Monthly Archives: December 2013

The author, Anders Vehus and old uncle Thorvald, 1966

The author, Anders Vehus and old uncle Thorvald, 1966

Old Thorvald was 87 and his jowled face was bristly with white whiskers. And like many elderly Norwegians, he was dressed in a loose-fitting black pinstriped suit with a four-button vest and starched white shirt, even though the two of us were out under the July sun with pitchforks, loading hay into the wagon.

In the southern tip of Norway, just north of Kristiansand, I was staying on a small chicken farm with a family distantly related to my own. Thorvald’s daughter, Marie, was married to Anders, who had raised money to buy his farm by working as a wood-floor layer in America. Their daughter, Ruth, was my age, and she made the rounds each afternoon, delivering eggs in their old beat-up Opel pickup truck. We ate eggs at most meals.

Thorvald smoked his pipe while leaning on the pitchfork and talked about his coming marriage, his fourth. He said he didn’t like the bachelor life and this new widow he had met was a good cook. His watery eyes brightened at the thought of food. He also said he didn’t like the weather, it was bad for haying.

It was the middle of July. Rains came every day at about 4 p.m. and left a rainbow over the rocky prominence at the edge of the property — Norway is all rock. That evening we ate fresh ham with its fat baked crisp around it — and eggs. We drank a warm, steamy ale that Anders had brewed in the kitchen. You might better have called it a ”malt cider.”

And in the evening that never seems to get dark, Anders played the fiddle and Thorvald strummed the mandolin.

Since they are Norwegian, they played hymns.

I mention all this because it is the little details that flesh out the recollection of travel: From travel years ago, I often cannot recall the major events, but I can taste, smell and hear the sensuous bits of which they are constituted.

The next morning, we drove to the little fishing town of Sogne, a tiny stone harbor ringed with immaculate red clapboard houses with white trim or white clapboard houses with dark green trim. There we boarded a bobbing fishing boat and headed out into the edges of the Skagerrak, the deep, cold rock-filled channel that separates Norway from Denmark.

Kristiansand, Norway, 1966

Kristiansand, Norway, 1966

The old boat putt-putted out into the iron-colored swell under a gunmetal sky toward a gray granite island with a single neatly painted wooden cabin on top.

In the arthritic wind, we hung a fishing line over the transom and dragged it behind us. The 25-foot boat rocked in the waves, scattering sea spray over us as its bow splashed up and down, slapping the water.

Ruth caught a 5-pound sea bass and wrapped it up in paper to bring home to her cat. Anders caught a bucketful of salmon, and I caught a chill in the salt spray.

Later that afternoon in the cabin on the rocky island, we cooked the pink-fleshed, sweet-fleshed salmon and ate them with potatoes and cucumber salad while we warmed ourselves in front of a wood fire and tried to dry out our sweaters in front of the hearth.

And when we came back to shore that evening, the sky still bright at 11 p.m., it snowed on us as we drove back to the farm.

It was the 29th day of July and we had snow. It was only a little flurry, but it was wet, clumping gobs of snow that stuck to the windshield.

Such little things, snow in July, are indelible.

We got back to the farmhouse, made the cat very happy and finally slept with the comforting, resinous smell of a wood fire in the kitchen stove.



The best Christmas I ever had was the Christmas of four gifts.

It happened on the Hopi Reservation a few years ago, when my wife and I left Phoenix because we just couldn’t take another holiday season under the palm trees.

Like many who lived in the desert, Carole and I grew up elsewhere, where Christmas meant freezing weather and the possibility of snow. Santa rides a sleigh, after all. But in Phoenix, Santa wears sunglasses. It just doesn’t seem right.

Not that we thought we’d find a traditional Christmas among the Hopi. Their traditions are rather different. But we thought we could at least escape the TV beer ads littered with reindeer and find something new outside the city where the backyard Christmas barbecue passes for holiday cheer.

Maybe we couldn’t have our old traditions, but we could start new ones.

If the traffic and commotion of the city get on your nerves, no better tonic exists than a visit to the three great mesas of yellow-gray sandstone that rise like gigantic library lions from the vast plains of the Colorado Plateau. Atop them the Hopi have built most of their villages, all from the stone of the hills. crow mother

From the mesa-top the view is biblical: You can see for what seems forever. The San Francisco Peaks sit on the horizon, some 75 miles to the southwest, yet they seem so close you feel you can walk to them.

On that Christmas Day, the temperature was about 29 degrees and the sun was low and cold, poking through an intermittent overcast. We stopped at the base of First Mesa to get gas at the little store in Polacca. We also bought a few gifts — some coffee and sugar — to bring to the women on the mesa-top who give tours of the village.

When we got back in the car, we discovered the woman behind the counter had quietly dropped candy and fruit into the poke with our purchases.

That was the first gift.


The highlight of a visit to the three villages atop First Mesa is a tour of Walpi. The Hopi have lived in the community on the prow of the mesa for at least 1,000 years and some of the stone homes seem to be almost that old.

You park your car in the middle village, Sichomovi, and find a tour guide in Ponsi Hall, the community center. From there, you walk out across the narrow stone causeway to Walpi. Our guide was a woman we had met on several previous visits to the area. She is a warm, generous woman who was free with her answers to our many questions. I will not embarrass her by printing her name. walpi homes

She showed us the ancient masonry, the village layout, the meaning of the kivas and their spindly ladders that protrude from the ground. She told us of the kachinas, of blue cornmeal and of pahoes , or prayer sticks, whose feathers danced in the breeze on the edge of the mesa.

She also told us of her life in San Diego and how after years away from the mesa, she felt drawn back to it. pot carrier

And she told us how, like many Hopi women of First Mesa, she makes pottery.

Unlike most, though, she doesn’t make bowls, but effigies of turtles.

”They are like the Hopi,” she said. ”They live a slow-paced life.”

At the highest point of Walpi we came to the home of her aunt, who is one of the better-known Hopi potters. The old woman and Carole hit it off perfectly. They seemed to speak the same language.

They talked for quite a while. At one point, Carole asked if she knew where we might buy some of the blue cornmeal we had seen all over the reservation, and the woman reached a brown paper bag down from a high shelf and gave it to Carole, with instructions for cooking Hu zru’ su ki , or fried blue-corn polenta.

And when we bought one of her bowls, she smiled and whispered something in Carole’s ear and sprinkled some corn pollen into the pot.

That was the second gift.


Then, on our swing around the north side of the mesa top, our guide stopped in front of one small, square building and invited us in. It was her home, and inside, her daughter was putting the final touches of frosting on a batch of Christmas cookies. Hopi pot 2

The small room, with its stone floor covered with small rugs, was a toasty 75 degrees, with a fire going in the woodstove and condensation beading on the icy window glass. The family was bustling around, with Uncle in the back room attaching some down to the end of a ”lightning stick” and two boys helping the daughter with the cookies the way youngsters always help — by eating them.

