Monday, June 29, 2009

Fort Worth's Own Little Stonewall, 40 Years Late

Police raided the Rainbow Lounge on Saturday night, a Fort Worth gay bar for reasons that I cannot fathom.  The coincidence with the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall raid was noticed by everyone except the Fort Worth Police Dept.  Some people were arrested for "groping" police officers (I smell a big phoney police rat).  Here is the Dallas Morning News article which is not very informative.  There is more about it here in an article in the Dallas Voice.

Gay bar raids in 2009, how quaint!

That over 100 people picketed the Tarrant County Courthouse over this incident is remarkable.  Fort Worth is one of the most right leaning cities in the nation.  And the really sad part about it is, I really like Fort Worth.  It's a great town despite its little men with big guns.

Hat tip to Margaret for bringing this to my attention.

The Day After

My dogs are killing me.  I'm tired. I have shopping to do, and I really don't want to do it.  The first day of summer school class went fine.  But I'm tired now that I'm home.

I had a great time yesterday.  I met Allen there.  I saw The Reverend Boy in the distance.  I saw +Gene Robinson who was a last minute addition to the parade.  I saw Wilfried there.  I marched with Ueber G.

Fifth Avenue from 56th to the Village and down Christopher to the river turned into one huge party, as it does every year.  I look forward to it like I once looked forward to Christmas.  For the young, it was one big Roman holiday of sexuality, fun, and friendship (as it was for me when I was younger).  For us older queens, it was heartfelt Thanksgiving, both secular and sacred.

It's a great party, and we love guests and visitors.

Historian David Carter has a great reflection on the meaning of it all on the BBC.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Liberty and Justice for ALL! Happy Stonewall 40!



Stonewall means Fight Back!

The struggle continues until we have full and equal rights as citizens of the United States, and of the World.

Burn down the closet! Freedom and Dignity for LGBTs!

Happy Gay Day to all!

*Stephen Colbert suggests we use the cheer, We're Here, We're Queer, He'll get to us eventually!"
*Frank Rich has a great column for us today.

From the Office of Inexplicable Obsessions

At last I found it, the original David Rose version of Holiday for Strings, that legendary masterpiece of 1950s Happy Shopping Experience music! Attention shoppers...

Here's something to go with the music. I never knew International Harvester made refrigerators.

Some of you may still prefer the Spike Jones version.

"Muscular," But Not Healthy, Christianity

Holding out for segregating gays is not helping churches.

Look at what is happening to that model of right wing success, the Southern Baptists. They are expelling congregations left and right for making gays feel welcome.   The Fort Worth congregation expelled in the article was not quite my idea of welcoming.  They were expelled for making  small and grudging concessions to a handful of gay members.

While newly minted ACNA is crowing with triumph over its anticipated destruction of the Episcopal Church, the truth is that religious affiliation is declining across the board in this country.  I would argue that the hegemony of conservative evangelicals in politics and public life over the last 25 to 30 years only hastened that decline.  The Catholic hierarchy making a hard right turn while trying to "manage" a huge criminal scandal didn't help either.
It is to the point where substantial numbers of people have concluded that opposition to abortion and homosexuality are the core beliefs of the Christian faith.  Watching any right wing religious cable network from EWTN to TBN where the discussion seems to be about nothing but those 2 topics, it's not hard to see how people might come to that conclusion. 

One part of the Washington Post article that I have linked particularly struck me:
Two years ago, then-SBC president Frank Page said the declining numbers can be blamed, in part, on a perception that Baptists are "mean-spirited, hurtful and angry people" and that the denomination has been known too much in recent years for "what we're against" than "what we're for," Page said.

"Our culture is increasingly antagonistic and sometimes adverse to a conversation about a faith in Christ. Sometimes that's our fault because we have not always presented a winsome Christian life that would engender trust and a desire on the part of many people to engage in a conversation on the Gospel," he said.

This is not just a problem for Southern Baptists, but for churches across the board.  The popular image of all  Christians these days is bigoted, hypocritical, and thoroughly frightened by sexuality and modernity.  It is anything but friendly and loving.  It is starting to turn into something worse, the perception that Christians are anything but good and fair.  It is automatically assumed that Christians are all politically conservative and associated with the Republican party, when a substantial number (at least half) are not.  That default moral authority that the secular used to ascribe to churches and their members is rapidly eroding.  The stand on gays that so many churches cling to only makes them look them look even more mean-spirited, and behind the rest of society in what many perceive as humane and positive reform.  
Right-wing commentators speak of the public embrace of gay rights (the "gay agenda" whatever that is) as "permissiveness" which completely misses the point.  The decision to accept gay family members, friends, and colleagues is a moral decision, and a difficult one for a lot of people.  It comes at the end of a long hard period of soul-searching for most people.  This is anything but a matter of "libertinism."  The conservative religious stand for segregating gays is seen by its proponents as a principled position over and against the childish permissiveness at large in the world.  It is only a matter of maturity and self-discipline in their eyes.  To others, the arguments for segregating gays are deeply offensive.  Those arguments offend, not people's sense of permission, but their moral sense.  The argument for segregating gays, as they become more integrated into the family and social experience of most people, appears less a principled stand than an assault on fundamental human dignity based on an arbitrary prejudice.  The defenders of segregation look worse than mean-spirited to people as time goes by. 

