Monthly Archives: September 2012


We hear the phrase, “dead white guys,” a lot these days. It disparages a good deal of what has been taken for art and culture for the past 2000 years or so.

Now, we hear instead of women’s art, Hispanic art, Native American art. Identity, whether by gender, race, religion, nationality or even political outlook has splintered the culture, and what was once “universal” is now merely men’s art.

So, if we take there to be such a thing as men’s art, I wondered what that might be.

Surely that is what the rising tide of feminist art criticism tells us: That the so-called “canonic” art of the art history books and the institutional museums is biased in favor of colonialist, patriarchal and, well, male art.

It is seen as aggressive, competitive and with an undue emphasis on what has been labeled “quality.”

In this instance, “quality” is used as a shibboleth to exclude artists of color and gender.

And I would have a hard time arguing the reverse.

Through history, most artists recognized in the West — and by that I mean European artists — have been men.

And the art history texts have conspired to exclude the Sofonisbas and Artemesias, to say nothing of the Angelica Kauffmans and Judith Leysters.

So, if the art world has been a “old boy’s club” it stands to reason that its art must speak for old boys.

Well, let’s look first at what identity art — and identity politics — is all about.

It is assumed, first off, that each person is somehow defined by his race, culture and gender and that an art, to speak for them, must share the race, culture and gender.

I don’t want to argue that at the moment. Let’s assume it to be true.

So, let’s see how that plays out in the art of an artist generally acknowledged to be a woman: Judy Chicago.

Her first notable work was a series called “The Dinner Party” and it consisted of dozens of table settings, each built around a large dinner plate of her own creation. And each dinner plate was decorated with an ornamental vagina. Some looked more like flowers, some like, well, snails, I guess. But each was the female organ.

When they first were shown, at least, the art critics were largely hostile. “This isn’t art,” they all said, “This is a joke. Where is the beauty? Where is the craftsmanship?”

Well, they are fairly widely accepted as art now. I don’t know what else they would be. They aren’t Haviland china, that’s for sure.

Chicago’s feminist supporters declared that since the critics were, for the most part, men, they were prevented from understanding what made “Dinner Party” art.

And they also explained that what made them “women’s art” was the joining of the generative organ with the symbol of nurturance, the food that the woman prepared for her brood.

I’m making the argument particularly blunt, because, after all, I’m a man and wouldn’t understand otherwise.

On something of the same level, there must be something that counts as men’s art, that features symbols of male virtues. And here, I’m speaking of white male virtues, because black male art has its own niche filled not only by such historical luminaries as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Or the more modern Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Or, in literature, think LeRoi Jones.

This whole problem is easier to understand, I think, if we use music instead of painting.

If you are Jewish, you have klezmer music;

If you are black, you have the blues

If you are white, you have the famous “dead white guys” — people like Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart.

What, after all, does Mozart have to say to a home-boy in the streets of South Central L.A? What does he care about proportion, harmonic rhythm and sonata form?

He has his rap music that speaks to his condition much more directly.

To his life, Mozart is irrelevant.

Or, let’s think of Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony. It used to be said always that the Great Art, with a capital “A” was universal, that is spoke for all mankind.

But what does a symphony orchestra mean to that same homeboy? Tuxedos? Money? Privilege?

And to a woman? Beethoven is badgering, hectoring, aggressive. It’s a constant wham-wham-wham of tonic-dominant forte chords.

Beethoven is men’s art, if ever there were such.

It is an art about hammering out a place in the universe, hammering out meaning.

Where is the grace? where the gentleness? Can Beethoven be said to be, in any sense, “nurturing.”

The recent spate of pop-psychology books telling us that men are from one planet and women from another would have us believe — and I’m not so sure it isn’t true — that women have a whole different way of processing information.

Women cooperate, support each other and generally attempt to create community and consensus.

