeously full of promise.
But trembling. What a great word for de Kooning to use in his quote.
Elatia Harris left the text below as a comment to my posting here yesterday. As is often the case with Elatia’s responses to issues I have raised here, this one is too good to not spotlight up front. She identifies concerns that are of significance to all of us who are signed up to ride through life in this creaky, unwieldy culturecraft called art making.
I’ve been highlighting many of these “new world order in the arts” issues on my filter blog Slow Painting, so stop in there and scroll through the last few weeks to find several compelling articles about how this has been playing out, here in the US as well as in the UK. And there is no past tense here—we are watching a slow motion dismantling of a complex armature of reticulated relationships between artists, galleries, collectors, museums, promoters, purveyors, taste makers and the public.
I keep thinking about the devastating fires that ripped through Yellowstone Park a few years ago, taking out millions of trees and beautiful forest vistas. But visiting the Park a few years after the fires had been quelled, I was struck by how quickly the terrain had been claimed by a completely new ecosystem of meadows, wildflowers and sapling trees. What had been dark and arborial was now open and freewheeling. New habitats, complete with a new set of juggles between prey and the preyed upon, was evident. And it was stunningly beautiful, but in a completely different way.
As naturalists have reminded us many times, there are larger arcs at work in the world, larger than our individual life times and wider than our narrowly focused view of things.
Postscript on the closing of the Rose Art Museum, which I have been following closely all week: The Boston Globe reported that Brandeis will close the museum but will not sell off the art collection as previously announced. I should know more once I’ve had a chance to talk to Marty Krauss, Brandeis provost and a friend.
From Elatia Harris:
The general crisis cannot but be reflected in the arts, which have seen enough commoditization to be especially vulnerable. Unfortunately, the art world takes everything crazy about casino capitalism and distills it, so that the backlash against what Damien Hirst and the Chapmans can be seen to stand for may be very harmful across the boards.
At the best of times, fewer than one percent of American college graduates with a BFA or MFA in any discipline under the Fine Arts heading are making a living doing what they studied and got credentialed to do — writers writing, dancers dancing, etc. Fewer than twenty percent of same make a living doing anything associated with their disciplines — painters teaching art, artists doing graphic design, dancers teaching aerobics. Those were not, at the level of public policy, considered troubling statistics when there was prosperity in the land, yet they reflect the devaluation of the arts, and their economic irrelevancy in all but a handful of stellar cases, as accurately as a drastic NEA budget cut for 2009, or the sudden closing of a small museum.
Does it take wide-scale struggle to throw light on how the arts have become a zero-sum game? Not an esteemed part of national life expressing what is unique about ourselves, but a special hellish corner of national life where — even more than elsewhere — there is either obscene reward or extinction.
In 1987, the art market underwent a substantial correction. There had been artists getting, for one painting, “entry level” prices that resembled an annual income, and most of those artists did not survive the correction to enjoy an Act Two. This time around, I hope some of what’s wrong can be addressed at a level above that of discouraging silliness by making sure the ranks of high-earning artists — so offensive they are, in hard times! — are properly winnowed.
This posting is an addendum to the one below about the closing of the Rose Art Museum. From the New York Times on Monday, Robin Pogrebin’s piece highlights the issues regarding support for the arts on a national level.
As the Obama administration tackles the challenge of shoring up the economy through infusions of capital and job creation, cultural leaders are urging the president not to forget arts institutions, which are also reeling from the market downturn.
“We wanted to make sure arts were not left out of the recovery,” said Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a national lobbying group. “The artist’s paycheck is every bit as important as the steelworker’s paycheck or the autoworker’s paycheck.”
For the moment eyes are largely turned to the National Endowment for the Arts. Dana Gioia, the outgoing chairman, officially stepped down on Inauguration Day and President Obama has not yet named his successor.
In Congress the American Recovery and Reinvestment bill, approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee, includes a $50 million supplement for the N.E.A. to distribute directly to nonprofit arts organizations and also through state and local arts agencies.
The bill is expected to go to the full House for a vote on Wednesday before proceeding to the Senate. It could reach the president’s desk as early as mid-February, an N.E.A. spokeswoman said.
Arts groups, meanwhile, are urging federal departments like Transportation or Labor to factor culture into their financing. A transportation enhancement program, for example, could pay artists for related public artworks; through the Labor Department displaced arts professionals could receive new training to stay in the work force. “Every one of these places is a vehicle through which the money is going to flow, and we want to make sure the arts is part of it,” Mr. Lynch said.
