Thursday, February 26, 2009

Archangel Gabriel & the Pink Bathing Suit

Last week at our salon meeting, I told a story about how I once stole a shocking-pink velvet bathing suit I couldn't live without and couldn't otherwise afford from Saks Fifth Avenue. It was shortly after I'd finished reading Jean Genet's "The Thief's Journal," and I was about 21 years old. In the interest of self-disclosure, this was my one and only theft, historic and literary-induced. But it was in an era before surveillance cameras were installed inside dressing rooms. I knew that if I made it out of the store and as far as the street with the item in my black attache case, I would be unassailable, once outside the immediate premises. I took the elevator down to the street level, left the store, and unabashedly continued walking up Fifth Avenue feeling elatedly proud of myself--when suddenly, I felt an ominous tap on the shoulder from someone who had come up from behind. I can still feel the "Uh oh, now I'm done for" as physical fear flooded my body. I turned around to squarely face my accoster. Upon which, the man said to me: "Do you happen to know the correct time?"

Thinking about this weird synchronicity of the stranger's ominous, annunciatory tap on my shoulder that day remains striking; nothing similar has ever happened to me before or since. I tend to think the universe probably had its eye on me, and the benign tap was its way of saying, "We'll let you off the hook this time, dude, but don't you ever try this kind of thing again!"

Subsequently this week, I wrote to Michael Rumaker, sending him this story--we have been emailing ever since I published my last blog about his book, "Black Mountain Days"-- he had asked me at one point if I was psychic. I told him he could judge for himself once he'd read my memoir, "Living the Magical Life." He wrote me back that the "lovely moment of that stranger tapping you on the shoulder on Fifth Ave. after you'd swiped the pink bathing suit from Saks was your better angel perhaps asking really, as you say, 'Do you have the time for this, even though you stole from a rich corporation who could well afford the loss?'" Michael suggested that the man tapping me on the shoulder might have been a messenger angel: "Messenger angels are everywhere," he said, "and come in various guises and are often perceived as the "lowest of the low" who have nothing to teach us. but they have much we need to learn, to hear. I do believe the fields of energy we project pull us to and pull to us the people we need to meet, in, to borrow your word, the truly "meaningful" coincidence, for better or worse. Sometimes it's a momentary tap on the shoulder, and sometimes it's sartori, blow of light! as it was with Olson smiting me awake at Black Mountain."

Yes, I definitely believe in messenger angels, and as any reader of this blog knows well, I spend much time divining answers to my questions. My own awakening to synchronicity as perhaps the central force field in the universe came when I was writing "Living the Magical Life." It may be the only memoir extant which constructs its narrative quite deliberately (I realized halfway through writing it) by mapping synchronicities as the nodal points actually weaving my life together. By which I mean that all of the life-changing things that happened to me and led me down certain paths, seem to have occurred independently of my own intentions. Things I desperately wanted, for instance, didn't pan out, but other things did--many of them just appearing, out of nowhere, seemingly out of the blue, and shooting me through like Elsa Maxwell out of a cannon ball.

Then my friend Jane wrote to me about Obama's speech on Tuesday night. She likened Obama to the Archangel Gabriel, and the dismissive faces and body language of certain Republicans in the audience, by way of contrast, to the distorted grimaces of Hieronymous Bosch figures in "The Garden of Earthly Delights: "pig-headed, inbred, and unpromising." And I thought, yes, Obama's speech WAS an annunciation of sorts, a message of future success for our country. But it was also the ominous tap on the shoulder to say, "Don't let's ever try this sort of unmitigated fiscal nonsense again!"

Then I Googled " Archangel Gabriel" for clues. Gabriel, if you don't already know, was the angel sent to Mary to inform her that she would conceive Jesus, but intriguingly, he was also the angel who revealed the Koran to the prophet Mohammed in the mosque of Medina. Undoubtedly another auspicious synchronicity erupting into plain view.

Last night the Obamas entertained Stevie Wonder in the White House, who was receiving the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for popular music. The president is a well-known fan — Wonder performed at his nominating convention in Denver last summer and at a Lincoln Memorial concert before his January inauguration. "I think it's fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me, we might not have married," Obama said, with his wife sitting in the front row. "The fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship."

Synchronicities, if you follow them carefully, long and far enough, are surely the marks of a sophisticated, dark wizard. Watch next for Republican Bobby Jindal, giving another speech on the steps of the White House, wearing dreadlocks and dressed in a stolen pink bathing suit, a copy of Jean Genet's "The Thief's Journal" and of the Koran secreted in his black attache case. God will be whispering in your ear, "It's all good." The picture above is of Gabriel, Georgian, 13th century.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Art's Boom and Bust: A Two-Book Seminar

To read these two compelling books--"Seven Days in the Art World" by Sarah Thornton and "Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontlines" by William Cleveland--back-to-back, is to immerse oneself in radically contrasting habitats. Sarah Thornton’s book offers an insider’s view into the market-driven art world, its institutional hierarchies, privileged elites, and theatrical excitements, while "Art and Upheaval" plunges us into the world’s most dangerous hotspots, where interactive networks of unknown artists toil on the frontlines, responding to scenes of tragedy and targeting distressed communities in real need of help. The settings are as alien from each other as chalk and cheese but, in the curious way that opposites provoke and create a spur for consciousness, they also dovetail, like yin and yang. What they demonstrate is that art today has no stable or knowable center; it arises in contexts that bear no causal relationship to one another. This becomes a stunning object lesson in how differently artists in the 21st century can perceive their role and purpose.