This is very sad, because the churches, including the conservative ones, are still full of very good and very selfless people.  While federal, state, and local governments failed the people of New Orleans after Katrina, religious groups, conservative and liberal, were the first to respond.  When the attention of the public, and the government, moved on, it was the religious charities that remained to help people rebuild.  A belief in the transcendent sanctity of all humanity can be a powerful motivator to do a lot of good.

I really wonder if a position that is also held by folks walling themselves up in compounds in Idaho is really one that churches want to defend as core doctrine.  It is not helping them.

Hat tip to Toujoursdan at Culture Choc.

Friday, June 26, 2009


A thunderstorm is rolling through New York. We've had almost nothing but rain all month, about 10 inches of it.

Michael and the cats hate thunder and lightning. When I was a wee tot, thunder and lightning terrified me, especially at night. Now, I love it. In fact, I miss those apocalyptic looking thunderstorms that were a regular part of late Spring in Texas and the Midwest. I miss the sky going all dark in the afternoon. I miss the bolts of lightning and the loud claps of thunder. I miss the ominous rumble of distant thunder. I miss watching curtains of rain approaching in the distance, along with the sudden wind gusts kicking up the dry dust.

The most spectacular storms I've ever seen were in north east New Mexico. I remember driving through a hailstorm of pea-sized hail, and lots of it. The ground was covered about an inch deep with it. That storm was followed by the most brilliant rainbow I've ever seen.

We have thunderstorms in New York. In fact, watching the lightning strike the tall buildings can be quite spectacular. I sometimes see those same curtains of rain coming down the avenues in Manhattan. But, we've never had anything quite like what I remember seeing every spring in Texas and in the Midwest.

Of course, I most enjoy them from a dry and safe vantage point.

This Indian miniature showing the goddess Lakshmi dancing as the monsoon storms approach best expresses how I really feel about summer thunderstorms. For me, the bolts of lightning and the claps of thunder are the force of life.

Lakshmi Greets the Arrival of the Monsoon Rains, 18th century Indian miniature

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Farrah Fawcett 1947 - 2009

It seemed like everyone's brother, including mine, had this poster in their room in 1976.

Michael Jackson 1958 - 2009

The Citizen Kane of pop music just said "rosebud."

Tomorrow Is Another Day; The Gay Movement Today and Tomorrow

"The hairpin drop heard round the world" goes global:

Israeli soldier at a Gay Pride rally, Jerusalem

Gay Pride march, Bucharest, Romania

Gay Pride march in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Gay Pride March, Johannesburg, South Africa

Gay Pride march, Tokyo, Japan

Gay Pride march, Galway, Ireland

I am astonished at the progress of LGBTs that I’ve seen in my lifetime. What began for me in early adolescence as something terrifyingly occult and painfully secret is now a major social, political, and cultural force around the world. The idea of gay marriage is no longer just standard fodder for locker room humor and stand-up comedy, it is legal reality in 6 states with more coming. Being gay or lesbian is now broadly recognized as part of the variety of nature, something all of us who are gay have always known instinctively. We all knew in our heart of hearts from an early age that there was something fundamentally arbitrary and unjust in the criminal defective status assigned to us by the enforcers of conventional society. We now have the social and political space in which to build healthy lives and relationships over the course of entire lifetimes.

One of the great successes of LGBT politics since Stonewall is to take the marginal status once assigned to us by law and psychology and to turn it around to our advantage. It is not entirely coincidental that gay political activism first began to stir in the late 19th century. It was then that psychologists in Germany first coined the term “homosexual” and identified it as an innate status rather than as a series of sexual acts. The German Imperial government criminalized homosexuals and homosexual acts in 1871 in Paragraph 175 of their criminal code. The first ideas of homosexuals as a people appeared in the protests against that law in Germany at the close of the 19th century, and quickly spread through the rest of Europe and to the Americas. It was with Stonewall that, as historian Joan Nestle remarked, gays and lesbians ceased to be a police report, a medical case study, a locker room joke, and became a people.

And yet, despite all of that tremendous progress over the last 40 years, today’s LGBTs have exactly the same civil rights guarantees on the Federal level as they did the first night of the Stonewall riots, -- zero. The legal status of LGBTs is a now a widely varying patchwork of state and local laws. Only 16 states include LGBTs in their civil rights codes. Gay marriage rights in some states, but not in others, will not change that status. Our legal standing is just as much at the sufferance of the majority as it was in 1969. As we have seen repeatedly from Anita Bryant’s successful campaign to force Dade County, Florida to repeal its gay rights protections in 1973 to the victory of Prop 8 in California last year, the majority can turn on us. We can be fashionable and popular one year and be yesterday’s fish the next. Popular today, despised tomorrow, we will always be LGBT no matter which way the fashionable winds blow. Minorities are the creations of majorities. By definition, the minority must lose if its rights are ever put up for a vote by the majority. Until our status as full and lawful citizens of the United States is guaranteed by Federal law, we will remain vulnerable.