Much of the clamor arises from anticipation stirred by Mr. Obama’s campaign remarks about the importance of the arts. One of the few candidates with an arts platform, he called for a young “artist corps” to work in low-income schools and neighborhoods; affordable health care and tax benefits for artists; and efforts at cultural diplomacy, like dispatching artist-ambassadors to other countries.
The president is considering the establishment of an arts-and-culture portfolio within the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, according to Bill Ivey, who served as the administration’s transition-team leader for the arts and humanities, including the future of the N.E.A., the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Some cultural figures have even been calling for a cabinet-level arts czar. In a radio interview last fall on WNYC’s “Soundcheck,” the music impresario Quincy Jones said that when he next spoke to Mr. Obama he would “beg for a secretary of arts” along the lines of the culture ministers in many European countries. His comment inspired an online petition that now has more than 199,500 signatures.
Americans for the Arts has proposed appointing a senior-level administration official with an arts portfolio, along the lines of Leonard Garment of the Nixon administration, August Heckscher under John F. Kennedy or Roger L. Stevens under Lyndon B. Johnson. “Someone to connect the dots,” Mr. Lynch said. “We don’t have that right now.”
But what arts executives are most eager for, they say, is additional direct financing and a president who sends the message that art is important. The country’s 100,000 nonprofit arts groups employ some six million people and contribute $167 billion to the economy annually, Mr. Lynch said. “I don’t think of this as a bailout for the arts,” he added. “It’s an economic investment in the arts.”
Funds for the N.E.A. have declined to $145 million in fiscal year 2009 from $176 million in 1992. Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, said she would seek more in the next fiscal year. “I’m more encouraged than I’ve been in a very long time,” she said of Mr. Obama. “He has said many times how important the arts are to him.”
Mr. Ivey is director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University and a former N.E.A. chairman. “There has never been an administration that looked at the cultural agencies as a partner in advancing big, overarching policy objectives,” he said in an interview. “That’s a real unfulfilled opportunity and I think this administration is poised to do a better job.”
On Jan. 15 Mr. Ivey convened a meeting of about 20 arts organizations at the transition team’s headquarters in Washington. Among those attending were the chief executives of groups like the Association of Art Museum Directors, Chorus America and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.
“We were invited to talk about our ideas and hopes for the endowment,” said Andrea Snyder, the executive director of Dance/USA, a national service organization. “It was more than just, ‘We need more money.’ ”
She said that she hoped the N.E.A. would focus on issues like health insurance for artists, “how we support individual artists in this country, and reframing the importance of the arts in this society.”
Since a Jan. 16 report in The Los Angeles Times much of the speculation about the agency’s next chairman has focused on Michael C. Dorf, a lawyer who served on Mr. Obama’s arts-policy team during the campaign and was an adviser to the transition. The newspaper described him as the leading candidate for the post. Mr. Dorf declined to comment on his candidacy.
As special counsel to the long-serving Illinois Congressman Sidney R. Yates, who died in 2000, Mr. Dorf helped develop national policies on arts financing. During the culture wars of the 1990s he advised an independent commission that sought to preserve the N.E.A. after accusations that it had supported some projects that ran counter to patriotic or moral ideals.
Other possible N.E.A. candidates mentioned include Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Minnesota state Senator Richard J. Cohen; or a return of Mr. Ivey. It is unclear when the administration will make a selection, though some arts professionals said they expected a decision in the next few weeks.
Arts groups said that they would seek to drive home the idea that culture is an economic engine. “Arts jobs are jobs,” said Marc A. Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America. “We see opera companies cutting health care, administrative staff — these people are taxpayers and rent payers and mortgage payers, just like every other employee.”
For many, the inaugural celebrations and the inauguration itself — with Michelle Obama and her daughters dancing to pop music at the Kids’ Inaugural, and Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and others performing at the swearing-in — demonstrated a new administration’s recognition that culture matters.
Arts professionals sense that the Obama administration is “open and desirous of partnering with the arts community,” said Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras.
“That bodes well for what will happen next,” he said. “It’s important that our voices be heard.”
I’m still reeling from the news that Brandeis University has announced the closing of the Rose Art Museum. Once a bastion of painterly painting under Carl Belz’s visionary directorship, the Rose has been a cherished art destination for me for many years. The building, designed by Philip Johnson, is small and not one of Johnson’s best works by any means. But the sensibility Belz brought to the place was exemplary. Judy Pfaff, Joan Snyder and a number of other important women artists were championed by Belz early in that particular visibility curve.