I am presenting these two books now as a potential, ready-made, seminar course. Any issues-oriented professor of contemporary art who may be reading this blog and wants to stir the pot intensely with minimal means should take note: there is enough material here to stir debate for an entire semester's worth of classes. Side by side, these books put into stark focus the way our world may be changing as a result of global economic meltdown. It may well be that the art-world's boom days are numbered, headed for the dust bin of history, along with all the other financial bubbles spawned by rogue capitalism in recent decades. If art continues to exist, it will have to transform into something quite different than what we have been used to glutting the galleries with.

Like Albert Camus, a writer who worked in the French underground during World War II, Cleveland’s artists have embraced the struggle to construct what Camus once described as “an art of living in times of catastrophe.” They seek, with their art, to keep the world from destroying itself “by fighting openly against the death instinct at work in our history.” In our own catastrophic times, there is a remarkable dichotomy between artists who believe unfailingly in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of art, and those who maintain that art should have some socially redeeming purpose. A sentence from my own book, The Reenchantment of Art, could be construed as the thrust of Cleveland’s entire narrative: “We need an art that transcends the distanced formality of aesthetics and dares to respond to the cries of the world.”

When I was an art student of Robert Motherwell’s during the 1950s, our class studied a single essay by Ortega y Gasset, “The Dehumanization of Art,” for many weeks. Written in 1925, Ortega’s essay launched the emerging mindset of the modern artist as a creator of art that should be divorced from “the world of practical affairs.” Modern art, Ortega claimed, irreverently “flouts itself.” Not only does it choose to view itself as “a thing of no consequence,” it also rejects any concept of the artist as savior.

Nobody could have foreseen, in this quite deliberate separation of art from life, the rise of a multimillion-dollar industry—that gaudy and totally artificial habitat known as the “art world”—which would eventually become home to the kind of art that “flouts itself.” But that is what happened. Thornton, who has a B.A. in art history and a PhD in cultural sociology, probes brilliantly and deeply into this world, giving us penetrating glimpses without any malice or the remotest taste of iron in her mouth.

So what, besides hierarchies of status, reputation, and wealth, makes the art world the art world? Most notably, it is the power to define art. Besides that, the art world is where the professionals hang out. By hanging out, socializing, and interviewing high-profile artists, dealers, curators, critics, collectors, and auction-house experts during five years of “participatory” research, Thornton filled forty-seven blue notebooks full of exciting artistic juju. Her book explores seven distinct subcultures: an auction sale at Christie’s in Manhattan; an art “crit” class at CalArts in Los Angeles; the Basel Art Fair; the award ceremony for the prestigious Turner Prize in the UK; the editorial offices of ARTFORUM magazine; a studio visit with Japanese Pop artist Takashi Mirakami; and the Venice Biennale. The final product reads like a fabulously good novel you can’t put down.

In contrast, the communities of upheaval inhabited by William Cleveland’s artists are both spiritually and geographically remote from the glamorous buzz of Thornton’s art world: six embattled communities on five continents—Northern Ireland, Cambodia, South Africa, Watts, CA., Australia, and the former Yugoslavia—places convulsed by war, and racial, religious, or political strife, offering excitement of a very different kind. Cleveland’s experiences in these places have led him to a quite divergent picture of art’s potential—as a channel for healing human grief. This work is often dangerous, carried on in the face of “vicious politics.” “Imagine knowing,” he writes, “that your art making could get you killed, but doing it anyway.”

Cleveland’s in-depth writing about artists in far corners pulling together and creating moral centers for healing and political reconciliation is sometimes ponderous, but couldn’t be more timely, or relevant, now that we have a global leader in Barack Obama who has made community-organizing the centerpiece of his presidency. It may just be that we have outlived the long period of ethical (and aesthetic) neutrality in our culture, now that politics is finally catching up with art.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Black Mountain College, Revisited

Escape from fiscal matters of economic collapse, both public and private, is not easy these days, but was unexpectedly provided by a gift I received, of a book called "Black Mountain Days," a memoir of the college written by former student, Michael Rumaker. I intended nothing more than a brief peek, a simple scanning to pick up the drift, but once having started reading, I couldn't stop. And so, my favorite kind of book: the kind you can't put down.