Men play a life-and-death version of “king of the mountain.” They are inordinately concerned with who’s on top and where they might rank in the society. They are concerned with competition, with besting the other guy and proving they are the biggest damn gorilla on the block.

Sounds like Beethoven to me.

Who else might count as a male artist?

Michelangelo, with his “divine spark” and ranks of angels.

David, with his morality tableaux and ranks of nobles.

Picasso, surely, for his biography tells us he hated women.

And actually, almost everything in your standard Janson art history text.

The men are interested in manipulating things, altering the environment, creating a rigid social order and making “quality distinctions” that rank the artists’ products.

It is men who tell us Van Gogh is great and that Fantin-Latour is less so.

It is men who tell us Judy Chicago shouldn’t be taken seriously.

It is men who tell us that Beethoven is universal.

After all these years of so believing, I have come to question these assumptions. Perhaps Beethoven is really very provincial and speaks to white German males. Maybe that is why Debussy hated him. Maybe Wagner really does speak for the anti-Semitic; maybe Sibelius speaks only to the Finns.

As evidence for this I search myself.

I come from a Norwegian background. And sure enough, I feel something special, something very personal when I watch a Bergman film. I love a lot of cinema. Fellini is a dear; Kurosawa moves me to tears. But Scandinavian Bergman speaks to me as without a middle man; His images and words pierce directly to my heart and make an effect even before they reach my brain.

There is something perhaps even genetic to this. I recognize those iron-grey skies in his films, those tight-lipped volcanoes raging inside with never a ripple on their surface. That icy intensity is what rages through my own veins.

What doesn’t rage through my veins is the extroverted menagerie of Fellini. His Adriatic sun is not the midnight sun. Even his most sarcastic satire is optimistic. Just the opposite in Bergman, he sings with Brahms, “The grave is my joy.” There is something quintessentially gloomy about Scandinavians.

Lest you forget, the old Norse mythology is the only one, at least as far as I’ve ever found, wherein good battles evil and evil is predestined to win. The good gods will die.

I feel something of the same bleakness in Sibelius — less so in the Norwegian, Grieg, but that has more to do with his cosmopolitan leanings.

Think of the painter Edvard Munch — now there’s a cheerful guy.

The deal is that if your name is Abromowitz or Kelly or Riportella, you may not have that same blood-bond with Bergman. You may feel it for Fellini, or Rossini; or for Chaim Potok or klezmer music.

If you are black, you may feel that blood-tie to B.B. King or even L.L. Cool J.

And I have no doubt the women who tell us they feel a tie with Georgia O’Keeffe or Frida Kahlo and don’t feel the same with Cezanne or Braque are not merely making political points, but are telling us how they honestly feel.

Which brings us to the black briny problem of isolation. Does this mean that we have to throw out our Rembrandt and Renoir? Do we have to give up on 600 years or a thousand years of art history?

Does identity art render all other art null and void?

Well, the truth is that although I feel that kinship with Bergman, I truly do love Fellini as well. He speaks to me perhaps on a different level, and perhaps even a better level.

Fellini speaks to me not on the blood level, but on the level of esthetics. Even if my relatives are those in “Wild Strawberries” and not those in “Amarcord,” that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the central core of humanity of the people in it. Fellini makes me believe in his people by force of will and imagination. He makes me believe in them as blood and flesh. He forces me to transcend the tribal.

And whether Georgia O’Keeffe speaks directly to women in a way she doesn’t speak to me I can’t know, but I can know that she speaks to me as well.

There is something in the best art that transcends race, culture and gender.

Sure, there is something on the surface that may speak more directly to others, but there is something in the core that speaks to us all.

It is, of course, that universality that I maligned earlier.

All art, of course, comes out of a culture, all art is made by a man or a woman and those roots must be the starting point. It would be as silly for a Chicano artist to mimic quattrocento Florentine art as it would be for me to write a rap song, but the soil, as they say, is where it starts.