The outcry has been overwhelming. From the New York Times today:
The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said on Tuesday that it planned to conduct a detailed review of Brandeis University’s surprise decision to sell off the entire holdings of its Rose Art Museum, one of the most important collections of postwar art in New England.
The decision to close the 48-year-old museum in Waltham, Mass., and disperse the collection as a way to shore up the university’s struggling finances was denounced by the museum’s board, its director and a wide range of art experts, who warned that the university was cannibalizing its cultural heritage to pay its bills.
“This is one of the artistic and cultural legacies of American Jewry,” said Jonathan Lee, the chairman of the museum’s board of overseers, who said that “nobody at the museum — neither the director nor myself nor anyone else — was informed of this or had any idea what was going on.”
This account from the Wall Street Journal (with an excerpt posted on Slow Painting), also caught me:
The National Academy and MOCA did come perilously close to “going away,” due to financial circumstances specific to them that predated the general economic collapse.
The academy clawed its way back from the edge by selling two Hudson River School paintings — its most important Frederic Church and its only Sanford Gifford — to raise about $13.5 million for operations. By the time its desperation-driven plan to sell came to light on Dec. 5…the paintings were already gone — withdrawn from the public domain by an unidentified private foundation.
In making this risky move, the museum forfeited not only AAMD membership but also art loans from and collaborations with institutions that obey the strong recommendation of the association’s board. “These objects are there for the collective cultural patrimony of the people who live in this country. They are not fungible assets,” Mr. Conforti [president of the Association of Art Museum Directors] declared.
“These objects are there for the collective cultural patrimony of the people who live in this country. They are not fungible assets.”
Is that true?
My son, ever the devil’s advocate, wants to know details about the collection being sold before he mourns its loss. He’s young and iconoclastic, very distrustful about how art institutions and their collusive insider taste makers determine what is valuable and what is not.
Yeah, I’m cynical too. But I do know some of the holdings at the Rose. And the thought that those works will be gone is crushing to me.
What’s the answer? As the financial infrastructures needed to keep our culturecraft afloat continue to disintegrate, the solution is not simple. But I still feel bereft.
Balancing intuition against sensory information, and sensitivity to one’s self against pragmatic knowledge of the world, is not a stance unique to artists. The specialness of artists is the degree to which these precarious balances are crucial backups for their real endeavor. Their essential effort is to catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up. They are like riders who gallop into the night, eagerly leaning on their horse’s neck, peering into a blinding rain. And they have to do it over and over again. When they find that they have ridden and ridden – maybe for years, full tilt – in what is for them a mistaken direction, they must unearth within themselves some readiness to turn direction and gallop off again. They may spend a little time scraping off the mud, resting the horse, having a hot bath, laughing and sitting in candlelight with friends. But in the back of their minds they never forget that the dark, driving run is theirs to make again. They need their balances in order to support their risks. The more they develop an understanding of all their experiences – the more it is at their command – the more they carry with them into the whistling wind.
–Anne Truitt, from Daybook
This has been a quote I have paraphrased to others so many times that it became a litany. It struck me deeply the first time I read Truitt’s book 25 years ago. But you know how a story or a memory takes on a life of its own over time, and I recently realized I needed to reconnect with her original words to make sure I was remembering it properly.
So I began looking for my copy, lovingly marked and highlighted, amid the chaos of books that have been waiting in stacks for over 2 years to be properly ensconced in the new library we have been hoping to build. Using the space that was once the children’s playroom, the plan was to build floor to ceiling shelves designed by my son and arrange the volumes by topic, from art to poetry, ancient megaliths to mythology, fiction to food.
For a series of complex reasons, it has not yet happened. Meanwhile the only access to my books is the randomness of choosing a card from a deck. Sometimes it’s the two of clubs, sometimes a King. But rarely the book you really want or need.
So Whiskey River came to my rescue (once again) and posted the very passage I was looking to reread. Bless you WR for picking up my longing, something you have demonstrated an uncanny ability to do time and time again.
That little tirade of a detour aside (is my frustration too obvious?), I want to return to the passage by Truitt. Her image, “like riders who gallop into the night, eagerly leaning on their horse’s neck, peering into a blinding rain” cuts right into the piercing vulnerability of the lonely ride anyone who does their making all alone knows well.
And this line—“the more they develop an understanding of all their experiences – the more it is at their command – the more they carry with them into the whistling wind”—means more to me now than it ever did when I was younger and significantly less seasoned by the acidic marinade bath that is life. Whistling wind, indeed.
My friend LP continues to feed my poetry habit. She posted the following poem by Larissa Szporluk on her site over the weekend. I immediately went scurrying through the web for more information about S’s work.