A narrow shelf ran around the top of the room, about a foot below the ceiling, holding a collection of kachina dolls, lightning sticks, a toy bow and arrow and pottery.

Our guide explained what they were and handed out cookies. They were angels, and they were the best Christmas cookies I’ve ever eaten.

That was the third gift.

So, it was Christmas Day in the gracious, generous Hopi home, spending the afternoon with the family of a woman we now consider a friend.

When we stepped back out into the cold to leave, snow was falling all over Hopiland.

And that was the fourth gift: the wonderful warmth of Christmas snow, dropping gently in large flakes, catching on our hair and coats.

So, I say on leaving the mesas in my best attempt at Hopi: Quo-Quai – Thank you.hopi snow

Click image for larger view

Click image for larger view

Organization is vastly overrated.

I think.

But I can’t find the list of reasons I made. It’s on the back of a press-release envelope somewhere on my desk, under last month’s mail, or at least parts of the list are. The rest of the list is in the other room, on the crossword-puzzle page of the TV Guide, where I wrote it when I couldn’t find any other paper.

I’m not a particularly disorganized person. I arrive at most appointments promptly and I don’t lose my reading glasses more than twice a year, but I’m not an organization freak, either. Actually, I’ve spent the last several years trying to be less organized.

I have three calendars, each has different appointments listed in it. I just write notes down in whichever calendar is nearest, or at least visible. There is very little overlap and no system whatsoever. And what is more, after I write it on the calendar, I rarely ever read it again.

And my desk is perhaps messier than it used to be. My filing system is chronological: The older it is, the deeper in the pile. I don’t need a secretary, but perhaps an archaeologist would be nice.

The question of organization comes to mind because I am thinking about organizing my hard drive. I’ve got a computer desktop that mirrors my physical desktop: a midden of icons and folders; I don’t even remember what some of them are. But organizing? I’ve seen too many good people go over the edge, with that microchip gleam in their eye as they describe how they’ve put all their kitchen spices on a spreadsheet stored on a thumbdrive. In alphabetical order, with the date of purchase listed, to keep track of freshness, and botanical names attached, just because the computer program has a place to put them.

Of course, most of the spices lose their savor over the weeks required to program, format and enter all the information.

There’s a limit to what organization will do for you, but no limit to what it can do to you. Organization can be stultifying.

The important thing to remember is: Storing data isn’t learning.

For me, the central issue is that computers can deal only in categories of information. You open a file, play with it and refile it.

But there is a great deal in life that falls into the cracks. It doesn’t quite belong in one category, but doesn’t quite fit the other, either.

The ad hoc solution is to create a third file, named ”miscellaneous.” It quickly becomes the fullest file. It is a slush pile of stuff you don’t want to have to deal with, at least not yet.

The fact is that you can’t categorize a subject until you know something about it, so anything that fits the neat organization of a computer file is something you already understand.

If you want to continue learning — as opposed to memorizing — you need to pay more attention to those things you don’t understand. That’s where your mental and emotional growth will happen.

It reminds me of the sage words of the late artist Frederick Sommer, who once told me he only reads books that he doesn’t understand. ”Why would I read something I already understand?” he asked.

The computer model of brainpower is a simplified, dumbed-down version. It is astonishingly fast, but astonishingly stupid.

I will finally clean up my desktop because it will help me write. I could not do without my computer and the way it puts me online with some wonderful and weird stuff. But I am never buffaloed into thinking that the computer, no matter how much hard-drive memory or RAM megabytes it has, can begin to be creative, even on the most modest level.

To do so, it would first have to get sloppy, make mistakes, put things in wrong categories and then recognize, with a certain amount of joy, that there is a way the wrong category can be right, if you turn the information upside down and insert it sideways.

Creativity happens when two things rub up against each other. That is more likely to happen, in my experience, when the world isn’t too orderly and the things of the world are allowed to slosh around a little in their matrix.

So I have cultivated a little chaos in my life. It is the wellspring of all ideas and keeps life interesting.

Sure, too much chaos can be a bad thing, but I’d rather have too much than not enough.

bruckner stamp austria

Are you old enough for Bruckner?

Poet Ezra Pound said there is no reason you should like the same book (or music or art) at 40 that you liked at 16. At 16, I liked Ezra Pound; now I’m 65.

The author graduates high school in 1966

The author graduates high school in 1966

Our tastes change as we age, or they should. My introduction to classical music was Tchaikovsky. His symphonies and concertos pumped new-generated hormones through my arteries like adrenalin — when I was in high school.

It wasn’t long before I left him behind for Stravinsky, then Beethoven.

By the time that I was middle-aged, I had gone through Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, Debussy, Mahler, and most recently had added Bruckner and Haydn to the list. I get things from each of them I was deaf to earlier. Now that I am retired, I have finally come to appreciate Verdi. But, boy, it was hard to get past all the oom-pah-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah-pah.

The path won’t be the same for everyone, but there are some general patterns that seem to hold.

In painting, we all loved van Gogh at about the same time we loved Tchaikovsky. There is a bigger-than-life striving in van Gogh that appeals to the adolescent, striving himself for some sense of the heroic.

The author 1975

The author 1975

That same aspiration drove us to read Catcher in the Rye.

With a few more years under an increasingly large belt, we drop Tchaikovsky as hopelessly sentimental, Salinger as naive and simply move past van Gogh as we become aware of the Impressionists, who tickle our eyes all over again. Hormones calm, reality sets.

When we are in college or as grad students, we tend to gravitate to those things that are trendy, new, and exclusive, that set us off from the proles: We read Umberto Eco or — in my generation, Alberto Moravia and Robbe-Grillet. We jumped on Marina Abramowic  and Bruce Nauman and listened to Lutoslawski, Schnittke and Harry Partch. Yes to Pina Bausch, meh to Swan Lake.

The author 1977

The author 1977

Yes, we were showing off. In many cases we admired more than enjoyed.

We then gave up the need to be au courant or exclusive as we came to distinguish between the gee-whiz and the substantial.

As adults, we craved the substantial. Adult tastes are acquired tastes: Poussin, Schoenberg, Milton, rutabagas, pickled herring.

Old age now brings something else: simplicity and inclusiveness. I am no longer quick to drop the critical meat-cleaver and sever away something I consider unworthy. They are all worthy. Tchaikovsky as much as Webern, Salinger as well as Joyce. We are enriched by each of them.

The author in his "Van Gogh" pose 1980

The author in his “Van Gogh” pose 1980

(No, I haven’t gone senile — I’m not ready to accept Andrew Lloyd Webber or Thomas Kinkade, although I see some value in Norman Rockwell that would have shocked me to hear anyone admit when I was 20. No, Rockwell is no Raphael, but there is room for an entire spectrum of abilities and accomplishments. What I ask isn’t so much undying masterpieces, as sincerity of attempt, and a willingness to put in the work.)

So, growth isn’t just a case of moving on from one thing to another, but adding more and more to our trove. By the time you are my age, you will have a heady backlog of esthetic experiences to draw on.