The leadership of the gay movement today is more diverse than ever before. However, its public face is still mostly affluent white male. Gender, race, and class divisions plague the movement now as they did 40 years ago. Yes, they do reflect larger divisions in American society, but these petty bigotries are luxuries we cannot afford. Lesbians have been much better friends to gay men than we have been to them. Misogyny does gay men no favors, especially when we have common cause against patriarchy with both lesbians and the feminist movement. The persons on the front line of the LGBT struggle these days more often than not are people of color and blue-collar folk. They have enough to worry about without having to face segregation within the gay community. The battle line no longer runs through San Francisco or New York, but today runs through places like Oklahoma and Newark. Perhaps the song we should be singing at our rallies these days is not just “We Are Family,” but the old union song, “Solidarity Forever.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jesus Kicks Ass!

"... Some here will remember the dictums (dare I call them “battle-cries”?) of that muscular Christianity that once reigned in these lands – in Canada and in the US: “No cross, no crown!” “No pain, no gain.” 
-- Bishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church in North America.

A post by Fr. Mark Harris over at his blog, Preludium, that included this quote from Bishop Duncan on Muscular Christianity got me to playing with Google Image Search.
Here's what I found.

Honestly folks, I can't tell whether these pictures are satire or serious.

This last one of Super Jesus breaking his cross makes me think of a similar (and much finer) image by a true believing Marxist, Jose Clemente Orozco, the great Mexican muralist from the 20th century.

Christ takes an axe to the Cross and cuts down the sacrificial role assigned to him by obscurantist priests. He raises his left fist to declare His new role as embodiment of the awakened proletariat. Orozco has a point here.   Jesus was a carpenter.  He probably had a union card.  

Orozco certainly liked the idea of "muscular" Christianity just as much as Bishop Duncan. But, Orozco was an atheist who believed that priests like Duncan were nothing more than agents of the bank.

Rembrandt, that pansy Amsterdam liberal, didn't like the idea of "muscular" Christianity, or Warrior Jesus, at all. Hero Jesus was for Rubens and the Catholics down in Antwerp (and in verbal form for the extreme Gomarist Calvinists in Rembrandt's native Leyden).
Rembrandt imagined Christ as a very ordinary man with an ordinary build suffering as any ordinary person would dying in extreme pain. He doesn't look like He could put up much of a fight, or kick anyone's ass -- sorta like all the rest of us.   

Rembrandt would say that's the whole point.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Song For Our Time

From the great dark star of the Alternate Rock scene, a song that captures what a lot of us felt during the long Bush years, and still feel:

"Unhealthy Influences." Power, Liberty, and Sexuality

"Unhealthy influences" is the euphemism the Chinese regime uses for pornography. The Beijing regime uses the excuse of "protecting" the people from pornography as a cover for cracking down on internet access and traffic.

Why should an officially atheist regime in a culture with no ties to Western Judaeo-Christianity feel compelled to prohibit internet porn? Why should it be necessary to describe pornography with a euphemism?

We always think of terror and revulsion at sexuality as being primarily religious, part of the religious contempt for all things carnal in favor of things spiritual. We routinely associate contempt for sex with Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

And yet, officially anti-religious communist regimes from the Soviet Union to China to North Korea to Cuba had puritanical societies that would be the envy of any Muslim or Christian religious fanatic. Pornography was absolutely banned and driven far underground. Marriage and procreation were tightly regulated. Homosexuality was ruthlessly persecuted from Shanghai to Havana. The criminalization of homosexuality in Russia was only repealed with the fall of the Soviet regime (that criminalization may return as the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church upon the Russian state grows).

The ideological tyrants of the 20th century appear to have been largely asexual. The only exception might be Mao who by all accounts had a sybaritic sex life in his old age. Hitler appears to have been largely indifferent to sex, despite his affair with Eva Braun. I suppose the wildest Saturday night romp in the hay pales before the gratifying thrill of absolute power over a major country with a huge population and a large industrial economy.

We think of the puritanism of the 19th century Anglo-American Victorians as religious and particularly Christian. And yet, some of the most enthusiastic apologists for the Victorian regime of "self control" were secularists. Thomas Huxley, the scientist who publicly defended Darwin's work and derided religious zealots was every bit as puritanical in his outlook as the pious William Gladstone.