And that soil gives birth to a great amount of art that never transcends its origin. That art can still speak to its nation or gender or color.

Most rap songs will never mean anything to me, although I can recognize in the best of it something genuine and true: Public Enemy is making real art even if others are only making headlines.

And Ditters von Dittersdorf writes concertos that really do appeal only to dead white Germans.

But the best of any art, from anywhere in the world and from any gender can communicate something genuine.

It is that nugget that Beethoven attempted to reach in his Ninth Symphony, for instance. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” — “All men are brothers” or, in more gender neutral terms, as spoken by Willie Stargell: “We are family.”

So, what does all this mean?

First, that we must keep our ears and eyes open to that universal meaning in all art, whether it is Judy Chicago or Romare Bearden.

Second, we should always recognize that all art comes from a tribe, that white males are only one more tribe — certainly a historically privileged tribe — but that the tribe is the starting line, the checkered flag lies elsewhere.

We should never deny our origin, or attempt to suppress our origin as a seed for the art — the terroir we grow in — but we should always attempt to transcend our tribe and recognize not the differences between the tribes of humankind, but their similarities.

Sometimes, when you’re stuck on the “A” Train between 168th Street and 175th Street — that curve in the subway track that always makes the train squeal like a banshee from hell and you wish to god only dogs could hear it — and there are 43 high school kids riding home from class and making a party on the train at the top of their 86 lungs, and two or three winos are sleeping on the seats, so you have to stand, and you can’t really tell if that twitchy man who got on your car at 145th Street is carrying a knife or a letter opener — sometimes you wonder whether the 20th Century has really been worth it.

If only there were a way to go back in time to the 17th Century, or the 15th, or what the heck, the 12th Century. Ah, but there is. Just tough out the train ride to 190th Street and take the elevator up from the bowels of the station, the elevator pasted with 50 or 60 cute photographs of kitty cats and puppy dogs — and the tag-team New York Transit Authority elevator operators who taped them there and operate the elevator from behind the walls of a corrugated cardboard box “office” they imported into the elevator — and step out into the fresh air of Fort Tryon Park at the northern tip of Manhattan.

It is a short walk through the greenery and over the black basalt outcroppings to the Cloisters.

The Cloisters is a place of cold stone, vaulted ceilings and stained glass, only not stained the way the windows are stained on the “A” train.

Opened in 1938, the Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and contains part of its Medieval collection. It is a castle on the Hudson River on a stony prominence overlooking Dyckman Street. It is a rent in time.

It is a sort of monastery built from sections of 12th and 13th Century French and Spanish cloisters, reassembled in New York City. Inside, you can set in stony silence in a Gothic chapel and watch the play of light on the stained glass windows and contemplate the tomb effigies of noblemen and their wives.

The best part of the Cloisters is that it is so far from the city’s “museum row” along Fifth Avenue that few tourists trouble to make the trip and it is thus one of the least crowded major museums in America.

But the trip will be worth your while. Inside the stone edifice are the famous Unicorn Tapestries, the gargoyled column capitals of the Cuxa Cloister and a boxwood rosary bead no larger than an inch and a half in circumference, but which splits in half and opens into a triptych of carved biblical scenes with more than 40 tiny figures sculpted into it.

I try to visit the Cloisters each time I find myself in New York, usually on the final day of my trip, when I am exhausted by the stress and energy of the great crowded noisy squealing smelly city. The Cloisters is a refuge, a place to regain the center of your being, the unmoving axis of the earth.

You first see the place — or see its tower — as you wind the paths of Fort Tryon Park past the beech trees and the retirees feeding squirrels. They are very fat squirrels.

But there, over the treetops, it seems farther away than it is. As you get closer the path takes you up to a tiny door in the bottom of the castle and you go in, up some stone steps and up to the admissions booth. Pay the fee, get your museum map and step into the 12th Century.