What is most interesting to me is that, if we continue to grow, we can return to art we left behind and find something new in it. From age 17 to about 40, I couldn’t bear Tchaikovsky — it seemed like treacle. But then I began noticing his bizarre harmonic sense and what I might call ”orchestration from Mars.” You only have to read the scores to see how peculiar is his voice leading. When I could get past the heart on the sleeve, I discovered an intelligence there that was hiding, or rather, that I was unwilling to discover, having made up my mind and moved on.

The author at Canyon de Chelly, 1989

The author at Canyon de Chelly, 1989

An now that I am bald, bearded and grey, I find that there is something even in the emotional immediacy that once embarrassed me.

As we grow, we not only grow into new experiences, we grow out of our old prejudices.

This all came back to me this week as I watched Lust for Life on cable. The 1956 biopic starred Kirk Douglas as van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin. The film is an odd combination of excellence and awfulness, mixing insight with bromides, sanitizing the painter’s life while emphasizing the insanity.

More than anything, this is the van Gogh who appeals to adolescents, the van Gogh of idealism, identity crisis and suicide.

Alienated, misunderstood.

But there is one more aspect of him that is included: his commitment and perseverance. These quieter virtues, more than his insanity, give van Gogh his stature as an artist.

the author lecturing 2005

the author lecturing 2005

There was a time, in my 20s, that I dismissed van Gogh. The peculiar paint-busy canvasses, I was convinced, were just the evidence of a deranged mind. If you were schizophrenic, you could be a great artist, too.

But more careful study in recent years, especially of the many notebooks filled with drawings, told me something else again. Van Gogh paints the way he does because of his unwavering honesty to his eyes. He kept looking till he got it right.

And ”right” for him was to notice everything that his eyes saw, not merely what he had been trained to see.

If you stare long enough and with enough concentration, you can see something of the granular reality van Gogh saw. We no more pay attention to it in daily life than we pay attention to the grain in a movie’s film stock. It is not the information, but the medium of the information. We filter out so much. Van Gogh didn’t.

the author at Giverny 2008

the author at Giverny 2008

The other wonderful thing about van Gogh is that he had so little talent.

We tend to think of great artists being as fluent as Mozart or Raphael. Yet talent is a poor indicator of quality in art. For every Raphael, there are scores of Geromes and Bouguereaus: accomplished and pretty, but ultimately empty.

Van Gogh shared a lack of talent with several other great artists: Cezanne, for instance; or Jackson Pollock. One searches the drawings and oil sketches of Cezanne for even the slightest encouragement of talent. His drawing is hopelessly awkward.

Pollock searched for years for an adequate means of expressing what was inside him. To do it, he had to give up everything he had learned. If he had no talent for drawing, he would not draw. He found a talent for splashing instead.van gogh landscape

Van Gogh’s notebooks are full of erasures. He looked, drew, erased, looked again, drew again, erased again. Many drawings are never finished, but those that are, are right in a way the more facile Ingres never is.

Van Gogh was stubborn. I admire that in him more than I admire the talent of William Merritt Chase.

But give me another 10 years and we’ll see.

By Mel Ramos

By Mel Ramos

America isn’t a big cheese country. We do Velveeta and Cheez Whiz, and when we’re really adventurous, we ask for that so-called blue cheese dressing on our salads that is really no more than ranch dressing a few weeks past its expiration date. thunderbird wine

Velveeta, of course, isn’t cheese at all. It is officially a ”cheese food product.” That is, it’s a congealed block of yellowed lipids and tastes as much like cheese as Thunderbird wine tastes like Bordeaux. And the new cheese substitutes are worse. They may be healthy, but are they food? Ever tried to make a grilled cheese sandwich with that synthetic stuff? It doesn’t melt, it blackens at the edges and buckles under the heat like linoleum.

Anyone for a scorched floor tile sandwich?

All this came to mind as I searched town for some Gorgonzola. For those who haven’t developed the taste, that is an Italian blue cheese that is greenish and runny, with a smell like laundry left damp too long in the washing machine. It is a taste that grows on you. Of course, something grows on the cheese, too.

But it made me consider how taste changes as we age. When I was young, I ate Hostess cupcakes like everyone else. Adults seemed to like beer and brussels sprouts. Kids drank soda pop, adults drank coffee. SONY DSC

Now that I’m old enough for my toes to start growing funny, I have learned to like rutabagas, glazed parsnips, pickled herring, Stilton cheese and single-malt scotch.

And those cupcakes are poison. As an adult, I taste every gram of sulfated polysaccharide, every microscopic speck of potassium sorbate and monoglyceride. A Hostess cupcake really and truly tastes to me now like an eighth-grade science project.

For me, it all began changing when I was about 18 and one day I tasted coffee for the thousandth time — and for the first time, it tasted good. Really good. manischewitz

I had sampled wines when a child — my parents would give me a little Manischewitz, which is really only fruit syrup with a kick — and I would make a sour little face.

Suddenly, as an adult, I tasted something really dry from France and wine seemed like ichor. Perhaps a little Alsatian Riesling to taste with foie gras and onion confit. Later, I developed a taste for Greek retsina, which tastes the way turpentine smells. It has character.

Then came yogurt, lassi, kefir, Roquefort cheese, herring, corned beef, horseradish. pear and gorgonzola

As kids, we like Hershey bars, as adults we come to enjoy a slice of pear with a bit of cheese.

Maturing taste is certainly not restricted to food. Most of us wear different clothes as we grow up, leaving the sneakers and T-shirts behind. We grow out of our metal-fleck magenta Mustangs with the flames on the hood.

Although not everyone matures: The other day I saw a BMW with racing stripes.

And we stop reading Nancy Drew and take on Eudora Welty. We go from Tchaikovsky to Bruckner and Schoenberg. From Modigliani to Poussin.

Nations go through the same transitions, though on a vaster and slower scale.

It takes centuries for a culture to create and enjoy a Poussin, a Goethe, a Corneille. They are vegetables and whole grains of the art world. And only cultures with enough maturity come to appreciate them. Poussin

France, with 10 centuries of history, can nurture a Samuel Beckett or a Sidney Bechet. Italy, with 20 centuries of history, can’t feed enough opera to its truck drivers and factory workers. The fine arts in those countries are a part of their national identity.

But America, with its two measly centuries, is still a fuzzy-cheeked pubescent soaking up Lion King.

Until America starts eating stinky cheese, it is futile to expect it to support the arts.

blake dante

I love language; I hate language. It is how I made my living, but it always feels like cheating. It feels heartfelt, but dishonest. Odi et amo.

Do you remember the first time you were in love, or thought you were, as a teenager? The longing, the rapture. There is an almost universal response that “Love” is not an adequate word to describe the emotion. You feel as if your love is special, better, more aware, alert and awake than everybody else’s, especially  your parents’. And you say, “I wish there were another word to describe how I feel.”