The more time goes by, the more I agree with the Marxist historians on the issue of 19th century Victorian puritanism. It was not a consequence of religious belief so much as the modern industrial economy. Industrial mass production needed the rational organization of large numbers of people to make it work. Indeed, the whole of society needed to be organized and rationalized to make the modern consumer economy work. The proper economic function of sex was to produce more workers and consumers, and to tease consumers into purchases. Advertising since the early 19th century is full of sex. As so many writers (most notably George WS Trow) have pointed out, sex in advertising is always a tease. It always promises gratification without ever quite delivering it, and leaves us panting for more. The only thing that has really changed about advertising sex is the sexualization of men over the past 30 years.
Beyond those 2 functions, modern sex is strictly regulated. Anything beyond procreation and advertising is potentially very disruptive. No matter what our religious or political allegiances, we are always anxious to put our desires in their place and to keep them under control.

The Classical poets described love as a madness from which no one is immune, not even the gods. It is the madness that distracts heroes from their duty and their destiny. It is the madness that makes the gods come down from the heavens and mortals think they can dwell on Olympus. It is the madness that brings disruption, sorrow, and death into the lives of both gods and mortals. Love is the great monkey wrench thrown into the orderly workings of the cosmos.

Sex is the one thing that successfully resists all of our attempts to rationalize it, whether through religion, ideology, or economics. The burning desires of our flesh keep us out of both Heaven and Utopia. But as other poets have pointed out, they also keep us out of hell. Not only do they disrupt our ambitions to be perfectly good, so do they also sabotage our best laid plans to do evil.

And yet, it is out of the madness of Love that the arts, the next generations, and whole worlds are born. "Eros, builder of cities," said WH Auden.

Caravaggio, Amor Vincit Omnia

Get Ready... Get Set... Lower Your Expectations!

Not only am I disappointed in those crumbs being thrown to us on gay rights from the Obama Administration, I'm beginning to think that health care reform will be about as minimal as financial regulatory reform.  We will only get as much reform as the insurance industry will allow us.  The most I'm expecting out of this will be a health care system that is slightly less awful.

I think the financial industry and the rest of the majority shareholders who own the USA expect to get back to business as usual once the current recession passes.  Their paid employees in Washington will do all they can to see to it that as little as possible of real change happens, and that the very profitable status quo continues.

As for the rest of us poor suckers, we should just be glad we still have a job and keep our mouths shut.

It is so depressing watching awakening Liberty in Iran and elsewhere while it is being put back to sleep in this country.  The mullahs may yet pull a Burma or a Tienanmen, but the best solution for them may be the one our owners use on us.  The mullahs do not have the booming economy to create that Chinese combination of urban prosperity and political control that seems to have bought the Beijing regime some peace of mind since Tienanmen.  They might try our solution, giving people a fool's liberty in which people can say and do whatever they want, but only because it doesn't matter.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Road Rage in the City

According to the latest Autovantage Survey, the city that has the most temperamental rudest drivers is... New York!

I'm reeling with shock.

Perhaps a little more surprising to most (except to those who've had to drive through there), the city with the second rudest most temperamental drivers is Dallas/ Fort Worth.  Anyone who has ever tried to drive on Central Expressway at anytime in the last 50 years will not be surprised by that rating.

My father, a native Texan and one of the kindest men to ever walk on God's green earth, could turn into a vindictive homicidal psychopath behind the wheel of a car.  

The city that rates the most even tempered and polite drivers is Portland, Oregon.  I should think Portland would want to keep that under wraps.  The last thing they need is a wave of cranky neurotic New Yorkers, or angry bitter Texans breaking on their city limits.

The thing I love most about New York is that I don't have to drive anywhere.  I wouldn't even drive a bicycle in this town.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Happy Bloom's Day!

James Joyce in the summer of 1904

It's June 16th and time for Leopold Bloom to take his annual walk through Dublin. Like most people who've tried to read Ulysees, I couldn't finish it. It was too dense. But, I do enjoy it. I especially liked the ladies lining up to climb to the top of Nelson's Pillar, where all that repressed Victorian sexuality is finally allowed free reign, if only in the imagination. I really liked a routine conversation between Stephen Daedalus and the Headmaster of the school where he teaches turned into a reflection on the whole long history of Anglo-Irish conflict.
Joyce is commemorated in plaques and statues all over Dublin now. For decades, he was the city's Invisible and Unmentionable Son. Now, you can take Ulysees tours around the city the same way you can take Dante tours around Florence.

Here are the Pogues in 1984 singing a punk version of an old pub song that Joyce cerainly knew (and we could imagine Leopold Bloom singing, though not quite like this).

For those of you who can't understand brogue shouted at you by young men banging tambourines on their heads, here are the words.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Iran's Dubya

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

It is possible that Ahmadinejad really won that election, though probably not with a 2 to 1 majority. He is bitterly hated in the cosmopolitan cities, among professionals and the educated, what in this country are referred to by right wing opinionators as the "ay-leets" (elites). Ahmadinejad has a devoted base, much as Dubya still does, and one that is similar to Dubya's. Ahmadinejad's supporters are largely poor with limited education and opportunities. They are very deeply and conservatively religious. They are mostly rural, though not exclusively. His most devoted supporters are veterans of the long bloody war with Iraq. Like Dubya, Ahmadinejad exploits the class and regional differences between his supporters and his opponents. Resentment of the cities is a powerful political force in a population that is still largely rural. Ahmadinejad openly exploits the bigotry (especially the antisemitism and xenophobia) of his constituents. His campaign rhetoric is a mix of piety and jingoism.

