Monday, September 30, 2013

But Is It Art?

He was scorned by the art world, particularly critics, but praised by William de Kooning and collected by Andy Warhol. He studied at the Art Students League in New York City. For years he was a patient and close friend of the psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson. He joined the cause for nuclear disarmament and civil rights movement. His painting of a 6-year-old Black girl breaking the color line accompanied by U.S. Marshalls against a wall of KKK epithets became an iconic image of the school integration struggle. We share a first name and one other curious event.

In 1957 both Norman Rockwell and I attended a college extension course, albeit in far different parts of the country, called Discovering Modern Poetry. He married his teacher. My class was under the auspices of UCLA and held at Peggy’s house. I remembered her when we reconnected 23 years later and began my life part II. But I digress.

He was a frail man raised at a time when Teddy Roosevelt promoted the robust, athletic type as a male ideal. His work often showed older men and boys caught in embarrassing moments, projections of how he saw himself. He had three wives but was probably a closeted gay man. Few of his paintings depicted women at all.

At age 22, in 1916, Rockwell’s illustration made the cover of America’s most popular magazine. There were two weeklies with the word Saturday in their title. One was the Saturday Review of Literature. Readers of that literary magazine most probably looked down on the Saturday Evening Post which employed Rockwell until 1963. The Post was vigorously anti-New Deal and isolationist until it wasn’t supportable. 

During the war Norman Rockwell offered his Four Freedoms posters to the War Department and was turned down. After they appeared on the cover of the Post the government swallowed its pride and embraced the work reprinting them by the hundreds of thousands. Rockwell also created Rosie the Riveter in 1943, the iconography of the time.

Along with Edward Hopper, who captured urban desolation, and Grant Wood whose, American Gothic, spoke of rural life in facetious tones, Rockwell’s work largely depicts a vanishing Americana of small-town New England. He ranks as a first-class draftsman but was he an illustrator or an artist? Now that I’ve posed the question I want to discredit it.

Is it art, might also be asked about work hanging in many contemporary galleries. If art is defined as that which confounds, agitates and shifts perception then Rockwell could be consigned to the category of illustrator. He was not only dismissed by the Modernists but regarded as the bourgeois antithesis of what they were all about. While the New York School veered toward reduction and negative space Rockwell’s canvases were almost cluttered.

But I abhor categories. Blurring the lines between is more fun. I’m all for inclusion. It can be argued that much of minimalist art is elitist, soulless and opaque. At least Norman Rockwell knew how to connect. His genre work offered immediate recognition. The first half of the 20th century was a time when immigrant America had to invent itself and he found the populist links and rituals. His genius was to create a human drama in the moment. Even if we never found our real selves in the scene, our idealized self would know the way around. And perhaps his homey representations were not as benign as at first glance.

One of his most famous pictures is Thanksgiving dinner as the representation of Freedom from Want. Those gathered around the table are not looking at either Grandma or the turkey. None are bowed in prayer giving thanks and one central figure has a look on his face as if he is only begrudgingly present. This could have been Rockwell himself. He was estranged from his own nuclear family as he took vacations with his male model and friends. Rockwell is less a realist than a fabulist.

Perhaps Rockwell can be compared to Robert Frost. In their separate art forms each took a path less traveled by avant-guarde movements. Their words and images will endure as Yankee-bred artists whose narratives welcome the reader and viewer and are deceptively familiar but demand repeated visits. Is it Art? I say, Yes, make room for him.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Season Within

The calendar says we turned a corner last week into autumn but you’d never know it here where we live without seasons. Seventy-two and sunny with no relief in sight. Another day without weather to speak of.  

Each of the four seasons carries remnants of the previous and portends of the next. In his poem, Autumn, Keats likened the early days to Dionysus or Bacchus swollen still with summer and the juice of the vine only to yield to Apollo preparing cerebrally for the chill of winter.