That is the first awareness most of us have of the difference between authentic and inauthentic existence. It is the first, and most universal — at least in our culture — awareness that our lives are divided into separate portions, one of them alive and burning and dangerous, and the other ordinary, safe and comforting.



German philosopher and godawful writer Martin Heidegger gave us the verbal formulation for this distinction when he named the “authentic” and “inauthentic” existence.

Authentic existence: An individual’s conscious response to his existence; i.e., his “being-in-the-world,” which inescapably associates life with death. Authentic existence is thus opposed to everyday (inauthentic) existence.

Heidegger is nearly impossible to read, in part because he invents words to express his ideas rather than relying on the old, well-understood words. He has more than 200 words alone created with the suffix that means “being.”

But it couldn’t have been any other way. Heidegger felt toward the ordinary vocabulary just as the teenager does toward the word “love,” that it is worn out and sounds trite and phony on the tongue that doesn’t truly understand, or rather live through, the experience — and specifically MY experience.

That is because language is by its essence inauthentic.

Language always takes us a step away from our “being-in-the-world.” It is a way of softening the experience, a way of taming it.

In this sense, I take as a central dichotomy the opposition of language and love.

An awareness of death, says Heidegger, is what wakes us up to the here-and-now, keeps us focused on the experience of being alive. And a desire to transcend death is the ultimate goal of both language and love.

The analogy of love and language is nothing new.

When Shakespeare wrote his sonnet, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,” he ends it with the telling couplet, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’’

In that, he is mixing the two: the words are immortal, and therefore, so is his love.

But the actual love is an experience and at its fullest transcends words more certainly than it transcends death. We love, have children and HOPE that the love will live past death. But there is no question that the experience of love can never be adequately expressed in words: They are too small, too conventional, too ordinary.

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing with his wife, Marie Luise

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing with his wife, Marie Luise

The sliver of experience in the condition of love IS the authenticity. It is the experience of life. The words are only ABOUT the experience of life. After all, would you rather make love or read Krafft-Ebing?

Now, certainly Heidegger wasn’t the first to recognize the distinction. He is merely the philosopher who fixes the meaning of the distinction like an entomologist pinning a butterfly. Heidegger gives us the vocabulary — now necessarily inauthentic — to describe the reality. We use his words, and as a consequence, fall (another of his words) into inauthencity.

The writer Henry Miller expresses it another way in his book Black Spring:

“What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature.”

Henry Thoreau’s whole book, Walden, is essentially about living an authentic life.

“To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” he writes in another place.

Yeats called inauthentic living “automatonism.”

For William Blake, what made Christ different from the rest of us was his ability to live authentically at every moment.

“Now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: Did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God? Murder those who were murder’d because of him? Turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? Steal the labor of others to support him? Bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? Covet when he pray’d for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

And in another place: “Know that after Christ’s death, he became Jehovah.” Know that for Blake, Jehovah wasn’t a good thing. Jehovah is all rules: “One God, One Law, One King.”

Or perhaps we could go all the way back to Lao-Tse, who wrote the Tao-Te-Ching and said, “The way that can be named is not the constant way, the name that can be given is not the constant name.”

The best popular discussion of authenticity comes in Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has absolutely nothing to do with zen, even in its pop forms, and only a little to do with motorcycle maintenance.

The book is an investigation of what Pirsig calls “quality,” which, it turns out, is much the same as Heidegger calls “authenticity.”

Pirsig writes:

“You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after  you’ve seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness, there must be a time lag.”

Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore, unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. This pre-intellectual reality is what [I] felt [I] had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this pre-intellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.”

And authenticity, rather than being a result, is likewise a source. Authenticity is a relation you have with being alive that allows you to see, feel, and experience without the intervention of word or symbol.

All art, or all worthwhile art, exists to reawaken in us this often closed-off authenticity.

Art cannot itself embody authenticity: It is, after all, words or symbols — even music is an analog of the experience.

But the best art gives us an experience in itself and demonstrates, or forces us to become aware, of how to experience the rest of our lives — that portion we live with our mates, children, parents, that portion that is our careers, that portion that gives rise to spiritual awareness.

Of course, all art is, in this sense, inauthentic.

But just as a metaphor is never the thing, but points the way to the thing, so art points the way to the authentic.

Lion-tail macaques, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

Lion-tail macaques, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle 1978

When I finally got a job, it was at the zoo. I was hired as a peon to sell popcorn. A week later, I had been promoted to manager and had the safe combination. The concessions stand at the zoo became my little kingdom; I ran it just as I wanted to. I hired the people I wanted and ignored company regulations when they seemed stupid. As a result, our zoo business made money even when the tourist season was over and all the other “restaurants” in the company were losing money down at the Puget Sound docks.

I worked in an iron box maybe 11 feet by six feet deep surrounded by Rube Goldberg steaming, fuming machines.

The concessions stand is a trailer, like those seen at little league games of county fairs, and at lunchtime, the lines for wieners and Pepsi stretch around the children’s zoo. I felt like some zoo animal myself, people staring as they walked past at this six-foot simian with a white snapper cap and striped vest smiling through his beard. But the real zoo was outside my steel cage:

“What do you have to drink?”

“Pepsi, 7-Up, Orange, Diet Pepsi and milk.”

“No grape?”

“No grape.”

“I’ll have root beer, then.”

One woman whose root beer thirst couldn’t be satisfied elsewise asked my to mix half orange and half Pepsi. (I tried it after she left to see if it was as vile as it sounds and it is.)

“You have peanuts?”

“No peanuts. We have popcorn.”

“I never heard of a zoo without peanuts. What do we feed the animals?”

(Under my breath: “That’s WHY we don’t have the damn peanuts, idiot.”)

One sweet motherly woman took us for an information booth and asked, “Do they mate the gorillas every day?”

“I think they pretty much let the gorillas do what they want.”

Early on one day, a young woman in a zookeepers uniform wandered by carrying a baby gorilla like a two-year-old in her arms. He must have weighed nearly 100 pounds. Around lunchtime, an elephant walked past, guided by two men who had to whip his trunk to prevent him from turning at us and snaffling popcorn. In the afternoon, the gorilla woman went by in the other direction with the gorilla twitching one hand on her breasts.

Bobo all grown up

Bobo all grown up

We sold only a few items. There were the aforementioned drinks, hot dogs, potato chips, popcorn, coffee, crackerjacks, Cheez-twirlz and an abominable nougat candy called Big Hunk. It was our only candy bar and no one seemed to want it, and considering the crap that they were willing to eat, that was surprising.

“What kind of candy you got?”

“Big Hunk,” I said, grinning and holding out a bar.

“Izatall? No thanks.”

And considering what we sold, I was amazed at the naivete of another with-it mother, who asked, “Do your hot dogs have any nitrates? We don’t want any nitrates.”

“Nitrates? I don’t know, but there are some mighty tasty fly legs, and if you look close, you can see the coagulated sputum.”