Black Mountain College was an experimental, avant-garde school (considered in its day to be a "hotbed of commies and homosexuals" and generalized misfits) in the mountains of North Carolina outside Asheville, that attracted many innovative thinkers, artists, poets, and musicians--among them, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, composers Stefan Volpe and Lou Harrison, painters Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, and writers Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. The two summer months I spent there in 1951 when I was only sixteen, sent by my parents as a graduation present after finishing high school, because they were unwilling to send me away to college. was my consolation prize. Amazingly, my parents had no idea what kind of place they were sending me to, nor for that matter, did I, but my being there, almost accidental as it was, in that unorthodox environment, turned out to be a turning point in my life. My maverick, nonconformist self, not easily accommodated at home, in that setting had the time and provocation to emerge.

As it turns out, Black Mountain College was an escape hatch for many people, including Rumaker, who arrived the year after I did, in 1952, as a full-time student wanting to study writing with Charles Olson. I had gone hoping to study painting with, during the first month, Ben Shahn, and during the second, Robert Motherwell, but in the end, I never made a single painting while there. Totally captivated by the looming, bigger-than-life presence of Charles Olson, I began writing poems for the first time, secretly inserting them into his mail box. The response was warm and welcoming: he invited me to join his class.

Michael's early encounters with Olson were much more tortured, as he describes squirming in his seat, spirits drooping under the extreme tongue-lashings he received. I "felt myself shrinking, felt I could barely breathe," he writes--because the man he wanted to please more than any other said to him, right in front of the entire class, "I can't help you because I don't love you." Rumaker's three-year apprenticeship with Olson was as much a quest to find his own voice in writing as it was a struggle to win approval from the man who would become his spiritual father. Cruel as they were, Olson's thunderous rages and verbal slaps became a baptism of sorts that eventually woke him up. Eventually Rumaker was able to produce a short story that won the longed-for respect and affection of his mentor, and he became an "insider," one of Olson's "favorites."

"And Charles telling me during another of the writing classes 'to follow your nose in writing, like pushing a peanut in front of you,' that that was the right way for me to do it." Michael definitely learned to push his peanut, becoming, if this memoir is any example, a superb writer in the process.

Curiously, there was a long affair Michael had during his first year at Black Mountain, with a music student called Merrill Gillespie, the very same individual I had, myself, developed a crush on for several weeks before I left the previous year. Needless to say, in my own case, it never came to anything, but Merrill did give me a hand-written score for a poem of Walt Whitman's, "Calamus," that he had set to music.

In 1955 Michael finally left Black Mountain for good, but not before an attempt was made to commit suicide by slashing his wrists, which fortunately did not succeed. And just after his graduation ceremony, he burned 3 stacks of accumulated old manuscripts in an old trash can: "emblems of my long and green apprenticeship." It was a ritualistic burning that also served as a cleansing. Not long after that, the college, having fallen into extreme poverty for several years and barely hanging on at that point, finally closed its doors for good. The picture above is of me in one of Olson's classes.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Rugby of Stimulus

It's been another wild and woolly week for President Obama, the stimulus bill, and for me--my clothes dryer gave up the ghost, so sheets, towels, and underpants are unfurled throughout the house trying their darndest to get dry.

Funerals are in order.

At least, according to author Chris Hedges, whose report "It's Not Going to Be OK" (on, Feb. 2) was circulating around the internet this week. Hedges declared in no uncertain terms that "The future is bleak...Our way of life is over...Our children will never have the standard of living we had." Nor can these bleak prospects be undone, he suggests, with a trillion or two trillion dollars in bailout money, because the empire is dying and our economy has collapsed. And while Hedges was busy wondering how we will cope with our decline, one late-night comedian facetiously suggested we sew all those billions of stimulus dollars together--and make a blanket big enough to cover Jupiter. (Which he pronounced jhu-pee-terre.)

In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan claimed she could find no one, neither Republican nor Democrat, who believed the stimulus bill passed by the House will solve anything or make anything better, while Paul Krugman in the New York Times berated Washington for failing to see what's really at stake: that we are falling into an economic abyss from which it will be very hard to get out again. The need for strong government action, he intones, might--at least, maybe, perhaps--improve our odds.

In the midst of all this accumulated confusion and fear, Republicans have decided there is more political profit in taking their cue from the Taliban and becoming insurgents. They have closed ranks and adopted Rush Limbaugh's new mantra about Obama: "I hope he fails." John McCain has reverted to punching the air with his fists again, promoting tax cuts (a sight I'd naively thought we'd seen the last of after the election.) "This bill," said Lindsay Graham, Republican Senator from South Carolina and McCain's closest sidekick, "is stinking up the place." House Minority Leader John Boehner refers to the bill now as "generational theft."

"And by the way," wrote one anonymous blogger on the Huffington Post this week, "the word is that one Republican leader said last week (in a closed door meeting) that 'our goal is block ANY kind of recovery until we are in another Great Depression...that's how we win in the next cycle and sweep back into power over the next four years." Nice going, boys! Have we just entered oblivion's waiting room?

Anyway, the good news is, one of my favorite actors, whose name I can't remember, just won an award (which one I forget--forgive my senior moments please) for his leading role in my favorite movie, "The Visitor," a film (in my humble opinion) far more likeable than "Slumdog Millionaire." And now, I'm off to fold the laundry so Virgil can have a place to sit down..