Here in Southern California September can be our hottest month, bee-loud glens (Yeats, not Keats) and increments of green outside our window. In a few weeks I’ll know the turning only when pumpkin ice cream shows up along with Halloween costumes and all things man-made orange.

What have we lost contravening Nature’s rhythms?  Is it enough just to listen to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? The barren landscape of a North American winter corresponds to our need for introversion; to be driven from external revelry and ripeness to experience the sting of deprivation and darkness.  We can compensate as we do with Christmas lights and giftwrap or just stay quiet exploring our inscape. Napoleon would have been better advised to stay home with a good book instead of trudging across Russian steppes in the dead of winter. Had he read Shakespeare he would have recognized winter’s discontent.

Father, father…do we live in Poland or Russia? Now, my son, this land is Poland. Thank God, father, I couldn’t take another Russian winter.

In my New York years summer’s lease ended abruptly on Labor Day followed by no-nonsense school days, rules, theorems, axioms and all attention to be paid. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know whether to attribute this swerve of seasons to my youth or Eastern weather. I haven’t experienced it since.

The scene-shifts are more subtle in the Southland where we have to find resonance with whale-watching, budding camellia or jacaranda trees unleafing. The languor and excess of July can extend far into November. It’s an adjustment I’m happy to make. The image of a goddess sleeping in the fields watching a cider-press (Keats, not Yeats) is quite compelling.

There is a weather we carry within. Let it shine and let it cloud. We have our own equinox and solstice and everything in between. The calendar is only a prompt to remind us.

I wish Keats' and Yeats' names rhymed, being poets, but they don’t, just as life doesn’t rhyme even on the equinox, being equal parts darkness and light. I was born on that other equinox. I’m told that puts me on the cusp between Aries the Ram and Pisces the fish. Maybe I’m the amphibian who left water to grow four feet and say Bah. Or maybe all words rhyme compared to silence.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Maps have always held a fascination for me. Even spelled backwards they are fun. SPAM became one of Monty Python’s greatest routines, Hush, dear, don’t make a fuss. I’ll have your Spam; I luv it.

Early maps tell us much why the Dark Ages were well-named. Cartographers depicted dragons in oceans and distorted certain land-mass to comply with Biblical interpretations. As late as the 13th century a famous map represented Rome as the shape of a lion with Christ on top of the world and his hands spread out in the shape of Eurasia.

In 1492 Columbus was famously sent out by Ferd and Izzy to pick up some Chinese food and came back with a new continent on his plate. His discovery sent map-makers working through the night redrawing new squiggles. Some depicted Brazil as an island others thought it a hunk of Asia but all indigenous people were deemed worthy of having their souls saved….whether they wanted to or not. That was the least Europeans could do for those ungrateful heathens. And besides, the Spanish and Portuguese thought they smelled gold just around the next bush. 

At least they knew which way to turn their sails. Fast forward six centuries and George Dubya wasn’t sure where Europe was on the map but with some help from his friends, unfortunately, he found Iraq. Recent polls now indicate that 85% of Americans can’t find Syria on the map and, even more scary, 56% of those working in the Pentagon couldn’t find it either. One hopes they get their bearings before sending any drones.

300 million years ago, give or take a week, the entire land mass of Earth was bunched together. Geographers call it Pangea. The Americas fit into Africa which was knit into Eurasia just as Australia was linked with India. It was a golden age for fish unless they were swallowed by bigger fish. At least they were not menaced by fishing nets. But maps are organic; they are in flux and perhaps never more so than in this century with coastlines under assault and deserts inching into adjacent territory.

After WWI France and England carved up the Ottoman Empire the way one would carve that other turkey on Thanksgiving. They created new countries heedless of white meat and dark meat, today’s tribal allegiances. They may have been distracted, salivating over that black gravy under the sand.