She also asked if the orange pop was carbonated, apparently wanting to protect her urchin from carbonic acid. She settled on a bag of barbecue potato chips “with no preservatives.”

The hot dogs were made of turkey and spices and anything else, and they sat all day bloating in a steel box of simmering water. When I picked up the little suckers with the tongs, they sometimes disintegrated. But they were better than the buns.

The buns sat in a steamer that hissed and sputtered all day, acting like some volcanic fumerole. If they remained too long, they turned into a finger of wallpaper paste and were as appetizing as jellied snot.

And with the bun steamer blasting, the pup steamer simmering, the coffee machine blustering and the tea pot heating that little trailer was one large Vicks Vaporizer. Steam condensed everywhere and the bottoms of all the shelves dripped, leaving the floor eternally sopping. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the infernal, brimstone appearance of all that venting steam. At least I enjoyed it the first day.

Meanwhile, I just had to enjoy watching people like the couple who walked toward us from the children’s zoo talking about how cute all the loose animals were. There were peacocks, guinea fowl, mallards, cocks and hens. Then a squirrel jumped out of the bushes and ran right up to the woman stopping just short of hopping on her leg. They stood there, startled, not knowing what to expect. The squirrel twitched his nose suddenly and the wife jumped behind her hubby, screaming and he, no John Wayne, couldn’t think of anything to do. The squirrel had made his point, and feeling reasonably superior, he dived back into the geraniums, looking for another victim.

And yes, I got to eat hot dogs free for lunch.

Woodland Park and Green Lake, 4 decades ago

Woodland Park and Green Lake, 4 decades ago

Of course, the zoo had its share of misfits, people who may well have belonged on the other side of the bars.

There was Bill Cowell, the old relief keeper. He had seniority and could vary his routine, taking care of whatever animals needed help while their regular keeper was sick or on vacation. Bill was getting on and had lost some of his former sharpness, but he still talked over the speed limit.

One day, he brought in a newspaper story about Johnny Weismuller, ex-Tarzan and faded Olympic star. Johnny was in a sanitarium and apparently senile, running through the halls, scaring the other geriatrics with his Tarzan yells. Bill brought out this piece of paper clipped from the Post-Intelligencer and started telling me, “You are too young to remember this guy, but maybe you’ve read about him. Johnny Weismuller, he used to swim in the Olympics. You ever heard of him?”

“Yeah,” I said. “He was Tarzan.”

“Uh-huh. He starred with, uh, Muriel O’Sullivan, I think it was. But you’re too young to know those movies.”

“I saw them all on television.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess they have been on TV. Well, read this. It’s real sad. I guess I’m next. But I really think someone’s trying to make him look crazy to get at his money, you know, like they did with Groucho Marx. I bet he ain’t crazy at all.”

Another time, he endeared himself to me when, on a busy Saturday, with crowds of kids screaming and spilling their popcorn and crying and parents at the end of their patience, he said, as he bought his daily hot dog, “These goddamn kids — Dont’cha just wanna run them over?”zoo bear

As in any retail business, whether it’s a tavern or a hot dog stand, you got to know regular customers by their orders. One regular was Large Pepsi No Ice. He was on the maintenance crew and picked up the mess we caused by handing kids all the paper wrappings they loved to strew across the grounds. LPNI was about 50 with a permanent 5-O’clock shadow and a view of the world honed on his dedication to professional wrestling. He was married but professed to hate his wife, saying so in a tone of voice I understood to be the tenderest expression he was capable of. Or the next tenderest: I remember him saying as he took a break to go over and watch the orangutans, “I’ve got to go see my babies today.”

He loved sports and Seattle was a good city for it. He brought me all the news everyday of his beloved Sonics. He also kept up with the Mariners and Seahawks. He had tickets to the last playoff game between the Sonics and the Lakers, but was torn between going to watch the roundball and watching his favorite wrestler at the Arena. he had tickets to both and finally decided to watch Nasty McGurdle fight Big Anastasio for a while (“There should be lots of blood flowing tonight”) and then move over to the Coliseum to catch the last half of the Sonics game.

We talked about how good it was that the Sonics got rid of Marvin Webster and then how Bob McAdoo was hurting the Celtics by being a one-man team. LPNI Liked McAdoo a lot, however. He explained himself: “McAdoo is like me; I’m a great pig fucker.”

Then there was Eugene. He was also maintenance. He was about 60 and black. He talked about when he used to live in Oakland, but I could tell by his rural accent that he used to live on a farm somewhere before Oakland.

“Yes, yes. I comes from Arkansas.”

He drank five or six cups of coffee a day, paying for maybe two of them. (“How about a heatin’ up for this cup?”)

“I don’ believe in doin’ no work. I never worked in Oakland. I jus’ hustled the streets. Made a good livin’ at it, too. But when I gets to Seattle, I finds a good woman and she makes me get this here job. I don’ mind it much, I guess. It ain’t hard. But this rheumatiz in my neck is gettin’ me. I got to go see a doctor ’bout it. I thinks the bones in my neck is grinding themselves and the marrow is comin’ out, like you see on a hog when the bone is wearin’ and busted. You ever see the marrow of a hog’s bone?”

And to anyone who hangs around them, the people working at the zoo are often just as exotic as the slow loris or Przewalski’s Wild Horse. There is the twitch-eyed monkey keeper who looks like his lion-tailed macaques, the avuncular bear keeper who likes to pitch day-old hot dogs down the bottomless maw of his grizzlies, the tropical-house keeper who has to dig down the throat of a questionably sedated crocodile to pull out the gobs of ingested pennies heedless zoogoers have tossed into his water.

But the oddest zookeeper of all is the night-keeper, who skulks around the grounds in the dark with his flashlight and walkie-talkie.

I met one  one evening just before closing time. We were both leaning over the rail in front of the orangutans.

“Fascinating, aren’t they?,” I asked.

“Oh, hell, they ain’t too fascinating,” he answered in a growling voice of a 50-ish blue-collar man who knows what it is to be an alpha male.

I said I thought he must have been a zookeeper too long, if the animals had lost their appeal.

“Well, I used to think they were fascinating,” he said, “but then I got to know them pretty close. They are stupid.

“As far as evolution goes, the orangs are just hanging on. They aren’t adapted well. They need a specialized habitat and it’s disappearing.”

A staccato of static blasted from his intercom and he answered something back, then stuck it back in the leather holster on his belt.



“Now, I’ve known some pretty smart gorillas, and a lot of mediocre ones, and a few dumb gorillas. And the chimpanzees — I’ve known a whole lot of really smart chimps. There are some stupid chimps, too, but not many. But I’ve never known a smart orang.

“Once, when I was in Sumatra, I was walking out in the brush and this huge male orang came walking up to near where I was. He came to maybe 10 feet from me and I stood stock still so I wouldn’t disturb him. I thought he knew I was there, but wasn’t going to give an inch of his territory. He was the biggest orang I ever saw and he was standing around digging up grasses and roots. He finally walked on without so much as acknowledging my presence.

