crimestoppers

“The nation that controls gravity will control the universe,” wrote Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould.

moon maidThere was a period in the mid-’60s when Tracy got weird. Or weirder, I should say. Junior Tracy married Moon Maid and the first interplanetary child was born: Honey Moon. Tracy and the police force floated around the city in anti-gravity trash cans. There were the Stop-Action Laser Gun, the atomic light and Diet Smith’s Space Coupe. And the two-way wrist radio gave way to the two-way wrist TV. The quintessential cops-and-robbers comic strip was going sci-fi.

It was the age of Barbarella, and Dick Tracy signed on to go where no man had gone before.

A predilection for prophecy had always been a part of Tracy. Some predictions were conscious, such as Gould’s early enthusiasm for a kind of James Bond forensic science: He made the easy jump from fingerprints to voice prints.Crewy Lou

But others were unintentional: In the ’50s, Gould created the punk look with his villain Crewy Lou, who wore her hair in a crew cut on top and long down the back. She had a punk attitude, too.

Gould had Tracy on the moon five years before Neil Armstrong. And while there are no anti-gravity vehicles such as Gould predicted, the police do hover over the city in helicopters. The match isn’t perfect, but it is uncanny.

honey moon

But in that mid-’60s mania, Gould also predicted the future of newspaper comic strips. And the future he predicted was dismal.

That prediction came in the form of a comic strip within the comic strip.

A group of four characters in the Tracy strip began drawing a thing called “Sawdust.” “Sawdust” was always the same: four identical panels that showed a crudely drawn pile of sawdust — a pyramid of dots — above which ran a dialogue of heavy-handed puns and wheezy Joe Miller jokes. Gould’s sense of humor was as subtle as a cinder block.

Gould was ostensibly satirizing Peanuts, which seemed at the time to him to be an incompetently drawn strip. Gould wasn’t alone. There were many then who didn’t see Peanuts as revolutionary, but as badly drawn and childish.

Gould is lucky he didn’t live to see the funny pages of today. He would have found an entire page of “Sawdusts.”

The art portion of the comic strip has become expendable; the jokes read just the same without the drawings.

From a Wizard of Id:

A — “The safety engineer requests permission to put a warning label on the guillotine.”

B — “What does it say?”

A — “Avoid contact with skin.”

Didn’t need pictures for that, did you?

You could plug that gag into almost any comic strip, and have almost any characters speak the lines. Worse, they read like Bazooka Joe.

The problem is that the nation has become increasingly apathetic to visual things. Even images no longer function so much as pictures, but as icons, like the stick figures that serve to keep men out of the ladies’ room and vice versa.

From Foxtrot to Blondie to B.C., the strips have lost their visual punch. The joke is verbal, pictures are superfluous. The comics have become talking heads.

Dilbert can be a tremendously insightful comic about corporate inanity and office shenanigans, but a strip might well be panels of identical drawings of the character with words unfolding a punchline.

Dilbert strip

Compare that with an even middle-quality strip from the 1950s, like Brenda Starr and see the difference. There are establishing shots, like in the movies, there is the splendid perspective shot looking down the skyscraper. Many panels include two or three points of interest, causing your eye to move, say, from the telephone in the foreground to our heroine behind it and finally, her pal, Hank O’Hair, coming in the door in the back.

brenda starr

Space is three dimensional. There is variety, and there are visual rewards to following the strip.

Older strips — at least in the Sunday “Funny Papers” — spent time and space on purely decorative visual geegaws. There was a febrile joy in the very act of drawing. You will look long and hard to find anything like that in today’s newspapers.

katzenjammer kids

The Sunday comic section for most papers have shrunk both in page size and in page numbers. I miss those glorious Sundays waiting for my father to bring home the New York Journal-American and the New York Daily News. The primary reason for getting those papers was the comics. I’m not sure anyone actually read the news or looked at the ads, but we jumped on the funnies. There was Bringing Up Father, Katzenjammer Kids, Smokey Stover, Little Iodine, Terry and the Pirates, The Phantom, Prince Valiant, Moon Mullins, Gasoline Alley, and even that sappy, godawful soapy strip Dondi, which despite it’s mawkishness, was elaborately and cinematically drawn.

dondi

It’s all gone.

Or not quite gone. While it has left our daily newspapers, there is a fan base which latches on to the visual glories. They can be found poring over two related developments.

The first is called the “graphic novel,” and falls to the Frank Millers and the Art Spiegelmans.

miller 2

They especially play off the noirish aspects of the older comic books, with shadows and streetlamps, gun-barrel flashes and knuckle-crunching thuds.

The readership is limited rather than the mass audience of the old Sunday Funnies, and for all its stylishness, the graphic novel is more a playing out of well-worn tropes than an original visual language. It exaggerates the tropes; it is a Mannerist artform.