Britannia ruled the waves for several centuries. All but 22 countries were invaded by the Brits. Except for our current misadventures countries don’t much bother invading anymore. They just let their corporations do the deed. The busiest McDonalds in the world is in Pushkin Square, Moscow, with 27 cash registers. Japan sells Big Macs in over 3,600 outlets. Americans can travel thousands of miles and feel like they’ve never left home particularly if they stay close to their hotel lobby.

There seem to be two opposing forces at work which describe our times. Science and Western-style Enlightenment threaten religious fundamentalism, male chauvinism and tribalism. As multinational brands and global technology are making us less differentiated, radical forces resist commodification and assert their traditions however self-serving they may be. It also diverts attention from the plight of those suffering from the accident of geography. At the same time there is much about our social mores worth resisting.

Can universality respect the Self?  Will future maps look like China, all in one color or more like Africa partitioned into 43 paint chips? Maps register partitions, some topographical, others artificial. Count me as one who doesn’t love a wall.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


I never expected to live this long but thanks to a diet of banana peels and genetically engineered ostrich burgers here I am an over-ripe 166 years old. I should also give credit to my daily dish of aphids and silver fish washed down with Schultz’s plant food. Just last week I picked up a new bionic liver and esophagus at Costco. Of course I had to buy two of each and fortunately sold the extra ones on Irving’s List which bought out Craig back in 2037.

As I look back on the century changes in the world order seem both unexpected and yet inevitable. Remember all that fuss over Guantanamo? avana Havana Cuba disappeared in the rising Atlantic along with other Caribbean islands. Major league baseball was devastated but Dominicans managed to resettle in what used to be Miami and the Bronx. Canada has flowered from global warming moving it to number one position in spite of having nearly fracked itself to death. The arctic passage has long since made the Panama Canal a favorite only of cruise ships. The Chinese-built Nicaragua Canal is now the waterway for the Southern Hemisphere. Malibu, the sunken city, became a tourist destination for scuba divers looking for underwater movie star loot.

Circa 2020 Red States seceded from the Union much to the jubilation of Blue States. They soon became the dumbest country in the world with the highest rate of infant mortality, illiteracy, shootings, revisionist history books and drum majorettes. A move to relocate them to Mars where there is no science, no healthcare and no government never got off the ground. Occasionally Red Staters slip up across the Mason-Dixon Line longing for Yankee pot roast and Maine lobster while others head south to Mexico as illegals for jobs as stoop-laborers picking the avocado crop.

Ever since bullets and guns were declared weapons of mass destruction and the NRA designated as a subversive organization prisons have been converted to monastic cells where female and male priests raise hell and their wee ones. Since the Ottoman Empire was restored relative peace has prevailed in the Middle East. Sunnis and Shiites rediscovered their common denominator and even extended their kinship to Israel as fellow Semites.

As for technology I’ve managed to preserve my ignorance of all things wireless, digital or algorithmic. The only advance which has caught my attention is the communication device implanted at birth in the fingers of newborns. 

What we used to call a telephone is now embedded in pinkie and thumb to record every gurgle and whimper, gasp of amazement, proclamation of love, bewilderment, gurgle and whimper again and possibly a final koan as loud as one hand clapping. I’m happy to report the eternal verities survived another century though in nearly unrecognizable dress. Consciousness comes but hard earned.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"Nothing That Is Not There and the Nothing That Is"

... For the listener, who listens in the snow, 
And, nothing himself, beholds 
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

                                                       Snowman by Wallace Stevens

The athlete without the menace of tattoos or grizzled sneer is pitching for the Dodgers. He is notable for their absence, nothing but his bare arm does the talking. His performance is enough without the compensation of signage. No snakes or crossbones, no platitudes passing for wisdom, no advertisements for himself.

Makes me long for absences. The unadorned, bling and swagger gone. Hushed stadium filled with expectation. The inner eye. Exhausted words piled in a corner decomposing. Lost continent of mother's arms. Blank page surrounding a haiku. Rapid minimal strokes of black ink in a Japanese brush painting urge the essence from fallen petals. An unmet friend lo these many years and then words you cannot quite find. October maple is a ruddy diva in her death bed scene singing beyond the genius of the leaves. Skeletal trees in the mind of winter. The nothing that is there and the nothing that isn’t. To see what is not there is to behold a reality without all the connotations we have laid upon it. One has to see with the coal eyes of the snowman to have the mind of winter.

