Friday, May 30, 2008

Living Without a Goal

My new friend Bill Saari arrived from Roanoke for a visit the other day, and regaled me with stories--non-stop for seven hours. Seven hours is a long time and a lot of stories--but time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana if you're having fun.

The truth is, I find all of Bill's stories captivating because they embody the essence of his most exhilarating relationship to life: i.e. abandon yourself, fear nothing, and the power will appear. You simply reach over and you pour it right into your bowl.

Excitement and enthusiasm for life is contagious when you are in Bill's company; as far as I can tell, this acute sense of aliveness comes to him from following his nose and not keeping his ducks in a row; from not having a single agenda other than the one of staying open to whatever unfolds and creatively free-associating with it. Bill is the original "life-is-collage" artist, perhaps the only one I've ever known. And just for the record, he keeps his budget low: no regular job, no credit cards, no bank account, and no financial sweat either. When it comes to life's great ladder, Bill positively relishes falling off. Falling off in this case means: not being enslaved by social goals like wealth, fame, prestige, and power. And not being hooked on consumerism.

I have decided, therefore, that Bill's special glow is probably a manifestation of "the flush of Goallessness," to use a phrase of James Ogilvy's from his 1995 book, "Living Without a Goal," which I always keep on my desk with me: "The artful creation of a self in real time without a blueprint or a plan." I have ordered a copy for Bill, who just had a birthday.

"This book," Ogilvy writes, "is about breaking the habit of overweening ambition--at any age." (Dear Lord, how I wish I could also give a copy to Hillary.) Goallessness is different from loafing, aimlessness, or unresponsiveness, since it is the very opposite of feeling that nothing is interesting enough or quite worth doing. Goallessness is about "designing life artistically rather than engineering life mechanically." I think that Bill views life as magical, rather like I do, made up of infinitely unique opportunities in which the unexpected can and will happen, if only you let it. For example:

There he was in South Korea on some sort of travel scholarship, sent along to spruce up and encourage a group of visiting Rotarians. After they got there, a few of the guys invited him to hang out, watch football on TV in their hotel room, and drink beer.

"Are you crazy?" says Bill. "We're in SOUTH KOREA, and you're going to spend the evening in a hotel room watching TV?" So off he marches on his own to explore and check out the scene, ending up in the lobby of a department store, watching the people as they come in and out.

"You American?" a Korean woman has approached him and asks.
"Yes, " Bill replies.
"You come home with me?" the woman says.

Bill claims his antennae never fail him. A gut feeling suggested this was not some sordid version of "Hey, sailor," though of course there was no way of knowing for sure. A quick pause, and he answers, "Okay." It's the beginning of an adventure, exactly where he most likes to have them: on the edge of the unknown.

"You wait here," the woman says, "I get him." Then disappears back inside the store, returning moments later with a man, her boyfriend. The two Koreans take Bill to their apartment complex on a bus, riding for miles all the way to the outskirts of town. Her mother greets them all at the front door. Introductions are exchanged, after which the girl says, "You come in my bedroom?"

Bill follows her into the bedroom, and sees an entire wall lined with musical instruments. She shuts the door. "I musician," she says. "I play for you." And proceeds to give him a fabulous private concert for forty-five minutes. She wants, she says, to study in America.

When they come back out, the mother offers dinner, a feast of many Korean dishes. Afterwards. the boyfriend takes him back on the bus to the department store. Bill has had a deleriously exotic evening, but when he tries to describe it all the next morning to his beer-guzzling friends, they don't believe him.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Running Mate from Hell

As a woman on the one hand, and an amateur armchair politico on the other, I have to say I am beginning to fear for my sex. The source of my distress being those hordes of Hillary supporters, who are mutating in front of my eyes into vulture demonesses of uninhibited malice.

More and more do they appear to resemble the frenzied female worshippers of Dionysus--that entranced retinue of "raving ones" who were known as Maenads and could not be reasoned with. "If she doesn't get the nomination," they howl with one voice, "we will vote for McCain." One gets the distinct impression these women could show up en masse at the Convention, like Stalinists gathering in Red Square to start an October Revolution, create a rampage, build a bonfire, do a war dance, and, in one huge orgiastic Bacchanalia, kill Orpheus, should he get the nomination instead of her. So much for the fate of the "dream ticket," which is fast becoming a nightmare.