The second development comes to us from Japan, and the wild popularity of the manga. It, too, is Mannerist.

manga 1

Both these developments tend to feature adolescent fantasy stories and superheroes and their alter-ego arch-enemies. It’s a very narrow psychic space they fill, and, like heavy-metal music, tend to cultivate an audience much more in touch with the alternate world than the real one the rest of us inhabit.

At least, they are visual, with frame after frame stripped of unnecessary dialog. Like silent film, they tell their stories visually.

Unfortunately, that leaves us grown-ups without a common source of visually imaginative popular culture. We settle for talking diagrams.

burne hogarth tarzan

Stephenie Meyer banned

The call to ban something — books, movies, art — has quieted down since its boiling point in the mid-1990s.

You still hear it locally and libraries are always a good target. But the fervor has gone. Perhaps the Republicans, who always led the charge, came to realize that if they banned too many things, they would soon lack for the bugaboos that are their bread and butter. If there is nothing left to complain about, what would be their purpose in life?

Outrage is the conservative raison d’etre.

So, I wish to rejoin the fray, and crank up the temperature.

I have more than a few likely candidates: If Mark Twain were alive today, he wouldn’t bother writing Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences. He would instead produce something more like “Stephenie Meyer’s Violent Crimes Against Her Mother Tongue.” There is no popular writer working now who more consistently fluffs banal mediocrity. I would ban her for that.

I would ban any book with an “as-told-to” byline and any book by a retired politician or adviser. Also, all books whose authors have received a $1 million advance and any book where the author’s name is printed bigger than the title. Gone would be all “Twelve Steps to Dysfunctional Hysteria” self-help books, pop psychologies and celebrity bios. In a special decree, Kitty Kelley would face a firing squad, and Jonathan Franzen and James Patterson would be locked in a room together for life. I would rather listen to a team of life insurance salesmen.

All poetry with warm, fuzzy thoughts will be consigned to shredders, and all humorists who write about their own families will be forced to read Anna Karenina in a really bad translation.

Also gone: gift books never really meant to be read, novelizations and anything post-Ann Rice with vampires or zombies in it.

While we’re at it, let’s disqualify Tennyson and Browning for being the literary equivalent of tile grout.

As a special favor to several women I know, I would ban Brett Easton Ellis. Not his books, just him.

While we’re at it

We needn’t stop with books; let’s get rid of some non-literary irritants.

Let’s ban waiters who call you by your first name the first (and maybe only) time they meet you (faux friendliness).

Let’s ban all Kardashians hairy or smooth, tent-pole movie franchises, sickening orange sodium-vapor lights, and, perhaps most of all, smiling “good-morning” TV shows.

Away with those who use “quality” as an adherent adjective (such as “quality cooking”), Kennedy conspiracy theorists, any fast food with a Scottish surname, bras for cars. May Tom Clancy and all writers of techno-military thrillers follow him into a bottomless pit. Strike down that annoying woman who sells car insurance on TV. Strike down all paranormal crime fighters.

Banned for life: Clothes with brand names on the outside.

Housewives claiming to be shamans.

Paintings of bald-headed naked women (you’d be surprised how many there are).

Music when you’re put on hold. Phone solicitations at dinner time. Festival seating. Celebrity sex tapes. Celebrities you’ve never heard of. Celebrities.

People who talk during symphony concerts and movies. Artificial turf, domed stadiums, designated hitters. Oy veyzmir! Designated hitters. I’ll never accept them, although second-guessing umpires with TV replay may be the final indignity.

Any so-called “reality TV” without Mike Rowe narrating. Especially those populated with regressive alpha-males who talk tough and boss people around. Gordon Ramsay and “Old Man” Richard Harrison: Both repulsive.

TV news happy talk. TV talk shows, TV evangelists. Well, we’d better not get into TV, or better yet, let’s just ban television.

Velveeta.

Everybody could pick an issue

Before I get another head of steam, let me apologize to anyone I have failed to offend. I’m sure there is something that you enjoy that I would blast from the face of the planet, I just couldn’t think of it at the moment.

Playing Dante is fun, consigning everything to its rightful circle of hell.

But as I reread this proscription list, one thought springs to mind: Boy, I’m glad I’m not in charge. I could become one bossy dictator.

And boy, I’m glad no one else is in charge. We would all be dictators if we could. Some would ban testosterone, others would ban feminists.

Pick an issue.

Maybe it’s time to tone down the righteousness. Maybe what we need is not more sensitivity, but less. Maybe we should just let the other guy be.