The main hall at the entrance is a modern piece of architecture, but evoking the style of the Middle Ages. It is a tall hexagonal vaulted dome. Off to the side are the bookshop in one direction and the Romanesque Hall to the other.  From there, you can take a side trip to the Fuentiduena Chapel, the St. Guilhem Cloister and the Pontaut Chapter House.

Each of them was collected in Europe, taken down stone by stone, with each piece carefully numbered, shipped to New York and rebuilt as part of the sprawling museum. In some cases, the originals were in ruins or only partially surviving and the museum has fleshed out the missing parts in the proper style.

On a cold October day, the sandstone is icy to the touch and the low-hanging sun outside throws the shadows of the surrounding trees up against the stained glass, making a second web of leading swaying against the motionless first

There are four things I never miss on a visit.

The first is the Gothic Chapel, which is a modern recreation of an 11th Century chapel, filled out with statues and stained glass. It is quiet as a tomb, and I always find a seat on the stone and sit quietly for 20 minutes or a half hour, waiting for the occasional visitor to pass through and bring me silence once again.

It is hard to believe a place this still can exist in a city this impatient.

In the center of the chapel is the tomb of the chevalier Jean d’Alluye, who died in 1248. On top of the sarcophagus lies the effigy of the knight, with his palms pressed together in prayer and his chain-mailed feet resting on a small stone lion. Jean had been to the Holy Land during a crusade in 1240 and had brought back what he believed was a piece of the true cross. He was originally entombed at the abbey of La Clarte-Dieu, near Le Mans, which he had built in 1239.

The second station of my ritual is the room containing the Unicorn Tapestries. These seven giant weavings depict the hunt and capture of a unicorn and are also allegorical of the suffering and crucifixion of Christ.

The last of these tapestries, the Unicorn in Captivity, is the most popular. A poster of it is sold at the gift shop. The unicorn rests in a circular corral resting on a field of hundreds of flowers, a particular style called “millefleur,” or “Thousand flowers” in French. The millefleur is more stylized than naturalistic, but it does demonstrate a quality that is particularly Medieval, and a quality I especially respond to.

The Medieval mind didn’t care much for artistic unity. They never generalized in their artwork. The later Renaissance loved to make a landscape of generalized trees, although you can never quite tell what kind of tree they mean. In a Medieval piece, like this millefleur, you can name every single plant by genus and frequently by species.

They may sit on a flat black field, but there is the strawberry, the columbine, the daisy, the iris, no two alike.

That same impulse can be found in the next stop, the intimate Trie Cloister, which is open to the weather. A cloister is a garden surrounded by a stone walkway bordered with columns. What marks it as Medieval, specifically Gothic, is that no two column heads are the same. Every one of the 20-plus double columns has a different capital, and they run from tragic to comical.

The ancient Greeks would have been horrified by this lack of unity: They built their temples so that all the columns and capitals matched. The Renaissance that came later was shocked: They, too liked uniformity of effect. They were so put off by the helter-skelter design of the age that preceded them, that they named it Gothic, which is to say, barbarian.

Yet, the profusion of styles all yoked together gives the impression of profound fecundity. The Medievals lived in a world made vivid by its variety: the wealth of animals, of plants, of social classes, of biblical stories. There are kings and saints on these capitals; there are dancing bears and demons; acanthus leaves and oak leaves. There are trade union labels and a man in a funny hat.

It is a sense of rich profusion, and one I find myself deeply sympathetic towards, which is why the cloister is a mandatory stop, again for 20 minutes or so, to soak it all in, like a deep breath of air.

The final required stop is the herb garden. I am a sucker for herb gardens,  especially the highly regimented kind that the Middle Ages were so fond of. The herb garden at the Cloisters is in the form of a cross, with beds of herbs surrounding the four central quince trees.

In October, the quince are ripening to a mottled yellow, looking something halfway between apples and pears. Their subtle fruity smell is exquisite.