“That was the start of my fascination with orangs. It wasn’t until years later that I found out the ape got that close to me only because he was too dumb to know what I was and what a threat mankind posed for him.”

“You seem to like the apes,” I said. “Do you know why this zoo doesn’t have any chimpanzees?”

“Well, a few years ago, a political decision was made somewhere in the front office that we didn’t have enough money to support all three great apes, so they decided to get rid of the chimps. It’s always politics that runs things, never what the zoo needs or how we can solve a problem.

“Someone in the administration, who probably had never even been to the zoo, decided to get rid of the chimps. It’s like the new displays that are being built.”

Towan, the male orang in the cage, looked through the glass and offered us some chime from his outstretched lower lip. It’s an orang’s way of saying, “grab a seat, make yourself at home.”

We talked about the new gorilla exhibit, one of those open-ground enclosures that replaced the dingy old glass-front cages that used to be used.

“It’s all political,” the zookeeper said, with some bite in his tone. “These people think it will be better for the gorillas to be out in a more ‘natural habitat.’ But, hell, our gorillas were born in captivity. They’ve never known what it is to be out in the open. We don’t know what will happen; chances are, the gorillas will be freaked out by the change. We introduce stressors in their life, saying it will reduce them. But it is only our own conscience that is calmed. Five of our gorillas were born in captivity. For them the cage is the natural habitat. I’m sure the stress will kill at least one of them. But I was never asked. Someone up front decided it was politically better to give them trees and concrete mountains. At least one will die.

“I guess I’ve been around and I know about as much about departing as anyone on this earth and I know that you don’t die without giving up. That goes for apes and humans, too. No one ever died without giving up somehow. Even a wreck on the freeway means that someone gave up.

“Disease is just partial suicide. You give up part of your will to live and you get sick. The human body was designed to fight off disease. But when you give up, you let the germs and microbes into your system. I haven’t had so much as a cold in seven years. Not that I don’t take care of my body. I eat good foods and keep myself in shape. But I haven’t seen a doctor in a long time and I intend to keep it that way. Doctors are like mechanics. You keep your car healthy and you don’t need one. But if you have a wreck or it breaks down, the mechanic can fix it, but it’s never as good as it once was.

“People get sick because their will is worn down by stressors. Just like the apes will be worn by moving them; they can’t take the stressors.”

Towan tilted his red-haired simian head and began playing peek-a-boo with the remains of the burlap sack he is given daily.

“Like the IRS,” the nightkeeper went on. “Every year they take a little more out of your pay and they figure out some new way to make life harder.

“I wonder if the federal government knows how much disease it causes by not living within its budget.

“It’s not the money they take out. We can afford to pay it, but every year they take a little more and each increase is a stressor and someone gets sick, maybe dies because of the federal government. It’s all politics.”

And somewhere in the increasing dusk, a peacock screeched and it was time to close.

Towan reached his long arms side to side and embraced the glass. Then he climbed up the steel posts that made for trees in his cage and he sat in his roost next to Melati, one of the females.

Sleep well, Towan, I thought. Life could be worse. You could have to file a 1040.


Life is full of interesting little questions, questions of no consequence that lead to bigger things. Like, why is the finale of Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture used as the theme for The Lone Ranger?

Admit it, when you hear that tune — ditty bump, ditty bump, ditty bump-bump-bump — you hear the hearty hi-yo Silver. Even kids, who know the masked man only from cable TV reruns, know about him and his faithful Indian companion, Tonto.

But what does all that have to do with a Bel Canto grand opera about the freedom of the Swiss from the oppression of the Austrian Empire? To understand, you must go back to the era of silent movies. Although they are always called silent, in fact, they never were. From the very first public showing of the new motion picture, in Paris in 1895, the images have been accompanied with music.

You can as easily imagine a ballet without music as a Chaplin short or a D.W. Griffith epic. And in fact, movie studios gave more consideration to the music than is generally known nowadays. From the time of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, many studios provided full scores for their “A” pictures. Nation opened in New York to the strains of a 70-piece symphony orchestra playing the music written by Griffith himself, in collaboration with composer Joseph Carl Briel. It freely borrowed bits of Tchaikovsky and Verdi, mixing them with strains of Dixie and the Star Spangled Bannermovie piano

The first full score for a silent film was Camille Saint-Saens’ 1908 score for the French film, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise. The composer recast the music later for concert performance as his Concerto for Strings, Piano and Harmonium, op. 128.

Such scores were not uncommon. Arthur Honegger wrote the score for Abel Gance’s groundbreaking Napoleon in 1927; Darius Milhaud did the same for Marcel l’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine. And Dimitri Shostakovich made a good living writing films scores, when he wasn’t picking up a few extra dollars playing piano for the low-end movie houses.

The full scores survive that Charlie Chaplin wrote for his late silent features, City Lights and Modern Times, made after the sound invasion, and now permanently attached to their otherwise silent action.

The problem was that not every film was Birth of a Nation, and not every movie house could afford an orchestra. A full score might be fine for New York City, but when the movie went to Dubuque, a cheaper alternative was needed. So, most Roxies and Paramounts across the nation relied on pianists and organists. For an “A” picture, they might rely on piano reductions of the full score, provided by the studios, printed on cheap paper and distributed with the films along with such other promotional material as posters and blocks for newspaper ads. But for a “B” picture, the pianist either improvised on the spot, or relied on one of several “cheat” books. sinister misterioso

In 1919, Giuseppe Becce published his Kinobibliotek, which was a volume of musical chunks each matched to an emotion or action likely to be encountered in a film. One might be titled, Pursuit, and another, Tender Agitato. Universal Studio came up with its own, assembled by Max Winkler, who borrowed freely from classical music, excising snippets of Beethoven or Bizet to be played by the house pianist at the appropriate moment in the film. Winkler actually made up lists of tunes for each film Universal released, matched to the cues in the plot. “J.S. Bach’s immortal chorales became Adagio Lamentoso for sad scenes,” Winkler wrote. Beethoven provided a “Sinister Misterioso” and Tchaikovsky a “Strange Moderato.” Mendelssohn’s familiar Wedding March was used for weddings. presto for sword fights

The classical music had two advantages. First, it was readily identifiable. Everyone knew the Wedding March, for instance, so it could be used to make a point. And it was cheap; it was public domain and no copyright fees applied.

When sound films took over, some of these silent habits persisted. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, film scores still sounded like classical music. The great film composers — Korngold, Waxman, Herrman — were classical composers. And even to this day, when a director wants to add class or underline a scene dramatically, he will likely choose classical extracts. So, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings adds emotional heft to Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra adds portentousness to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odysseykeaton band

It also persisted in the sound era in “B” movie scoring, those undercard films on the double feature. You can hear many a familiar melody in the low-budget films. Every Hopalong Cassidy film, for instance, came to a climax with a chase scene underlined with Gluck’s Dance of the Furies. You could count on it. It was an odd marriage of high art with popular culture.