Like Dubya in the 2000 election, Ahmadinejad may have "won" this election because the Powers That Be (the mullahs there, the majority shareholders here) wanted him to win.

What may prove to be Ahmadinejad's downfall are not the divisions between urban and rural, or the class divisions, but the growing generational divide in Iran. It was a generational divide that put Obama in power, with the under 30 demogaphic turning out in droves to vote him into the presidency (for the first time in my life, in November 2008 I was one of the few old people at a polling station that was swarming with kids, and I mean kids, all under 25). It is the under 30 demographic which dropped the Republican party like a hot brick.
Something similar could happen to Ahmadinejad whose most fervent supporters are mostly middle aged and elderly. The younger generations in Iran, like the young all over the world, are leaving their villages behind and pouring into the cities to start new lives. Most dangerous for the regime are rising expectations from a huge population of people under 30. Dashing those expectations in an Ahmadinejad election may prove to be a Pyhric victory for the theocratic establishment which clearly favored him. As DeToqueville always reminded us, expectation is the spark of revolution.

Democracy Was Never This Pretty

19th century painting of Pericles addressing the Athenian Assembly

Looking at the whole squalid mess in Albany now might make us yearn for the golden days of Athenian Democracy.
If we read our copies of Thucydides, we would thank God and our lucky stars for the mess in Albany. The Athenian democracy was a much worse, and bloodier mess, than anything Albany ever dreamed of. The Athenian Assembly was dominated by demagogues who played factional politics of the worst kind and persuaded the Assembly to exile war heroes like Themistocles, driving him into the arms of the Persians. The Assembly voted to rebuild the temple to Athena (breaking a solemn oath not to do so), and to pay for it with funds embezzled from the Delian League, a mutual defense fund among all the allied Greek city states in the event the Persians returned (well, we did get the Parthenon out of that scandal). They voted to wage a disastrous war with Sparta, and in the midst of that war to launch an even more disastrous imperial adventure in Sicily. It was the Athenian Assembly that voted to massacre the inhabitants of Melos for disloyalty to the Athenian empire.

Democracy is ugly. It's not about selfless heroes rushing in on winged feet to save civilization. It is about committees negotiating between competing claims and interests, and hammering out agreements that no one likes, but everyone is willing to live with. Coalition building and parliamentary manipulation are inevitable, and unattractive, parts of this process. It's not pretty, it breaks our hearts with disappointment, it repels us with its vulgarity and chicanery, but it somehow works, at least better than anything else.

What may emerge from the attempted coup in Albany is a more truly democratic state legislature where policy is fought out on the chamber floor rather than settled in a hotel room between 3 people; the Senate majority leader, the Assembly majority leader, and the Governor. Thus was this state governed for decades.

Borat Goes Gay

I must confess that I've never seen Borat. I've only seen little parts of it. My friends who saw it are very divided over it. Some said it was hysterically funny, a great send-up of antisemitism. Others thought it was a really vulgar mean spirited piece of entrapment. Most of my friends felt it was both.

Now Sacha Baron Cohen is about to take on homophobia with another regular of his Da Ali G Show, a potty-mouthed extravagantly gay Austrian fashion designer named Bruno (with an umlaut over the u). From what I've read, gay groups are very divided over this movie. Most of the argument seems to be over whether or not audiences (and American audiences in particular) will get that it's satire.
Another difference seems to me is that Borat was a caricature of an antisemite. Bruno is not a caricature of a homophobe, but of a popular stereotype of gay men exaggerated exponentially. His strategy is to confront people not with the spectacle of their own prejudices made ridiculous, but with an embodiment of their worst fears. I wonder if that might backfire.

The publicity for the movie is already at full throttle (aided and abetted by this blog) complete with the public stunts for which Cohen is famous. Here's one at the recent MTV awards:

Here is the trailer for the movie.

Saturday Dreamboat on Monday

I was so busy with Francis Bacon Saturday that I forgot all about Saturday's eye-candy. Well here it is on Monday when we probably need it more.

Here is that healthiest of gay role models, Olympic Gold Medal winner Matthew Mitcham from Down Under. He's gay, out, partnered, a champion athlete and a national treasure. He is something that is only now possible, after Stonewall, and after so many years of struggle pushing back on that iron closet door.
The bad old days of criminalized homosexuality produced some great artists (like Bacon), and a lot of great writers (Wilde, Rimbaud, Gide, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, etc.). But something like Matthew Mitcham is entirely a creation of the better new days, when gay men could imagine a life that was something other than underground.

And for those of us who are old enough to remember, here is the man more than any other who made out gay athletes possible, the ever lovely Greg Louganis in a famous photo by Annie Leibowitz.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bacon May Be Dead, But He's Still Controversial

When doing a little research on Bacon, I found this article from a 2005 issue of The Guardian.  I think it states fairly well what Bacon's particular artistic witness was all about.