Whenever I find myself in an herb garden, I always nip off tiny bits of the leaves and crush them between my fingers under my nose. The smell of the lavender, sage, thyme, borage or camphor wakes up that olfactory sense that you do your best to put to sleep in the grimy downtown.

It is for me, as it was for the Medievals, as perfect a model of Paradise as can be found on earth. Paradise is a Persian word for garden, and it is only proper that our culture has taken it over to name the single plot of earth that remains unmolested by the clutter, noise and ambition of the everyday world we inhabit.

There are dozens of other attractions at the Cloisters, every one of them worthy of your whole attention. I mention only the tapestry of the stag hunted by old age, which is the equal of the Unicorn tapestries, or the 15th Century wooden pieta, which makes the dead Christ seem more like a lifeless piece of meat than any other pieta I’ve seen, only heightening the pity we feel looking on at Mary’s sorrow.

So, if you are lucky, you can carry back with you into the city some of the stillness of the Cloisters, and until it wears off, hold onto the unmoving center of the universe.


There is little so depressing in the world as its conventionality. We are swamped by it, as if by a great sea wave.

Now, I don’t mean, when I say the world is conventional, that it is suburban, middle class or bourgeois. I am not merely talking about trim square lawns and grey-flannel suits. Those are conventional targets: Such things, in fact, are the conventional images of conventionality, and that gets me down just as much.

We need an unconventional view of what is conventional, or we may not notice the phenomenon at all.

And I’m not talking about conformity. That is another issue — one largely left over from the 1950s. You can see it discussed in rather conventional terms by many of the TV dramas from that “golden age” of television.

In the 1950s, there were so-called “non-conformists” who lived “unconventional lives” but they all dressed the same and they were just as conformist in their berets and turtlenecks as their elders in suits and ties. The same for hippies; the same for our goths, punks and homeboys.

There is nothing more boringly conventional than low-hanging shorts, a slogan T-shirt and a ballcap worn back-front. It is just as much a uniform as the grey-flannel suit.

I remember radio-storyteller Jean Shepherd complaining about this in the 1960s.

“If you really want to be unconventional,” he said, “wear a coal scuttle on your head.”

There is a tie between conventionality and conformity, but they are not the same thing. Conformity is acting the same as everyone else, so you don’t stand out.

Conventionalism is thinking the same as everyone else, and when you are conventional, you probably don’t even know it.

Conventions are not the province of any single social class, nation or nationality. They are a lazy habit of human thought. Conventions are things we accept without question as an accurate description of the way things are.

Songs are three minutes long. Men wear trousers; women wear skirts. Photographs are rectangular. Automobiles have four wheels. We eat with knives and forks.

Books open from the right. Stories have beginnings, middles and ends. Poetry rhymes. Brides wear white. Weeks have seven days.

All of these things are conventional; there is no obligation for them to be this way.

Some conventions serve useful purposes, such as having everyone drive on the same side of the road, but most are mere habits.

Most any widely held belief is conventional rather than active. You could take any one and turn it on its head and make a convincing argument.

We believe modern medicine is good, yet it has helped cause the overpopulation of the planet. Death is part of a healthy life, after all. Perhaps we were better off in the long run without penicillin. It has not stopped suffering but only postponed it.

We talk about species being higher or lower on the “evolutionary ladder..” Yet, there is really no higher or lower; there is only difference.

That sense that human beings are the culmination of an evolutionary teleology is quite absurd. We need to evict the squatting convention that everything is ordered hierarchically.

The reason we rely on convention so much is that it makes our decisions for us and solves problems that otherwise would vex us continually.

Convention is therefore a labor-saving device.

But are labor-saving devices all that good, in the long run? That is another convention that bears inspection. Families were certainly more tightly bonded before the proliferation of labor-saving devices freed us from having to cooperate on chores.

Convention is habit and the problem with habits is that they dull us down and dim our awareness.

And that is why we should worry about it.