So following the poem posted below is an excerpt from an interview with the poet from Perihelion. The sensibilities expressed here overflow effortlessly and fittingly into other creative pursuits, like music and visual art. I love the interviewer’s statement that each of Szporluk’s poems feels like a small animal, something I absolutely know the feeling of in the visual realm. I also understand that sense of aliveness in the process of making, and how that changes at various stages in the life of a work.
Thank you LP. Keep leading me.
I nudge the eggs
of not my make,
watch them drop
without a thought—
dead who? dead who?
Who cares? They’re
not my make. I’m
cuckoo-true, a blood
and thunder freedom
free who? Free you,
my boy, from mama
bird and birdie wife
and future brood.
You’re free to crack,
to stink, to cook.
You’re better off off
the hook, and off
the clock of my off-war
where time is space
and space is time
and both are wound
to wind up mine—
without a wall, what
can hang? Without
the sky, why not fall?
It’s all all off, but
I’m in tune. Death
is math. Rest assured
the nest left you.
Q: Your poetry is often described as work that is very active, very full. I often feel like each poem is a small wild animal. How do you feel when you read your own work? How much does the readers’ perception concern you?
Szporluk: I’m completely uneven as a reader of my own work. I revise endlessly. It’s kind of sickening, goes beyond what is actually constructive. I suppose that might be why the work seems “active”–because it’s always being acted on. I can’t leave it alone. I’m too aware of all the possibilities. I know with conviction how much better every poem could be. The reader’s perception concerns me a lot, but I try to postpone that concern until the end, near-end, of the process. I have an imaginary reader who is very demanding. He/she will not tolerate any fluff. I hope the small wild animals you feel are hairless because if there’s anything I can’t stand it’s decoration. And yet I do it all the time.
Q: I’ve heard various people claim that there is no Auden or Eliot to look up to and follow these days. But people are writing poetry. Each year more people enroll in Creative Writing programs and submit work to literary magazines, so something must be driving them and encouraging them. As a poet and a professor of Creative Writing, what do you think of the state of poetry in this age?
Szporluk: I think it’s fine to be Audenless. Why should we have another one? We should have something of our own, and we shouldn’t worry about its name or nature. What I love about the state of poetry in this age is how passionate the students are–they become completely involved in the process of writing and I think they realize that they can apply that same intensity to the rest of their lives. One graduate student confessed that she wasn’t happy when she wasn’t writing, that everything else seemed dull. (Which is what my husband says about surfing.) For me, it’s a sign that people are connecting to the creative process, which is bigger than ourselves, and infinitely more wonderful. I’m very positive about poetry today. I think it has become a force.
Q: What kind of relationship do you have with your own poetry? We all have different roles we live which compile part of the self. One’s work can feel drastically different when held in his/her own hand privately than when it’s on the way to the publisher. Do you feel that with your work? Does your work meet different needs within you as a person, as a professor, as a publishing writer?
Szporluk: I think I answered part of that question above, but I’ll reiterate a bit. My work now has become inseparable from myself as a whole, inseparable from teaching, from parenting. It’s the publishing part that I worry about; it’s the one part I can’t reconcile. I’m not sure anybody can. When I’m writing a poem, it’s as alive as I am. So alive in fact that I feel an urge to send it out immediately, a very stupid urge I’ve learned. A vast sea lies between my desk and the desks of editors. They look at my spasmodic arrangements and frown. I’ve had to discipline myself. Now I only (usually) send out work that has calmed down. Once it’s published, it becomes dead to me–a good dead I think. It has crossed the sea. I no longer speak to it. I’m definitely the kind of writer who prefers the process to the finished product.
His Springboard Resolve
For his firmness is most fog horn.
For he’s darning our fraying hem with fine thread; for he’s following a plan.
Be it a progression from detention to due process.
Be it a declaration of Middle-East and market collapse mazes unmazed.
Be it settled.
From this day forward, a little less fetus, a lot more science.
From this day forward, more angles, more angels.
Starting today, a taking on of the barely luggable.
In with the fluent, out with the foibles.
In with the factual, out with the fearfully furrowed.
In with fine-tuning, out with the cudgels, the slapjacks.
Today, we harness our harmony.
Today, we take on our bite-sized tasks; he takes on transparency.
Today, we look back at the wrangled, forward to the breakfast of bipartisan.
Today, we nibble the lucky coin of our own Vasilopita.
Today, the shimmery window of immediate.
More from those who pray in a mosque, in a temple. Less from the evangelical.
More service, less fretting.
More figuring, less guessing.