 

 

shiloh peach blossoms

It is April 2014 and the dogwoods bleach the woods of a Civil War battlefield in southern Tennessee.

shiloh dogwoodsTheir whiteness remembers a signature episode from the fighting: On April 6, 1862, the peach blossoms near Shiloh Church, shocked from their branches by bullets and cannons, fell like a snow on the dead bodies of the Northern and Southern soldier alike.

It is best to see a historic battlefield at the same time of year as the soldiers who died there knew it. You get a better sense of it. At Shiloh, you can feel the spring humidity thickening the air. Nights are cool; they cloud up with April showers. Days are warm with sun. A million crane flies have awakened to the season and float over the unplowed fields. The redbuds wear their flowers like coral beads along their branches, and the dirt beneath our feet, still damp from the thaw, is beginning to dry enough to cultivate.

And 152 years ago, the Battle of Shiloh was the first major battle in the western theater of the Civil War. It was also the battle that first taught the Union and Confederate armies that the war was going to be long and vicious. It put a violent end to thoughts of quick and easy victory. It also nearly cost Gen. Ulysses S. Grant his job.

You drive along the narrow macadam in Shiloh National Military Park, 110 miles east of Memphis, looking at the monuments in the woods, wondering why such an obscure patch of wood and field should have the importance it has.

It is miles from anywhere; why would anyone fight over it?

With our cars and interstates, sometimes it is hard to remember that America’s past is one of rivers and railroads. When the Union Army invaded the South in Tennessee, it did so along the rivers. Military objectives often were railroads rather than cities.

And so it was in 1862, when Grant, a field general under commanding Gen. Henry Halleck, attacked forts Henry and Donelson in northern Tennessee. Grant’s victories opened up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, forcing the Confederate Army to abandon the entire state.

And in March of that year, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston marshaled his Southern army in Corinth, Miss., a few miles south of the Tennessee border, where he could guard the crossing of two vital railroads.

Grant had Johnston on the run, and Grant felt confident.

In following up on the battles, Grant bivouacked most of his Union soldiers at Pittsburg Landing, about 20 miles north of Corinth. He planned to attack Corinth, but was waiting for reinforcements from Gen. Don Carlos Buell, and while he waited, his troops camped leisurely near the Tennessee River.

Pittsburg Landing

When asked if they shouldn’t fortify the camp, Grant and his assistant, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman dismissed the thought that the Confederates would attack.

”I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack being made upon us,” Grant wrote Halleck, his superior back in St. Louis.

Grant had miscalculated, and Johnston with his assistant, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard was already advancing on him, hoping to win a battle before Buell could arrive with Northern reinforcements.

Unfortunately for Johnston, things didn’t go well. The trip from Corinth to Pittsburg Landing, which should have taken a day, took three days. Bad roads and worse weather slowed the troops.

”As we stood there, troops tramped by mud and rain and darkness,” wrote one Confederate soldier. ”To us who were simply standing in line in the rain, it was bad enough, but those men who were going by were wading, stumbling and plunging through mud and water a foot deep.”

The delay might have lost the element of surprise for the Southerners — if the Yankees had been paying attention. And in the Rebel camp, Beauregard argued for canceling the attack.

”There is not chance for surprise,” he told Johnston. ”Now, they will be entrenched to the eyes.”

Johnston didn’t care. He wanted a fight and wanted it immediately.

”I would fight them if they were a million,” he said.

The actual battle began at 5 a.m. April 6 and it began by accident, when forward units of the Graycoats bumped into outlying remnants of Yankees. The shooting began and it hardly stopped for two days.

thulstrup

Although Johnston had a good battle plan, it quickly fell apart, and the fighting became widely scattered and disorganized.

One thinks of battlegrounds as fields — rolling grass dotted with statues and cenotaphs. But the reality was quite different. Southern Tennessee is thickly wooded and the Shiloh battlefield was mostly woods. Interspersed among the trees were farm fields, square patches of clarity in the obscurity of trees and underbrush. Sherman and his units fought in the woods around a small Methodist church, a log cabin called Shiloh Meeting House. The battle takes its name from the cabin, which is no longer there. A modern church stands near the spot.

The height of fighting that day took place on a field owned by farmer Joseph Duncan. A Union force of about 5,000 men under Gen. Benjamin Prentiss had dug themselves in along a worn wagon path, called the ”Sunken Road,” at one edge of the field. A couple of hundred yards away, Confederates lined the other edge of the clearing.

For most of the day, Confederate infantrymen charged Prentiss and were pushed back by withering gunfire.

”The enemy reserved their fire until we were within about 20 yards of them,” wrote one Confederate soldier. Then the Yankees opened fire, ”mowing us down at every volley.” The whiz and buzz of Minie balls flying through the air was so loud and constant that the position was called the ”Hornets’ Nest.”

shiloh engraving

Twelve times the Rebels attacked and were repulsed.