What will Clinton's terms of surrender be? asks Karen Tumulty in this week's Time magazine. It is the question of the hour--does she, or doesn't she, want to be on the ticket as Obama's running mate? And does he even want her? So far, nobody seems to know the answer to these questions. Husband Bill, according to Tumulty, believes his wife has earned the right to be offered the VP, and is pushing for it. Hillary herself has remained mute, but we do know that in her own self-created narrative of this election, caucuses don't count, Pledged Delegates don't count, Super Delegates don't count: only popular votes count. And in her private math, she is leading in the popular vote because (1) prior signed agreements not to campaign in Florida and Michigan are null and void, (2) Michigan votes count even though she was the only one on the ballot, and (3) Florida votes count even though she signed an agreement that they wouldn't.

Meanwhile, as columnist Ellen Goodman points out, bad feelings among Hillary supporters have raised the banner of misogyny, and as Clinton veers wildly from bully to victim, we have to wonder whether she has blazed the path for women or just left an ugly footprint. Beyond that, as Maureen Dowd so snidely but deftly puts it, Obama must decide "the most efficacious means of doing to Hillary what she has been trying to do to him: putting her in her place."

So, the other huge question of the hour is, does Obama really need her to win the votes of women and all those "hard-working white Americans" who seem to prefer her to him? Is a Democratic win in the fall impossible to accomplish without this marriage of incongruity and inconvenience? Dowd is distinctly NOT in favor of the "dream ticket." And I absolutely agree with her when she claims that Hillary would not make a good "lady-in-waiting...holding up the train of the young prince who usurped her dream." She would have a hard time wishing him well. More likely she would be plotting her own ascent rather than contributing to his nobler aspirations.

But the most important reason for not choosing her, according to Dowd--in an observation I only wish I had made myself--is that she has "a strange, unnerving effect" on him, and around her, he is unable to do his best. "Obama," she says, in what to me is the penultimate conclusion to this whole mystifying muddle, "will never be at his best around Hillary; she drains him of his magical powers....He's no good around her, see?"

I do see it, and I think she's absolutely spot on.

P.S. Since writing this earlier today, I heard Obama say on TV, in response to a question about having Hillary as his VP, that Abraham Lincoln had incorporated four of his most intense critics and rivals into his cabinet, and that he, Obama, is a very pragmatic man who will put the needs and demands of the country before his personal preferences. Infer what you will from that....

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Remembering Robert Rauschenberg

A few days ago the phone rang and it was my friend Ray Kass, calling to tell me that Robert Rauschenberg had died. I hadn't seen Bob in many decades, but being confronted with his death unexpectedly caused me to remember how, in my twenties, he had once been a very close friend. Then he left New York and went to live on an island off the coast of Florida. I went to live in London, and subsequently, our paths rarely crossed.

I tried recalling when it was, and under what circumstances, that we first met. Was it Ray Johnson who introduced us? Or did we meet by chance at the Stable Gallery, when Bob exhibited that small plot of earth with the grass seeds planted in it, which hung on the wall masquerading as a painting? Every day he would arrive at the gallery to spray the piece with a plastic bottle full of water; a few days later, it began to sprout. At the time, I'd never seen anything remotely like it. But I soon learned brazenly beautiful shenanigans and electrifyingly perilous choices formed the core of everything Bob did. Even the gallery, actually an old remodeled stable which sometimes still smelled of horses, was quite unlike any other, then or now.

Memory has never been my strong point, but I do know, for instance--only because it is established historical record at this point--that I was the person who introduced Bob Rauschenberg to Jasper Johns, though I can't remember doing it. Still, there are things I do remember pretty well. I remember, for instance, my first encounter sometime in the mid 1950s with "Bed," on one of Leo Castelli's walls, its shabby patterned quilt and grotty, paint-encrusted pillow waiting ambiguously, as if for some stray Latvian refugee who needed shelter for the night. I remember, too, the intuitive daring of that shaggy goat standing on a platform in "Monogram," the big black tire around its waist proclaiming itself as the high-water mark of aesthetic shock. Could anyone else have thought of that? From his very beginnings as an artist, Bob had a cognitive tool kit of objects that, with only a little tinkering, could bring the experience of the eye to fever pitch. The sheer effrontery and fantastic potency of these early works seemed to come out of nowhere and run roughshod over every kind of aesthetic limit.