More giving, less getting.
Coming to a theatre near you, an outrageous congruity.
Coming to that theatre, an unprecedented logic.
Heretofore, only the most unavoidable imbroglios.
Heretofore, heads high for the man in the highest office.
Coming soon, endpoints.
Soon to come, time frames.
Soon, failure gets a time-out; endeavor gets a play date and a sleepover.
The sun is rising over rising water, over the desert’s drying, over the dead and the dying.
The sun is rising; let it inflame us.
This poem is from a blog to keep an eye on. Starting Today: poems for the first 100 days offers a blend of poetics and politics in a fresh manner. Silano (Seattle, WA), is the author of two books of poetry, Blue Positive and What the Truth Tastes Like. Her work appears recently or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, AGNI, Crab Orchard Review, and Prairie Schooner.
Deep, Bog, Night, by Fred H. C. Liang
I bought this painting by Fred Liang last year after my mother died. It was part of a gorgeous show of Liang’s work at Bernie Toale’s gallery in the South End of Boston. From the minute I saw it, I felt as though I had found the perfect repository for my newly acquired funereal sensibilities.
The image here is painfully inadequate; Liang is known primarily as a printmaker, so his layering of the paint is actually more reminiscent of a wood engraving, with elegaic lines reflecting the cross grain of wood and the surgical exactness that can be etched into that hard surface. There is an underpainting of reticulated white lines that is also hard to see in this image, as if the nappy velvet of the dominant black forms is still jockeying for dominance. Perhaps the white substrate is in fact another way to see death (a concept in several Asian traditions) and the black is more representational of what we know as the terrestrially material. And a small patch of mint green in the lower right quadrant (which is not delectable at all in this reproduction), subtly threads itself between the black and the white, offering another anchor of a completely different order.
To be truthful, assignation of significance for any of these forms doesn’t really matter to me. This painting, hanging close at hand and in my sights every day, is an ongoing source of mystery and awe. And every time I look into it I feel I am giving death a pass, offering it some familiarity in a life that, until recently, had little congress with its irrevocability.
My friend Bonnie’s service yesterday was just what she had outlined for herself over a year ago. She asked 4 of her friends, myself included, to speak on her behalf. Her husband Gerald also took a moment at the end to offer up his final adieu to his wife of nearly 50 years. As seems to be my experience with these memorials in the past, a few hours spent in communal remembrance of someone you love brings its own sense of completion. I came back home exhausted, but I did feel as if some arcs in me had completed their designated paths. Bonnie’s arc, one that spanned so many years of my life, has another home now.
A note for my readers who knew Bonnie, some of whom were not able to attend the service: Anyone who would like a copy of my tribute to her, please email me.
Tonight I said goodbye to my friend of 30 years, Bonnie Horne.
She was a hero in the truest sense. Battling not one but several cancers over the last 10 years, she defied the odds and the expectations of her small garrison of doctors at Dana Farber over and over again. She braved multiple operations, repeated chemotherapies and the slow decline of her healthy, sturdy body. And she went about this protracted struggle with a fortitude and a will that could at times almost blind you with the white hot intensity of her desire to stay on just a little longer. And during that time many of us learned from her—about grace under pressure, the power of the mind/body connection, the warrior’s tenacity needed to navigate the overwhelmingly complex rat’s nest also known as the American medical system.
Bonnie was unlike anyone else I know. She was one of those rare people who everybody likes. I have never met anyone who had a sour thing to say about her. Part of her “universal donor” appeal was because she so genuinely delighted in human beings of every stripe and size. But it was also because she had a masterful ability to be diplomatic without being disingenuous, candid yet tactful, an exceptional listener who also had an irrepressible wit. Each of my children had their own very personal relationship with her, one that did not come with that passive-aggressive, eye rolling “whatever” response that is the easiest dismissal of anyone over 30. None of that for Bonnie. She was cool. They all said so.
Bonnie’s friendships exemplify the tolerance and latitude of love that she lived in. She was as comfortable and easy with her MacArthur Genius Grantee pal Laurel as she was with the receptionist at the cancer center. Although she had a very defined sensibility and had strong opinions about many things in her life, she was not a judger of other humans. Aesthetics demanded a high bar, but the doorway for people was big and wide.
Over a year ago Bonnie read Barak Obama’s book, Dreams of my Father. She told us then that she had a hunch he would win. Back then that was a risky position and one that none of us were willing to take with quite the same level of conviction. So it was not without significance that she lived to see his inauguration, setting out on her own the day after this new era of our lives began.
The hole in me is deep and wide. As it should be.