Then Confederate Gen. Daniel Ruggles tried something different. He assembled 62 cannons and bombarded Union positions. The line to the left and right of Prentiss retreated, but Prentiss held on until 5:30 in the afternoon, when Confederates surrounded him, and Prentiss and about 2,100 Union soldiers were forced to surrender.

On the whole, the Confederates did well on April 6. They forced the Union men back toward Pittsburg Landing and the Tennessee River. But Grant, never panicking as his army was decimated, arranged his troops in a final defensive line that held as night came on.

Beauregard was so elated by the Graycoats’ success that he wired his superiors in Richmond, Va., that he had won a ”complete victory.”

It wasn’t all good news for the Confederacy that day, though. Johnston had been shot in the leg, severing an artery, and bled his life away into his boot. No one recognized the severity of his wound until it was too late. Johnston died on the field and command fell to Beauregard. Johnston’s is still the highest-ranking battlefield death in American history.

Night may have brought thoughts of victory to Beauregard, but it also brought rain. Troops, in wet wool uniforms and soggy leather boots, slept in the open. They shivered terribly in the cold of the night. Confederate soldier George Jones wrote in his diary, ”I have the shakes badly. Well, I am not alone in fact we all look like shaking Quakers.”

Grant himself slept in the open under a tree.

The next morning, Beauregard assumed all he had to do was mop up. But during the rainy night, Grant got his reinforcements, as Buell crossed the river and shored up Grant’s defenses. And when the battle resumed on April 7, the tide of battle turned. One Rebel remembered, ”The Yankees appeared to me like ants in their nest, for the more we fired upon them, the more they swarmed about; one would have said that they sprouted from the ground like mushrooms.”

The Rebel army was pushed back to its original lines, and by midafternoon, it was clear to Beauregard that he would have to retreat. The entire battle had been a fiasco.

The Yankees had been caught off guard and nearly lost the fight. The Confederates lost their best general in the days before Robert E. Lee took command in Virginia. Both sides lost huge numbers of men, and in the end, both sides were where they were before the battle began: Grant at Pittsburg Landing and Beauregard back in Corinth.

The bloodiness of the fighting came as a shock to the public on both sides of the war. Of the South’s 44,000 men in the fight, nearly a quarter were casualties, with 1,700 killed. Grant’s force, joined with Buell’s, came to 65,000, of which 13,000 were casualties, with 1,700 killed.

In fact, more casualties were inflicted at Shiloh than in all the wars America had fought before then put together.

The battle changed the nation’s attitude toward the war. Before Shiloh, one Union soldier wrote, ”My opinion is that this war will be closed in less than six months.” Shortly after Shiloh, the same soldier thought it might take 10 years.

What didn’t take long was for Northern editorial writers and politicians to call for Grant’s scalp. He was an incompetent officer, it was claimed, who hadn’t prepared for the unexpected battle.

But President Lincoln — recognizing something in Grant that he couldn’t find in a general in the East, as he went through one incompetent general after another — refused to remove Grant.

”I can’t spare this man; he fights,” Lincoln said.

shiloh peachblossoms 2

Now, when you stand at the edge of the Hornets’ Nest looking back over the field toward Ruggles’ cannons, or walk in Sarah Bell’s field, where her peach orchard used to be, near where Johnston was killed, you can see something of the confusion that must have reigned in 1862. The woods are still there, with those few fields in between. It is impossible to conceive of anyone at any part of the battle knowing what was happening at any other part. The maps show where troops moved, and where the cannons were assembled, but they give you a false sense of clarity.

That’s why you have to visit the place.

You cannot get a real feel for the battle without standing on the ground and seeing the landscape.

And if you are very lucky, when you are there in April, it will rain.


wordsworth

In the early 1800s, the population of England was roughly 8 million, and they produced Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats and Shelley — not to mention Robert Southey, Leigh Hunt, Walter Savage Landor, Thomas Campbell, Thomas Moore, John Clare and Thomas Lovell Beddoes.

It is an astonishing flowering of poetry in a single era. Six major poets and a handful of others still read with pleasure by millions of people.

One might average them out very inaccurately as one great poet per 1 million in population.

Even in the 17th century, when the population of England was half that of the early 19th century, we have Thomas Carew, George Chapman, Richard Crashaw, John Donne, Michael Drayton, William Drummond, John Dryden, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Ben Jonson, Richard Lovelace, Andrew Marvell, John Milton and John Wilmot (Earl of Rochester).

Of these, we can easily confer “major poet” status on Milton, Donne, Marvell and Dryden, making our ratio again 1-in-a-million.

By these numbers, we should easily expect, living in the United States at this moment, roughly 300 major poets. One scratches one’s head, because these numbers obviously are not true.