I do not endorse Bacon's point of view, any more than I would endorse Picasso's.  I think Bacon's idea of chewing up his lovers with his brush in his erotic passion is just as reprehensible as Picasso doing the same to his mistresses.  But, it is great art, and it is great because it is authentic, a frank expression of very real passions that are common to everyone.  Thank God for self control and moral constraint (no irony intended).

What I so admire about Bacon is his testimony that these same brutal passions that drive criminal impulses also drive so much of history.  Beneath the complex ideologies and the simple slogans is a cold carnivorous will to do harm.

My argument with Bacon is his hopelessness and his frequent lapses into nihilism.  So, it's all meaningless and humanity is only a pile of meat.  How is that different from the outlook of most bankers, or those ambitious politicians who are the objects of Bacon's scorn ?

I would never do to the human form what Picasso and Bacon do to it.  I could never tear it apart as well as either of those artists.  Like Max Beckmann, I think it is unseemly to tear apart the human form in an age in which so many real bodies of real people are routinely torn apart by both criminal passion and political ideology.
I also believe that how we show the human image says a lot about what we really think about humanity whether that image is on a street sign, an advertisement, or in a work of art.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"I Am An Optimist About Nothing," Francis Bacon at the Met

Photograph of Bacon taken by John Deakin for Vogue, 1962

I spent part of the day yesterday looking at the Bacon show at the Metropolitan Museum. I plan to return and look at it again.

Francis Bacon is 100 years old this year.

Angry jaundiced British modern painting is now a cliché (take that Lucian Freud!), but once it was new and brilliant in the postwar years. The most brilliant of them all still is the late Francis Bacon, an artist whose work is passionately loved and loathed, even now 17 years after his death.

Francis Bacon and I go way back. He was an early art school discovery of mine. The critic David Sylvester’s book length interview with Bacon was a favorite book of art students back in my day. Bacon was the dark star of art students at a time when our professors wanted us to look at Cezanne or Hans Hoffmann.

Bacon was famously gay with a taste for very rough sex with rough young men. It was art school legend that Bacon insisted on sleeping with all of his male students. And yet, straight boys in art school adored his work. They loved the violence and the scariness of it. It was through Bacon that a lot of them found their way to everything from Velazquez’s portraits to TS Eliot’s poetry to Eisenstein’s movies. Remarkably, Bacon’s candor about his homosexuality only enhanced their affection for him. The visual arts are a lot more hetero than most people assume, but they have always been very gay friendly for as long as I can remember.

With all of my straight boy art buddies, I too fell in love with Bacon’s work, and I’m still in love with it.

Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962

Bacon made his career with multiple paintings based on a Crucifixion motif. However, we should not read too much religious content into them. This is definitely not the Christian story. This is the crucifixion of Everyman by history. Bacon takes a traditional religious subject and compositional format, the triptych invented in Northern Europe for altarpieces, and remakes them to suit his own purposes. In the center panel, what appears to be a violently mutilated corpse displays itself to us like a bloody odalisque on a bed. In the right panel, what appears to be a cross between a violated corpse and a side of meat displays itself before a dog; spectacle or food? On the left are the indifferent bystanders, the folks who slow down to look at the car crash and are glad it isn't them. The whole scene is set in bare red oval rooms with windows out onto a pitch black night, mercilessly lit by bright electric lights.

Bacon was an existentialist of the old school. He was a true believing atheist who denied any afterlife, any transcendence, any apparent meaning to life. Like a lot of gay artists and writers, he believed that all claims to legitimate authority were ultimately bogus, and but a fig-leaf for raw power and domination. Artists and writers like Genet, Wojnarowicz, and Foucault come to mind; they shared Bacon’s skepticism about any legitimacy claimed for power. Perhaps this deeply felt anarchism among so many gay intellectuals comes from the experience of having one’s deepest desires criminalized for apparently arbitrary reasons. History, they all believed, was but the biological struggle for survival and domination projected into the social sphere. Bacon painted history as though is was a giant human abattoir. Though I do not share Bacon’s atheism, there is much in this old existential outlook that resonates with me.
Bacon lived through the darkest years of the 20th century. He spent part of his boyhood in London during World War I. His chronic asthma kept him out of military service in World War II, but he sometimes worked in volunteer rescue units during the Blitz. After witnessing, even from a distance, the carnage of the Great War and the rise of Hitler and Stalin, it was hard not to conclude that history was nothing but an abbatoir.

Study for a Crucifixion, 1962, detail of the right panel.