And, or course, it provided us with “those thrilling days of yesteryear” and the Rossini trumpet fanfares that summoned us all first to the radio, then to the TV screen.

W. Eugene Smith

W. Eugene Smith

Sometimes, failure is the greatest success.

That is the key to the secular sainthood of photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. He aspired to such purity of esthetic and moral vision, that, in a way, if he had succeeded, it would only have proved to himself that his sights had been set too low.

Smith is the patron saint of photojournalists. During his stint as a Life magazine photographer in the 1940s and ’50s, his picture essays — of World War II, an American country doctor, a nurse midwife and a Spanish village, among others — made his reputation as not only a fine journalist but also a photographic stylist. A Gene Smith photograph had a look all its own. schweitzer in pith helmet

Smith’s reputation as saint began in 1954, when he quit Life after a dispute over the editorial layout for a story he did on Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Smith had photographed Schweitzer in the context of his hospital at Lambarene in what was then French Equatorial Africa and concentrated on the difficulties of providing health care in the Third World. Life’s editors trimmed the essay back and made Schweitzer into a one-dimensional white hero among the natives.

From Smith’s point of view, it would be as if the editors had taken an essay of emotional depth and turned it into an Entertainment Tonight sound bite.

It wasn’t the first time Smith had fought with his editors (in fact, he had quit the magazine once before), but the Schweitzer imbroglio caused him to leave the magazine permanently. Depending on whether you were a photographer or an editor, Smith’s single-minded insistence on the integrity of his work made him a saint or a crybaby prima donna.

Zoot Sims

Zoot Sims

Time has come down on Smith’s side. No one remembers the editors’ names now.

(Smith couldn’t stand even to edit himself. When he gave his archives to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz., before his death in 1978, the negatives, prints, letters and notes weighed 22 tons. He could never bring himself to throw anything away — included in the archives is laundry.)

There are other great photojournalists, but there is no one like Smith.

His images from World War II were so uncompromising, half the pictures he made were censored by the government as too grisly and not heroic enough for public consumption.

“I would that my photographs might be, not the coverage of a news event, but an indictment of war,” he wrote, “the brutal corrupting viciousness of its doing to the minds and bodies of men.”

But what distinguishes his work is quite apart from journalism. Now that we have the perspective of time, we can see that Smith wasn’t really a journalist at all; he was an artist. His success is not that of showing us events, but of showing us his own mental and emotional insides. They were not bright and happy insides. schweitzer with lamp

The first thing you notice about the mass of Smith’s work is its darkness. Almost all the photographs are predominantly black. The standard Smith photograph shows a working face lighted in the darkness.

The darkness is universal and threatening, and against it, Smith pits his hero, always a working man. It matters not what else the man may be, Smith pictures him at work and at work with an intensity that shows the hero’s effort alone holding back the perimeters of darkness, whether he is a surgeon saving a baby or a mourner at work watching a corpse. country doctor

The blacks and whites of the photos take on symbolic meaning.

Smith’s world was one of alienation, darkness, maimed and diseased people, back-busting labor, sweat, hardship and fear — but against it Smith put heroism of the common man trying to make a difference. Volare Digital Capture

For Smith, every man was a working man, and the working man became Everyman. Smith could give a symphony musician a blue collar. In one photo, soloist Gregor Piatagorsky takes a drag on a cigarette and looks like Edward R. Murrow holding a cello. In another, Igor Stravinsky in short sleeves and pullover works out a point of interpretation with a violinist. This preoccupation with labor may reflect the influence of the WPA photographers of the Depression.

There are machines, tools and human flesh, often mangled by disease or accident. His subjects are constantly ”fronting the essential facts of life,” as Thoreau put it. Never are any of the people in a Smith photograph relaxed. They are always in rapt contemplation or action. Intensity beams from their faces — the kind of blade-edged intensity most people feel uncomfortable with and cannot live with. It is a grim but heroic world.

One wonders how Smith ever survived at Life, with its celebration of middle-class optimism. Smith’s mythology is more Nordic. One is sure the darkness eventually will win.

People are apt to be alone in his photos. When they are not alone, they don’t interact with each other, instead staring in different directions. And when they do interact, they do not do so with each other, but through a common task, a dying patient, a dead relative. The task is the unifying element of Smith’s world. spanish funeral

One is struck by the extent to which Smith’s own neuroses and anxieties turned the world into darkness. Smith was a great artist, not merely a photojournalist, because of the myth he made of the world. In the guise of presenting fact, he presented a version of truth.

Smith had a powerful if idiosyncratic style. He was not a stylish photographer in the ordinary sense — there is little that is self-consciously visual or artistic in Smith. Irving Penn and Richard Avedon are stylish photographers. Smith was interested in truth, not style.

Yet his design is striking, beautiful, considering how uninvolved Smith was in making things look good.

walk to paradise gardenThe “truth” was his passion, a truth he never understood as subjective. Like a good Calvinist, he was utterly convinced that his vision presented the world as it is. And it is that unwavering belief that makes his photos so compelling. They convince us that Smith’s personal vision was, and is, the truth.

There is no humor in Smith; saints rarely crack jokes. No wit, no irony. He believed in the world he created. He could not have irony about that. That is why when he tried to create a purposely optimistic photo, as in Walking to Paradise Garden, a picture of his two children walking into the light of a break in the woods, the result was mawkish and sentimental.

Smith’s strengths are not found in such uncharacteristic photographs. Smith’s strengths are found in his illumination of darkness.

The darkness is all enveloping and irreducible. It is no surprise then, that he saw his work rather like that of Sisyphus, doomed to failure.

Therefore, his greatest failure is also his greatest success: The images he made as a “portrait” of Pittsburgh in 1955-57. The photographs make a kind of composite picture of place, an attempt to present the complexities and contradictions of the Iron City, leaving nothing out.steel worker flaming coke

The series has seldom been shown separately as a group since Smith threw his hands up on the project 55 years ago, having failed to finish it to his strict satisfaction.

The story of the Pittsburgh failure — and its ultimate success — parallels almost everything in Smith’s life.

He was nearly killed on Okinawa in 1945 when a shell tore through his skull. It took two years of rehabilitation and plastic surgery before he could resume his existence.nurse midwife

Then, he produced some of the signature photo-essays in Life, including stories on Schweitzer, a country doctor, a black midwife and a Spanish village under the Franco regime.

But each photo essay was a failure in Smith’s mind, because photo-editors altered his conception of the pictures.

No doubt, Smith was a difficult man to work with, and no doubt, he was his own worst enemy. He knew no motivation except truthtelling — and that meant the truth as he knew it, told the way he envisioned it being told.

“I cannot accept many of the conditions common within journalism without tremendous self-dishonesty and without it being a grave breach of the responsibilities, the moral obligations within journalism, as I have determined them for myself,” he wrote about his Life magazine resignation.