Just one state, North Carolina, is roughly equivalent in land area and in population to England in 1800. There should be at least six poets writing between Asheville and the Outer Banks of equivalent worth to Keats and Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

(Obviously, there are eras in which poetry features more importantly in a nation’s culture, and other times when the palm, the oak or bay goes to the novel or the stage, and times — and places — where emphasis is given to painting, sculpture, music or even philosophy. This equation is only meant in general terms — in any art, there should be more well-known and influential practitioners than one might generally count among the population at present).

I reckon that the problem should be understood much as a bicameral legislature. If we count a poetic house of representatives, there should, indeed, be 300 major poets writing at this moment. But instead, we have a senate, and we have a limited number of spots per nation reserved for “major” status. Perhaps we should never expect more than four at any given moment in any given nation.

That means we must look to the reading public (or art-going audience) as a conferring body that says there is only so much room in our culture model for the role of major poet, like only so many slots for general in an army.

It may be part of our cultural umwelt. We have a fixed and number-limited idea of what it means to rise to the top. Perhaps there really are 300 people writing poetry in American now that, if they had been published 200 years ago, would have been considered important, but now are merely the residue of a niche publishing market.

But I mean to present my case in much wider terms: the many arts as they manifest in the culture.

There is a top tier, and we treat these artists — currently the Damien Hirsts, the Jeff Koonses, the Richard Serras — as if they are the “major” artists, whose work is our answer to the Raphaels, Rembrandts and Monets of the past. Their work is deemed somehow more important than the work of thousands of other artists working away, often outside the beehives of New York and LA.

Of course, any critic with an ounce of humility will grant that these are only our “guesses.” That history has a way of choosing different names for the art history textbooks of the future. But as the art world is currently constituted, there is a great divide between art that is considered important and influential — art at the cutting edge of a presumed history — and all the lesser lights, the wannabes. And this doesn’t even make marginal room for all the weekend painters and watercolor society members and their pretty irises and tablecloths.

But who is art for? This is the crucial question. Is art made for the critic, curator, collector and gallery owner? Is the measure of its worth that it fulfill the expectations of narrow and self-specified interest group? If that were so, the rest of us might as well give up and turn on the TV.

This is not to disparage those critics (of which I am one), curators, collectors and gallery owners, many of whom I know and admire, and whose gifts are considerable. But it is like saying that a book is best judged by a librarian: There may be some insight there, but we choose our books by our own lights, our own interests and tastes. To the librarian, we entrust the Dewey Decimal System.

So, who is the art for? The poetry? The dance, the theater, the opera, the string quartet? They are all for all of us who love them.

The search for the “historically significant” artist is a question of history, not of art. We should all be free to enjoy whatever art speaks to us. And as artists, free to make the art that speaks for us.

The “big-boys” (and girls) of art are not disincluded: They really are making wonderful things. But so are the lesser lights, the regional artists, the undiscovered, the shy. The names you see over and over in the art magazines are there on their merit, for sure, but they are also there because of their naked ambition to climb the art-world hierarchy and because of luck. Some were just lucky enough to be spotted by some curator making the rounds for another museum biennial, or to work in a university program noted for graduating elite artists.

I worked in the fields for 25 years in Arizona, which is not usually thought of as a fertile ground for the world’s great art. And it does have its unfortunate share of blue coyote paintings and noble Indian chief portraits.

But I knew a dozen, maybe a score of artists whose work, given the proper exposure to the right people with open minds and open eyes, might stand equally before the impasto of Lucien Freud or the imposture of Jeff Koons.

kratzThe work was forceful, imaginative, idiosyncratic and intellectually rigorous. There should be no shame in being thought an “Arizona artist” if the state could produce a Marie Navarre, a Jim Waid, a Mayme Kratz, a Bailey Doogan, an Anne Coe, a Matthew Moore, an Annie Lopez. I could name a dozen more that you’ve likely never heard of, but that you could well have, if things had gone differently.

Each of these artists had given me great pleasure and spurred my intellectual growth and widened my world for me.

And every state in the union — indeed, every nation on the globe — can put forth its own slate of names of the artists, poets, dramatists, filmmakers, architects, authors, musicians and composers whose value is underrated or ignored, whose work has made a local difference, even if not a national ripple. Who’s to say they are not important? Who’s to say their work is not the equal of the headline artists at the Whitney Biennial?

If we include these excellent but unheralded artists and poets, we probably begin to match the ratio of poets to population of 17th- or 19th-century England.

But I don’t want to stop there, either. It isn’t merely regional art I am defending. I would make a case even for such maligned art as the academic art of university teachers, the irises and tablecloths of the watercolorists — even the paint-by-numbers amateurs and the selfie-posters of Instagram.