Bacon was an amazing painter, doubly amazing when we consider how little formal education he had, and how much failure and hardship he endured as a young man. He really learned his lessons from the great Velazquez, whose work he studied and paid homage to all his life. Those strokes and scumbles only come together at a distance, as in Velazquez’s work. His technique is a Baroque bravura of the thinnest whispers of scumbles to impasto laid on with a trowel. No other artist captured the harshness of indoor electric lighting better than Bacon (his only possible rival might be Max Beckmann). My little glazes and scumbles look so pedestrian in comparison to his canvases. Bacon could paint a very accurate likeness, and then take a rag and destroy it. He would then paint a line or a few strokes that would turn the mess back into form. His paint application brilliantly suggests everything from raw meat to dead mutilated flesh to a man’s muscular back. His figures can be alternately ghostly and richly physical in the same painting.

Study After Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X ("The Screaming Pope"), 1953

Bacon's paintings after Velazquez's famous portrait are among the most famous anti-authoritarian images of 20th century art. Bacon faces down the ogre, and sees the frightened animal behind the ecclesiastical pomp. This painting is a brilliant hybrid of Velazquez, and a still from Eisenstein's movie Potemkin which Bacon may have made famous. The face of the screaming wounded nanny from the massacre on the Odessa steps is grafted onto Velazquez's portrait of the wary and nervous looking Pope.

Bacon was born into an affluent English family living in Ireland. He was born in Dublin, and spent much of his boyhood in County Kildare. His father was a former army officer and racehorse breeder who was domineering and tryannical with his family. Francis' burgeoning early homosexuality became too much for him, so he threw Francis out of the house. At 16 years old, Francis Bacon was on his own, living off a very small allowance from his mother. He wandered between London, Paris, and Berlin into his 30s. He made a precarious living hustling and doing odd jobs. For awhile in the 1930s, he was a moderately successful interior designer. His painting education was through night schools and various free academies.

Two Studies of George Dyer, 1968

The wall text and the catalogue at the Met show were very disappointing. They made more literal minded readings into the meaning of his work than I think were there. His homosexuality was discussed, but not exactly candidly. The interpretations seemed to me to be a little too anxiously high-minded, skirting around a central fact of Bacon’s work that hits us in the face as soon as we walk into a gallery of his paintings. So much of Bacon’s work is about men having sex with each other. I think of Bacon as the gay male Picasso. Like Picasso, Bacon tears his lovers apart with his brush and rearranges their bodies according to his desire. An example is the painting above of his lover from the 1960s, a sometime thief and drug addict named George Dyer (who died of an overdose in 1971 the day before the opening of a major show of Bacon's work in Paris). Bacon shows him twice, seated clothed over on the right, and nude in the painting on the left. Like Picasso tearing into Marie Therese Walter, Bacon does the same with Dyer's body, only with even more violence, showing him filleted and literally pinned to the canvas.

Two Studies of George Dyer, detail.

In Memory of George Dyer, 1971

Publicly, Bacon was cool as cucumber over Dyer's death, appearing at the opening the following day. In private, Dyer's untimely death deeply affected him. He painted a number of paintings to try to understand his loss beginning with this triptych.

Triptych 1976

The wall text for this painting at the Met dwelt at length on the carnivorous bird in the center panel pecking away at the filleted figure with discussions of Aeschylus and the furies. It could be any figure from Classical mythology getting his innards pecked by a big bird from Prometheus to Tityus. It ignored what I think is so blatantly obvious in this painting, a night of rough casual sex with a piece of trade. That toilet overflowing with blood in the center panel should have been a clue.

Triptych 1976, left panel

In this panel from the triptych, we see a large head in a frame which could be the glowering figure of paternal authority. More likely, it is a photo of the call-boy which merges into the actual hustler himself dressed in a leather jacket and undressed at the same time. An unzipped travel case (which appears in a lot of Bacon's paintings) appears beside him.

Triptych Inspired by TS Eliot's Poem "Sweeney Agonistes," 1967

Before you go running off to pull down your annotated poems of TS Eliot to make sense of this painting, the title was created by a dealer, not by Bacon himself. Bacon was (amazingly) a fan of Eliot's poetry. What this painting is really about is a furtive and violent sexual encounter between men at a time when that was still a criminal act in British (and American) law. In the side panels we see the lovers, spent with exhaustion in the left panel with lots of cigarette butts on that bed/table. In the right panel, they grapple and merge together in copulation while a figure in the background appears to be calling to complain about the noise or to report the pair to the police.
Significantly, Bacon's paintings of copulating men are based on photos of wrestlers. Like Picasso, Bacon brings out the violence implicit in all sexual desire, and especially the violence (real and imaginary) of sex between men. The center panel shows an apparent bloody aftermath with the open travel bag. Perhaps this was a tryst that ended in robbery, assault, and maybe murder. The sexual encounters in all of Bacon’s work are furtive anonymous trysts. They always take place in a cheap hotel room under harsh electric light. There is always an air of menace and threat in Bacon's paintings, which adds both anxiety and the thrill of risk.

Study for a Portrait, 1953

Bacon's scariest paintings, in my opinion, are a series of dark portraits of an anonymous middle aged man in a blue suit, all from 1953. The man is shown seated in what appears to be an office at night or in a dark hotel room. Sometimes, he sits on a bed as in this painting. They were painted at the height of legal crackdowns on gay men on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1950s. The man in the blue suit alternates in roles between a harsh relentless power figure who views us as an insect specimen to be pinned to the wall, or even more frighteningly, as a potentially predatory sex partner. The terror of these paintings is the cop/employer/ bureaucrat/ priest as preying mantis.