The wall in the Louvre was blank with only a nail where Mona Lisa hung a week after it was stolen in 1911. That was when Kafka traveled to witness what wasn't there. He saw the painting with his eye turned inward and he beheld its absence. The Portuguese have a word, suade, meaning combined joy and sadness for what is no longer there. Since Leonardo’s painting was returned it has been defaced with acid and knives. It puts me in the mind of tattoos.

On the other hand, eight years later, Marcel Duchamp painted a moustache and beard on her face and turned the art world upside down by freeing our mind of expectations. This is what we get for loving something to death. With his slight alterations Duchamp redeemed the piece from the banality of postcard reproductions back into an organic creative form. A Dadist act against high culture decontextualized it and brought Mona Lisa back to life.

Maybe I’m wrong about tattoos. They are also a strike against established ways, a crude statement about individuality, a shock to convention. Some women find them sexy, so I’m told. They declare that one’s body belongs to oneself to do with as one pleases. Whatever they are rattles my sensibility. I can turn away if I like and I shall. I assert my right to bare arms, my preference to see the nothing that is. At the center of the Mona Lisa is an ambiguity of gender, enigmatic smile and space which allows us to enter. We come closer to her mystery and our own.  

Monday, September 9, 2013

Damascus On Line One

I just got a call from Bashar al-Assad. He wants me to become a double agent.  I started to tell him he had the wrong number but then I remembered I already was a double agent. I had infiltrated Red States when I agreed with Rand Paul this past week and even considered going to a gun show nostalgic for my old water pistol. Assad repeated his offer. I figured I could use the extra money to pay for my overdue library books.

He said he needs me to listen to what Americans are saying about Obama’s strike across his bow. I told him I don’t get out much anymore except for crowded elevators in medical buildings and lunch with friends. He suggested I might ride up and down for a few hours and also overhear what average citizens are saying in the next booth in restaurants. I told him my hearing wasn’t too good particularly with ambient noise from waiters auditioning for parts in B movies.

He then asked me where his bow was. I told him it was just a figure of speech; it could mean the end of a palace or two with collateral damage that might destroy a few dry cleaner stores with some prayer rugs.

I took a chance and asked why he resorted to Sarin gas. He said it was his crazy son-in-law who belongs in a temper-management program. I knew what he was talking about remembering my crazy uncle who we let out of the attic room once a year for Thanksgiving dinner.

I thanked him for breaking the Red and Blue divide in my country. Everyone is making new friends or at least putting up with each other. Because of Assad anti-Viet Nam war activists like Kerry are now rattling their drones and old Neo-Cons like Rumsfeld sound like conscientious objectors…though some want to erase Syria from the map..... if they could only find it.  Reds and Blues are mingling their t-shirts in all-night laundromats. A truce has been called in food-fights. Unitarians have been spotted in Southern Baptist churches and red necks are taking English as a second language.

When I requested an advance on my commission the line went dead. Hello, hello, I barked. I heard a few clicks and beeps with a message that I had two calls waiting. One from Edward Snowden (who had nothing better to do) and the other from the NSA.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Coming Home

In the mortal frame made of a hundred bones….there is something which can be called a windswept spirit.          Basho

Sometimes a caged bird is not a metaphor and bird poop on the window is not short-hand for impending doom. Berkley East Convalescent Hospital has both and the news is all good.

Enough already! Peggy will have been eight weeks, five days in rehab and they are finally showing her where the door is this Saturday. Not to be wheeled but to walk out with her walker. In horizontal, out vertical. During her stay it should surprise nobody that she got to know every caregiver, therapist and many fellow patients by name and wrote poems for over a dozen of them. When you learn each of their stories and get a hug from many as you are wheeled down the hall it must be time to leave.  Skilled and gracious as the staff is, one wishes never to return.