Every person who makes an image — and especially those rare and brave people who take up a pencil and attempt to draw something on paper — makes a contribution. They learn something about the world, and about art, even if they don’t have that name for it.

Art is not merely what hangs on gallery walls. Its primary purpose is an interaction with the world, and when anyone makes that connection, with pen, brush, camera, clay or word processor, filtering through their sensibility their ideas, feelings and reactions to the world around them, they have made art.

And ultimately, it is the making of art, not its consumption that has value. Everyone should try it, everyone would benefit from it.

marriage of figaro 1

I hate that we sentimentalize art.

We call it “immortal,” we call it a “masterpiece.” We call it “timeless.” But art is not timeless. All art comes with a shelf life. It’s just that some has a longer use-by date.

A few things, like Homer or Bach, seem to last for centuries, even millennia. But other art defuses after only a few decades. How many people still read Pearl Buck? Despite the Nobel Prize? Does that mean that Buck wasn’t really any good? What about John Dos Passos?

Some art speaks so directly to a certain time and place that we later forget how vital it is. It has moved from the “in” box to the “out” box.

Some creations last centuries, some just years. Some art lasts only a few weeks. Pop tunes are the mayflies of art.

That is no reason to discount them. Not everything has to be Shakespeare — and even the Bard, at some point, will cease to have currency, although it may be when the human race has either evolved into something else, or has obliterated itself.

The fact is, art is a response to the world around us, and sometimes the things we respond to are short-lived or even frivolous. The art gets made, the books get written, the songs get sung.

Too often in the past, audiences for classical music and opera have had the notion that only the old music is any good, that contemporary music is not worth wasting your time on, at least until its composer has been dead for 50 years. But that misses the very essence of what art is. That attitude turns something vital into a warm bath. Art is not a warm bath.

Whether it is dance, opera, music, poetry, fiction, painting, theater or filmmaking, art is the way we grapple with the experience of being alive, of turning the inchoate and complex into something comprehensible: an image or a metaphor.

All art is modern art. At least at the time it is made, it is always brand new. Leonardo was modern when he painted; Mozart was au courant when the curtain rose on “Figaro.”

Today, we think of “Figaro” as a masterpiece, but when it was written, it had a cultural and political import we know only from reading the program notes. Does that mean Mozart’s satiric take on aristocracy was irrelevant? When it was new, “The Marriage of Figaro” electrified its audiences for its bravado. The Figaro we have now is tamed. It’s been praised into submission, so we don’t have to think about it anymore: It has become a warm bath.

There is nothing worse you can do to art than to praise it: Praise is the lion tamer’s whip and chair. Whether it is music, poetry, theater, painting or architecture, the art needs to be refreshed. It needs new blood or it becomes irrelevant. If we let Beethoven sit there inert, he loses his charge. He becomes a warm bath. I want my Beethoven to be revolutionary. It is new music that keeps him so.

If our ears aren’t refreshed, we suffer ear fatigue — like retinal fatigue from something stared at too long — and we no longer hear. If we go to Symphony Hall merely to massage our ears with the familiar fuzzy teddy bear of Rachmaninoff, we have misunderstood even what Rachmaninoff intended.

Jorge Luis Borges understood this: The past didn’t create us, he pointed out; we created the past. It is through the lens of new art that we see the old art, through the ears accustomed to Philip Glass that we now hear Mozart. (It is the fallacy behind the supposed logic of the “historic performance practice” movement. Playing Haydn with instruments of his time cannot give us the music as Haydn heard it because we no longer have 18th-century ears.)

We need to keep our ears alive: Dead ears murder Mozart. Wake up! is the perennial message of all art. Become engaged. Notice what is around you. Some art does this through reacting to transitive stimuli — the current political situation, for instance, or the latest fashion. Some art looks underneath the surface.

But your engagement with the now in art doesn’t keep only Mozart and Beethoven alive, it keeps you alive.

 

 

Three graces Louvre

The Renaissance is finally ending.

That great rebirth of Classical learning sparked the greatest growth of art, science and technology, but it seems to have run its course: Science is now suspect; pseudoscience gains enthusiastic converts every day. Democracy, misunderstanding the dictum that no one is better than anyone else, has come to believe that the lowest common denominator is also the highest possible intellectual achievement and that the idea of learning from our betters is somehow ”elitist” — or at any rate will depreciate our self-esteem.

Listen to the illiterate sentences of bystanders interviewed on the evening news — heck, listen to the local news anchors themselves — and you wonder whether anyone still knows that sentences require both nouns and verbs, and that together they make for articulate thought.

What has changed, more than anything else, is that we have begun losing touch with that Classical learning that undergirded those 500 years of human glory. Another Dark Age is setting in.