One more thing I can remember: being in his studio and seeing, for the first time, the dingy white tablecloth pulled taut on stretchers and used as a canvas, with an old army parachute glued to the lower-right section. Limp parachute strings drooped on past the edge of the frame; a pair of identical newspaper photographs combined with one fat brushstroke of China blue to occupy the empty space above. I remember the shock I felt even as I heard myself saying, caught up in the momentum of my own enthusiasm, "I don't think I can live without this painting."

"Well, you need to have it then," was the improbable response. In a single, phenomenal, unforgettable moment, the painting was mine. We made an arrangement for some minimal monthly payments, but I was too poor most of the time to meet them; all this took place in a period before the paradigm of profit had created the raffish, showbiz art world of today. In those days, Bob was still an unknown artist, and he seemed quite satisfied just to have a seriously devoted fan, which I was.

The painting, large as it is, never made it to London with me; many years later, while I was still living there, I ran out of money and offered to sell it to Jasper Johns. Jasper did buy it, and eventually offered the painting on permanent loan to the Yale Art Museum in New Haven.

What I want to say now, however, is that Bob's edgy relationship with everything was a huge influence in jump-starting my own lifelong relationship with collage as modus vivendi. During my early career as an artist in New York, Bob bought one of my collages from an exhibition at the Alan Gallery. And although I don't make collages any more, I do still write and think that way, because for me, life IS collage. You don't have to make anything up, just figure out the way it all fits together, what belongs with what. No mean feat, but if it works, you may even arrive quite naturally at the answer to an old collage-lover's favorite joke. Question: How do you repair a torn pizza?

I expect that Bob, who loved comics and understood how to bring kiddy humor into adult life, would have shot back the answer if he were here: With tomato paste, of course! I also expect it will take some doing now, on the part of us all, to get used to a world without him.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


The pile of autumn leaves you see above is not a pile of leaves. It is a work of art by an artist called Jane Hammond. All too infrequently these days can I lay claim to the experience of art making me sit up and take notice. All too often art is no more than vivid spectacle and not much else. This work is different.

It consists of nothing special: autumn leaves heaped on a white platform. But, despite appearances, these are not actual leaves. They are digitally scanned, perfectly replicated, simulacra of real leaves the artist has painstakingly collected during the autumns of 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 from multiple states in New England, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, Washington, California, and Hawaii. Each leaf is unique: there are no duplicates.

The latter is important, because Hammond's piece is a war memorial, and the artist inscribes each leaf by hand with the name of an American soldier killed in the Iraq war. The idea came to her in a dream, in which she was walking through the woods, and as the leaves dropped to the ground she noticed they each carried a soldier's name.

The work bears the title "Fallen," perfectly reflecting the dual notion of autumn leaves and fallen soldiers, separated from their families like leaves from their trees. It is a work-in-progress, as Hammond has set herself the task of keeping up with the official body count of names--adding leaves, more than 4,000 at this point, as those who are felled descend into the ground in a war that will have no victory parades, just the chorus of laments and rages, cries, and prayers, of those who have been left behind. The size of the platform changes as needed. The piece has been purchased by the Whitney Museum and is currently on a cross-country tour.

Collage artist that I am, I went looking for a written something, words that might aim at the eternity of death and coincide with the emotions stirred up by Hammond's beautiful piece. I found what I wanted in the war section of "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men." From the introduction by Robert Bly:

"The growth of a man can be imagined as a power that gradually expands downward: the voice expands downward into the open vowels that carry emotion, and into the rough consonants that are like gates holding that water; the hurt feelings expand downward into compassion; the intelligence expands with awe into the great arguments or antinomies men have debated for centuries; the mood-man expands downward into those vast rooms of melancholy under the earth, where we are more alive the older we get, more in tune with the earth and the great roots."