Yet, he needed to work. He had a wife and family to support. Even so, the inner demons refused to let him take a simple assignment and complete it simply. He was incapable of being a hack.pittsburgh at night

In 1955, he was hired to illustrate a book about Pittsburgh’s bicentennial. He was supposed to provide the 50 or so pictures that would accompany the text. It was an assignment that should have lasted less than two weeks. He wound up working more than three years and taking something like 17,000 negatives.

No wonder, when he taught a course at the New School for Social Research in New York, it was called “Photography Made Difficult.”

His marriage did not survive his obsessive drive to tell truth.

The Pittsburgh photographs are the perfect introduction to Smith’s work. Instead of objective reportage, they are profoundly metaphorical. Smith felt the world a dark, cold, even malevolent place, softened only briefly and minutely by the warmth and light of human love and caring.Tamoko

The pictures obsessively show a small point of light in a dark, obscure background. Whether it is the brilliantly lit face of an millworker in a black universe, or the small touch of a bride’s hands spot-lit in a dark room, they pound home Smith’s personal world view.steel worker

When he died, in Tucson, in 1978, he was the closest thing photojournalists had to a saint, and his work is a constant reminder of what the highest goals of the profession should be.

He may have been a pain in the ass to work with, but he created a deeply moving body of work, one it is nearly impossible to be indifferent to.

turn here 1

A reader once asked me what I thought were the major turning points of art – by which he meant the Euro-American tradition in art from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Of course, he had his own list already prepared to share with me. On it were 20 items. He wanted to know what would be on my list. He had the enthusiasm of a puppy dog, and it would have felt churlish to refuse him.

Making it a list of 20 is, of course, arbitrary: There are hundreds, maybe thousands of “turning points” in art history.

Also, we must confess this is a parochial list, when you have the rest of the world and antiquity — to say nothing of prehistory — to consider. But that bobsled ride from the Renaissance to Postmodernism can be seen as a single unit, and that is what my reader wanted me to consider.

Off the top of my head, then, are the 20 most pivotal pieces of art, each of which could be a chapter heading in an art history text.

Admittedly, they function as epitomes. It is rare a single piece of art can change the course of art history; instead, they are stand-ins for whole movements in art, entire changes of esthetic outlook and purpose that propel the eras they helped codify or inaugurate.

But even given my guidelines, I had to start a bit earlier, because the reawakening of Europe after the Dark Ages doesn’t happen in Renaissance Italy, but in Gothic northern Europe.

Chartres north rose window

My list begins with the north rose window at Chartres – the single most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen from the hand of humankind. Actually, the list should begin with the basilica of St. Denis in Paris, the first truly Gothic church, and the inspired conception of Abbot Suger, one of the most important clerics of the 11th century. His Neoplatonist idea was that God was light and that a church, to capture the spirit of divinity, must be opened up with windows and color. The engineering was a breakthrough: He realized that you don’t need walls – the heavy stone walls of the Romanesque – to hold up a roof, but you could put the roof on pillars and fill in the space between the pillars with curtains of colored glass. It was a huge step forward esthetically and technologically. But St. Denis was a first draft: It is in Chartres that the ideal finds its apotheosis.


Second, Giotto’s interior frescoes for the Arena Chapel in Padua, for waking up to the idea that painting not only could, but should try to capture something of the feel of reality.

Masaccio trinità

Third, the Trinity of Masaccio at the Sta. Maria Novella in Florence. It’s impossible to choose the single image that represents the triumph of Renaissance perspective over the Gothic style, but Masaccio is as good a choice as anyone.

ghiberti abraham 2

Fourth: The bronze doors of Ghiberti to the Baptistry in Florence, an astonishing display of inventiveness and naturalistic imagery.

three davids

Fifth: The David of Donatello, and the final destruction of the Gothic schema in Western art.

Sixth: The David of Michelangelo Buonarroti, and

Sistine ceiling detail

Seven: The Sistine ceiling. No artist so defined his age and the two hundred years after him more than Michelangelo, the single most influential artist in history.


Eight: Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew, although most of the crazy guy’s central paintings would do: The Invention of the Baroque. “Energy is eternal delight,” as Blake says.

Nine: The David (above) of Gianlorenzo Bernini (although I actually prefer the Apollo and Daphne), and the perfection of the Baroque, and the most proficiently perfect sculptor in history. I choose the David only for the symmetry with Donatello and Michelangelo. Look at the three Davids together and see the direction of the 15th and 16th centuries.


10: Rembrandt Portrait of the Syndics of the Cloth-maker’s Guild, (chosen over the more flamboyant Night Watch) to show how the psychological acumen of the Dutchman could bring life to an otherwise utterly conventional group portrait. This sense of psychology, that there is a real person behind the eyes, is what Rembrandt brought to painting, as Shakespeare brought it to the stage.

benjamin west

11: The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West, which manages to turn the conventions of the mythological painting onto not merely the historical event, but the current event. In a way, each of these choices is a step on a road from stylization and convention to a more aware and awake attempt to engage with the experience of being alive, with what we might call a more “real” vision of the world.


12: Liberty on the Barricades by Eugene Delacroix, although you could also use Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, as the symbolic use of politics and the rise of the democratic spirit in the world.


13. Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Slave Ship as another political comment, but more important as the first glimmerings of a kind of Impressionism in paint, and the turning point where what we now call Modernism has not its birth, but at least its conception.


14. Edouard Manet, The Fife Player, as the birth of that Modernism, flat, ironic, oblique.


15. Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? and the continuing flattening of picture space, at the same time as opening up to non-Western pictorial influences — to say nothing of questioning the values of European civilization, and it’s about time.

picasso demoiselles

16. Pablo Picasso, Demoiselles d’Avignon as the source of Cubism, and the sense that the picture is a canvas and not a window. It was the single most revolutionary painting of the 20th century, although in retrospect, not Picasso’s best.


17. Fountain by Marcel Duchamp – the “found object” urinal – and the single most influential sculpture of the 20th century, and an influence that is still oppressive today. Now, everyone thinks he’s Duchamp.


18. I would also include Picasso’s Guernica in this list, as his most ambitious work and the single most powerful image of the 20th century. I grew up with this mural size scream, when it was at MOMA in New York and I was a kid. It is the perfect meld of technique, imagery, symbol and “message.”

warhol soup can multiples

19. Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Can and the rise of Pop. Warhol is the most serious postwar American artist, despite his public antics. Art is about the world we live in; Warhol reminds us that the world we currently inhabit is the one of commercial signage and media imagery.


20. Finally, Joseph Beuys How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, or any of a dozen other Beuys pieces, angry yet detached, symbolic yet utterly there physically as a presence. The most influential European artist of the postwar years.

This list is, of course, just off the top of my head. I’m sure if I gave it deeper thought, I’d switch out some of these choices. But this is a good enough start.

I’m sure you can think of things I’ve missed.