The real problem is the loss of the influence of Classics on the general population. For 500 years, art, culture, even technology, were based on a general acceptance of Greek thought. When we lose that, we lose our connection to our culture — and not merely European culture, but the widening world culture. If Asia or Africa once had cultures without roots in Greece, it is no longer true. Sony could not make electronics equipment without the rational, scientific turn of mind made possible by Greek ideals; budding African democracies owe their politics to the same ideals. Not solely, certainly. And we gain from them as they gain from us. But the world culture is at bottom Classical.

It is not merely, or primarily, a body of knowledge that is important, although that has its place. What is more important, and what is most Greek, is a method of approaching knowledge rather than the mere facts of it. It is the Greek skeptical approach that demands rigorous proof. We owe our medicines and our TVs to such an approach.

SONY DSC

Multiculturalists — and I usually count myself among them — sometimes denigrate the Greeks, blaming them for racism, sexism and a host of other ”isms.” And the Greeks are guilty. They were not perfect.

But that misses the point. All human endeavor is imperfect.

We should not be so quick to condemn the failings of our ancestors; better to try to learn from those failings.

The critics are themselves guilty of an ”ism,” which is the moral arrogance of ”presentism,” the belief that the current state of morals and intellect is somehow the ”correct” one and that they may judge the failings of the past from their own certainties. The radical feminist argument is not fundamentally different from that of the Spanish priests who burned the Pre-Columbian codices on the grounds that those writings were harmful to ”their” present.

A little humility, please.

What’s more, even the critics use the dialectics of Classical thought to deconstruct what they object to. It is always ironic to hear a feminist use Greek argument to berate the Greeks. Feminists disparage the Classics as being misogynist — and make no mistake about it, the Greeks valued what they considered ”masculine” virtues and often made little place for women in their theory.

Yet, one only has to open Homer’s Odyssey to see a wealth of women — strong women — and feminist virtues. Other plays, such as the Antigone, present strong, thoughtful women. Greek actuality is much less coercive than is sometimes thought. And that aside, even if we take account of some of the cultural peculiarities of the ancient Greeks, inherent in their thought — and more importantly, in their thinking processes — are the seeds of all current thought, including multiculturalism. It isn’t Eastern thought or Third World thought that values diversity: It is the Greeks who gave us that.

There are at least four important reasons for maintaining our connection with Classical learning.

From least to most important, they are:Derek Walcott

--› Knowledge of Classical myth and literature. Losing the Classical references means that our literature will become increasingly undecipherable, and in consequence, we will lose tradition, our connection with our past — all our pasts — and we will be in danger of repeating old mistakes. It isn’t only Milton: We cannot read Derek Walcott’s Omeros without understanding Homer.

–› Clarity and precision in discourse. Greek thought is about clarity of language, if nothing else. Greek (and Latin) language does not easily permit sloppiness. We would be better writers and speakers if we were exposed regularly in grammar school to the Classics and Classical languages. The anti-Classical cabal is led by the trendily popular deconstructionists. The postmodernists and deconstructionists: Why read them, since, by their own argument, what they write is meaningless?

–› Acquaintance with the tragic view of life, which is the true view. Americans are becoming a nation of slack-jawed optimists who seem to think life is perfectible, whether they are liberals and think government can perfect it, or conservatives and think that private enterprise can perfect it. Both are wrong. Life is made up of impossible choices. We can only make the best choices in the future if we acknowledge the worst choices of the past. Choices made from ignorance or denial breed more bad choices.

The tragic view is that life causes pain, that there is no alternative, that you must do your best to make moral choices, knowing that whatever choice you make will turn out in the end to be immoral. People will die, suffer or at least be disenfranchised. You cannot act without injuring someone, yet act you must. The Greeks can toughen our hides.

The Mahabharata

–› Finally, the Classics can provide us with the deep, satisfying enjoyment that makes life worth living. If we open ourselves up to the Classics, we will find a deep well of pleasure, the powerful aesthetic experience that illuminates our lives. The Iliad, for instance, is the best book I have ever read, and I have read some good ones, including the Mahabharata of India and the Old Testament of the Levant, both of which have their own power.

Still, compared to them, the Iliad is more aesthetically complete. It makes a world from the greatest panorama down to the smallest detail, all filled in by Homer in just the right proportions to convince us of its reality.

In the end, it has nothing to do with dead white males: The Classics include Sappho, to say nothing of the Odyssey, which convincing arguments say was written by a woman. It matters nothing to me. Sappho and the Odyssey have given me some of the greatest pleasure of my life.

Perhaps we must give up the Classics: It is happening de facto if not by choice. But I dread what will replace it: superstition, intolerance, confusion and chaos.