For you might ask, if we are happy with the conventional, why should we be forced into an unknown we are uncomfortable with? Why should not a painting be something pretty we hang over a sofa? Why shouldn’t we wear matching socks?

But if you begin to recognize the conventionality around you, you won’t think convention all that pleasant. You will see it as the enemy. You will see it as a form of death. It makes inert a portion of life that should be perpetually active.

Convention is a substitute for being alive. It is a false path that will lead you to the point that you wake up one day and realize you have not lived.

To be most alive is to be most aware. Convention is a sleeping pill.

My wife has a simple theology. As far as she is concerned, Ray Charles is God.

This isn’t an organized religion and she doesn’t attend services. But I know what she means: When you hear Ray Charles sing, you can easily be convinced that there is a kind of divinity making itself heard through his throat.

It isn’t strictly speaking his music which causes this reaction. Some of the songs he sings are as trivial as any other pop music, the arrangements just as kitschy, and his backup musicians are often the same ones that show up elsewhere when no divinity is present.

No, it is a quality in his voice that transcends the pop music he sings. It is as if all of humanity is trying to crowd through the narrow pipe of his trachea.

What you hear is pain, joy, weariness, enthusiasm, strength, vulnerability, death and birth, all at once.

Well-trained voices of opera singers are meant to sound effortless; they know how to ease the notes across their vocal cords and project them to the back of the house. With Charles, the rasp of his voice underlines how hard the music is working to get so much meaning through so small a tube.

I’m going on about one singer-deity, but I am myself a polytheist. There are a tiny handful of others working in pop culture that bring so much to their medium that they transcend it and reach the rank of high art.

You hear something of the same going on in the tenor of Willie Nelson. Now, I am not a country-Western fan. Mostly such music gives me the worms. But Nelson is something beyond the category and every note he utters seems rife with human life.

Others on my list include Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, and — yes, I’m serious about this — Jerry Lee Lewis.

In each, there is an authenticity in their voice that only gets more profound as they age.

You should hear the Killer bend Somewhere Over the Rainbow into a melancholy confession of regret. I doubt he could have managed that when he was a young Turk.

And Billie Holiday, in the year before she died, worn threadbare by heroin and alcohol, sang her Don’t Explain at New York’s Plaza Hotel with Duke Ellington and you can barely stand listening to her pain:

“Cry to hear folks chatter/ And I know you cheat./ But right and wrong don’t matter/ When you’re with me, sweet.”

The same authenticity — the sense that the joy of life depends on the pain and loss caused by death — shows in the guitar solos of B.B. King and the comedy of Richard Pryor.

In all these cases, the quality that transcends pop is soaked thoroughly into the sound. Like a hologram, which you can scissor into many pieces and each contains the whole image, you can slice up a Ray Charles song or a B.B. King guitar lick and the whole of humanity is in every sliver, complete and undiminished.

When you hear something so human, you recognize instantly its status as art. Most pop is merely commercial and no matter how catchy the tune, it comes and goes quickly, with no more lasting influence than yesterday’s newspaper.

In an age that likes to downplay the difference between high and low art, it is important to recognize the difference. Too often, anyone who makes that suggestion is accused of being a snob and an elitist.

But there is a difference between those things which entertain us and those which make us recognize and feel our own humanity, that open us up to the wider world of thoughts and emotions. And despite the reigning egalitarianism, the one has more value than the other.

A snob is someone who believes one thing is better than another for the wrong reasons. But what do you call it if you recognize the right reasons?

A snob believes that money or birth or style makes one form of art better than another. But it is not money or style that makes something better.

It is quality, authenticity, genuineness: Mozart at his best had it and Ray Charles at his best has it. Style has nothing to do with it.

Which is why Ray Charles could sing country and Western, and why Willie Nelson could sing Stardust.

For style is merely the vessel the humanity pours into. And it is the humanity that makes it art, not the style.