Now, with "Fallen," I no longer have to look away, not wanting to contemplate the shame of this war. There is a resting place for my thoughts.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

More Politics

Just to follow up on my Thesaurus reading in the previous blog: you might think they were just "words," but it seems that Obama finally agreed to deem his pastor "forbidden fruit," a "contraband article." He "cracked down" on him, "placed him out of bounds," and "shut the door on" him in "disapproval," "giving thumbs down" before the pastor could do any more damage to his campaign than he already has. In short, Obama "excommunicated" the Reverend Wright to make sure, by "withdrawing permission" and "revoking" the relationship, that the pastor could no longer "clip" his wings or "cramp" his style. Hopefully, after this bit of juijitsu, there will be no further adventures in this very sad story.

Last autumn I stated (in a post called "The October-November Man") that Bush/Cheney were gearing up to start another war, this time with Iran. Bush had said, somewhat obliquely in this regard, referring to himself: "I'm an October-November man." Ultimately these seemed like they, too, might be just "words," floating loose, attached to no particular context. I waited and waited for the great orgasmic moment to occur. Autumn came and went, troops were moved back and forth, things heated up, reports were assessed, threats made--but the worst never happened. The phrase, however, has continued to haunt me.
Even Dan Schor this week said this week on NPR that he wondered exactly what the administration was up to with respect to Iran.

Just below my diving range, I knew the grenades were still in their pockets. I knew they were grinning in the dark somewhere with their plans. A crucial election is coming up this November, and Republicans are in serious trouble. They have lost two wars, broken the back of the economy, lied unconscionably to the American people. Things are really bad, but anyone who dares to come out of the shadows and say so is deemed full of crap or unpatriotic. Since we are going down anyway, let's show them once and for all who still carries the stick. Another October-November will be coming up. The following (edited) commentary appeared on this week.

[Before that, let me share a snippet from "Comix Nation" in The Nation, a cartoon strip entitled, "Americans Tell It Like It Is to the Iraqis":
The image shows an American in a red baseball cap chastising an Iraqi man, and the bubble over his head says, "We blew up your country, assaulted your people, and have perpetuated a state of chaos for five years. But we're beginning to lose patience with you."]

Is War With Iran Imminent?
This time, it's more than a rumor…

by Justin Raimondo

The shooting has already started in the Persian Gulf – and chances are we'll be at war with Iran before President Bush's term is up. An American ship under contract with the U.S. Navy – the Western Venture – claims it was in international waters when Iranian speedboats approached and failed to answer radio calls. Shots were fired on the American side. Iran denies the whole thing. Yet you'll recall that in the last incident, involving the capture of British sailors, the story about being in international waters was the same – except, it turns out, they weren't in international waters, but in disputed waters, just as we speculated in this space. There's no reason to expect anything different this time. Clearly, the U.S. and Britain are trying to trigger a new conflict with the most brazen provocations, and they don't really care how it happens – only that it does.

The indications of an imminent attack – the latest incident, the steady stream of accusations coming from the U.S. regarding Iranian influence in Iraq, the nuclear charade, etc. – have suddenly taken a more ominous turn with the recent statement of America's top military officer that the U.S. is weighing military action against Iran. The Washington Post reports:

"The nation's top military officer said yesterday that the Pentagon is planning for 'potential military courses of action' as one of several options against Iran, criticizing what he called the Tehran government's 'increasingly lethal and malign influence' in Iraq. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a conflict with Iran would be 'extremely stressing' but not impossible for U.S. forces, pointing to reserve capabilities in the Navy and Air Force."...

The reasons for the uptick in the rhetorical and physical assault on Iran by the Americans are entirely due to domestic politics, not anything occurring on the ground in the region.

Hillary Clinton's demagogic threat to "obliterate" Iran, uttered on national television just before the Pennsylvania primary, was meant to buttress her newfound image as a shot-swilling macho up against the effete, Adlai Stevenson-esque Barack "Arugula" Obama. It's the Old Politics, trying to revive the red state-blue state dichotomy, and it's driving us down the road to war with Tehran. McCain, too, is helped by the ratcheting up of tensions in the Persian Gulf: think what the outbreak of war with Iran would do for his underdog candidacy....