It is a lesson of history: Clarity breeds uncertainty, which in turn leads to humility and therefore tolerance. On the other hand, confusion and chaos tend to invite political takeover by arrogant tyranny: Inclarity in discourse, public and private, masks the sloppy thinking of the self-righteous.

The Classics are not irrelevant.

myron diskobolos



Monticello reflected

There are few homes in the world that more exactly describe the minds and personalities of their owners than Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The most contradictory personality of America’s early years created for himself a building of contradictions. It is a tiny mansion; it is Spartanly Baroque; and it is a slave-run plantation that verily sings of the dignity of the free man. Jefferson, himself, recognized much of the tumult of his mind.

He was an uncomfortable cross between the 18th-century man of the enlightenment and the emerging 19th-century man of sentiment. So he built a measured, proportioned Palladian home and filled it with moose antlers.

There was in Jefferson both the love of order and reason and the love of wild nature. It is perhaps these warring sentiments that give his home such a special place in the American imagination.

US_Nickel_2013

His home, of course, is Monticello, a 5,000-acre estate near Charlottesville, Va. You probably have a picture of it in your pocket right now — on the back of a nickel. Take a look at it: a classic Greek portico, complete with Doric columns, under a Roman dome and extended on both sides by Renaissance windows. It has a refined symmetry as you see it from the front, or rather from its more familiar west front, for Jefferson gave it two fronts, one in the west, facing his lawn and flower garden, and a second in the east facing its carriage road. It was the east front that visitors first saw on arriving.

Either front is perfectly ordered.

But seen from either of its intervening sides, Monticello loses that symmetry and becomes oddly unbalanced. The famous dome is no longer in the center of the building but lopped over to the one side.

And it becomes apparent that the house, divided into thirds, has its middle third slipped like a rock fault, to the West. Like its owner, you look at it one way and you see one thing, but look at it another way and a second aspect, less easily understood, appears.

monticello side viewJefferson built his home on a mountaintop so he could see the Blue Ridge in the distance. He designed it combining his love of geometry and gadgetry with the French details he had seen as an emissary to France in the 1780s. In its combination of influences and the idiosyncratic overlay of Jefferson’s mind, Monticello may lay claim to being the first truly American house of any importance built in the newly created nation. It is part classical, part crackpot.

The classical side can be found in the columns and friezes; the crackpot in the way he used each of the classical orders in different rooms, here a Corinthian column, here an Ionic, so that you get an uplifting art-history education as you take the house tour.

There are other oddities. There are only two closets in the whole house: one in the guest bedroom and a second hidden in a second-story loft above his bedroom, where he stored his out-of-season clothes. That closet is open to three oblong ”portholes” that hang in the air above Jefferson’s bed. The bed, too, is odd. It is built into the wall between his bedroom and study, or ”cabinet,” as he called it.

Monticello Entrance HallHe loved gadgetry and built dumbwaiters into the molding of one of his fireplaces. He has a revolving-door Lazy Susan for delivering food to the dining room quietly and efficiently. There is a weather vane with an arrow that rotates on the ceiling of his porch and a seven-day clock that doesn’t quite fit into the space he wanted, so he had to cut holes in the floor to make room for the clock weights.

There are no windows in the third floor; all its illumination comes through skylights. And Jefferson hated to waste space with stairs, so he had them shunted off to the recesses of the house, and further saved space by making the stairways barely wide enough for one person to climb at a time. One has to wonder how he ever managed to get the mattresses up to the second-floor bedrooms. The narrow treads and high risers mean that modern-day visitors cannot visit the upstairs; they don’t meet code.

On the third floor, there are a few unheated bedrooms and the great octagonal Dome Room, which was a favorite inspiration to Jefferson but which proved so inconvenient it was relegated to storage.

One shouldn’t make too much of the bedrooms being unheated. Jefferson, in the Franklinesque practical half of his personality, rarely heated any room until the temperature was officially below the freezing point. ”Waste not, want not” — you can hear the line from Poor Richard’s Almanac.

But neither should one make too much of the oddity of the building. As with its creator, the building’s overwhelming impression is one of nobility, of something made with a higher purpose in mind. It is as if the house is the embodiment of the Spartan virtues necessary to create a new nation, a new political system, a new national sensibility out of whole cloth.

Jefferson wrote intensely if ambiguously of his own bifurcated personality in a famous love letter that he penned as a widower to the married Maria Cosway. It is a fierce debate, written in dialogue between his head and heart in 4,000 words and in which neither side can achieve victory.

But in that letter, written in France to the Italian wife of an English painter, he finds time to talk of his beloved American home. It is not head but heart that speaks:

”Dear Monticello, where has nature spread so rich a mantle under the eye? Mountains, forests, rocks, rivers. With what majesty do we ride above the storms. How sublime snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet. And the glorious sun, when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of the mountains and giving life to all nature.”

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