Peggy’s femur fractured just below the hip socket in four places but her spirit was never broken. If she could have been lifted in body as in mind she would have been launched, wind-swept,  into orbit two months ago.  A friend of mine in New York calls every week to cheer her up and told me he was the one who is cheered.

Time, reputed to be the great healer turned out to be a double agent. The healing which happens over time is in combat with passivity the consequence of which is atrophy. She had to inch through the hurt in order to restore movement.

The eye is a camera panning our field of vision, both inner and outer. It could choose the splattered excrement or it might fix on the blue parakeets and love birds in the exercise room with plumage that stretches the imagination. Then there is the purplish bromeliad by Peggy’s bedside with ancestors from the Amazon. Or the patients brought to their knees by some terrible swift sword, down but not out, their aged faces moving from faraway bewilderment to a kind of grace; a recognition that there is still time allotted for them to move in new ways. I have had conversations with several film directors who at one time had positions of power and were now defenseless. As they came to terms with their predicament their look seemed to take on a dimension never felt before. To witness that transformation was an unexpected privilege as they tapped into a resource within.

Home is everyone’s destination. Yet Peggy accommodated herself so well at the convalescent facility that it became a kind of home. My daughter likened it to a cruise ship on the way to nowhere. As a poet, she lives in another country, her imagination, which is portable.

As for the bird droppings they still remain. The window is on the fourth floor and louvered. It would take Spider Man with a high-pressured hose to clean it up. It is unsightly but a constant reminder that poop happens in life. How we deal with it says it all and Peggy has transcended the poop.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fallen Idol

I’m not quite ready to throw out my Obama t-shirts and campaign buttons but he’s got me squirming. Granted the so-called Arab Spring is a muddled picture which will only be sorted out half a century hence but our administration has mishandled the Syrian conflict. Red lines, ultimatums and missteps have discredited his presidency, split his party and created repugnant bedfellows.

Did I miss the proclamation that conferred supreme authority to the U.S. for policing the planet and dispensing punishment? Who are we to claim the moral high ground after decimating Iraq? In the eyes of the developing world it is the United States alone that dropped two nuclear bombs, blundered into Southeast Asia and continues to have hundreds of thousands of troops stationed abroad.

A surgical strike against Damascus is the fevered dream of a punitive mind. It will change nothing except to possibly provoke a response against Israel or ignite a conflict even beyond that region. What we call limited may not be so contained as we may think. Scold and slap could easily lead to shock and awe.

Obama had been proceeding along a calculated line of measured constraint relative to Egypt and even Libya. He seemed to be threading the needle and successfully ignoring the clamor from McCain and the Neo-Cons who never met a war they didn’t love. It has been his own reckless rhetoric that has gotten Obama into this no-win crisis. Whether he was goaded into verbal outrage or he has bought into it is a matter of conjecture but it issues from an assumption of American hegemony as if our arsenal grants us the privilege to intercede anywhere and call it a matter of national security. It reeks of the missionary mind set.

Indeed the use of Sarin gas is reprehensible but a retaliatory measure would undoubtedly add to the loss of life. One violation of International Law is not remedied by another. War crimes are a matter for the World Court. It is enough for now that we denounce the act, bring our evidence to the General Assembly of the  United Nations and urge some sort of universal condemnation. A military response is irresponsible, illegal, counterproductive and undermines the U.N. 

Obama is, of course, also the Commander-In-Chief presiding over the mightiest military in human history but it comes at the moment that tribal societies long under the press of Western powers are convulsing with forces in several directions. Our role has yet to be articulated or even formulated. I should have known better than expect my president to rise above the fray. There is little reason to suppose he has the political muscle or the will to bring our legions home and divert our enormous resources away from weaponry toward domestic imperatives.