These paintings are all based on lived experience. Bacon hustled in his youth, and in his later years was attracted to men from the outer fringes of society who stole, sold and took drugs, and hustled. Many times over the course of his life, he emerged bruised and bloodied from sexual encounters that began or ended in fights.
In Bacon’s work, even at its scariest and most violent, there is real passion for life. The only other artist I can think of who turned alienation and suffering into a real rage to live was David Wojnarowicz. In Bacon’s work, there is the thrill of going through the slaughterhouse of history and coming out alive at the other end. He lived through 2 World Wars and 2 periods of postwar shortages and hardship. He survived disinheritance, poverty, and brutality. That was better than a lot people in those years.

I love Bacon's work. He was one of the truly great painters of the last half of the 20th century as far as I'm concerned. He was long frowned on by American critics convinced that reduction and abstraction were Destiny. Most American critics from the 1950s and 60s like Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg were ex-Marxists who brought that Marxist sense of ideological history with them into their criticism. What to do with such an anarchist like Bacon? Like a lot of artists, he didn't fit into the script.
After the seeing the show, I went back to my studio and made that painting of Theseus and Procrustes even bloodier.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Promise Them the Moon, But Give Them a Walmart Discount Card

Barack Obama defends DOMA.


Before we rip down our Obama posters, Toujoursdan points out that there may be less to this story than we think.

Is there Such a Thing as "Just" Discrimination?

Simon Sarmiento over at Thinking Anglicans posted a fine discussion of this issue, raised by the Roman Catholic Church and other churches over Britain's proposed new Anti-discrimination Laws.

I hear complaints about "political correctness" and Affirmative Action all the time.   And yet, I hear few complaints about legacy admissions and old boy networks that are the enduring  systems of "affirmative action" for white men.  The most famous beneficiary of those systems is the former President GW Bush.  How many sheet metal workers, or their children, could get into Harvard or Yale with a C average?
I knew a young man who graduated from Columbia with honors, and who was definitely not from a privileged background (father was a mentally ill Vietnam vet, mother was a Mexican cleaning lady), who always said that about a third of all the students at Columbia were there only because their parents could pay the tuition bill and pull strings.  That story is probably true at most prestigious universities.

Until those old systems of entrenched privilege are eliminated from academic and professional life, complaints about "affirmative action" will continue to fall on my deaf ears.

No one chooses the circumstances into which they are born.  The playing field of opportunity is not, and never was, level.  As far as I am concerned, the only permissible discrimination is the self-selection of merit and character.  Everything else is just so much arbitrary privilege.  I think it's a safe bet that 3/4 of the world's ruling elite only won the lottery.  

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Traditionally Intolerant Are All Alike

I used to get yelled at over in the comments section of Father Jake's old blog every time I compared conservative Christianity to conservative Islam and found them to be similar.  People would be just outraged that I could possibly draw such a comparison.  Well, now that the Christianist fringe is going all violent, maybe the comparison is not that far-fetched.  Both Christianists and Islamists hate Western liberalism.  Both have an obsessive terror of female sexuality.  Both are very freaked at the appearance of feminism, and its fellow movement, gay emancipation, and the direct challenge of both to traditional gender roles and understandings about sexuality.  Both Christianism and Islamism insist upon very exact and legalist interpretations of their faith.  Both believe in an apocalypse that will exterminate all of their enemies, and leave them in sole possession of the world as God's darlings.

Listen to this report from the NPR program "Tell Me More" about a Muslim woman journalist (a close friend of the late Daniel Perle) who had a child while unmarried, and who came back from the Haj to Mecca determined to challenge the traditional segregation of the sexes in mosques, starting with her own congregation in Morgantown, West Virginia (men and women pray together as equals in Mecca before the Kaaba).  The resistance, the bitter feelings, the arguments that she encountered sounded very familiar to this Episcopalian.

The White Man's Last Stand

Frederic Remington, Defending the Waterhole, 1903

Charles Schreyvogel, Defending the Stockade, 1905

There is a surge in Right Wing violence. We saw it yesterday in the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and last week in the murder of Dr. Tillman, and in other recent incidents.  Indeed, we were warned that such a surge in right wing extremist violence would happen by no less than the Department of Homeland Security in a recent report which Republican Congressmen forced the department to withdraw and publicly apologize for (which the Obama Administration did, adding to my fears that they are just more spineless Democrats, quavering in the face of corporate power and right wing intimidation, and  capitulating at every challenge).
There certainly is a long history of left wing violence in this country, but it pales in comparison to the frequency and death toll from right wing violence.  The largest and deadliest single act of domestic terrorism, the Oklahoma City bombing, was a right wing attack.

As we saw in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, conservative and right wing people are not necessarily violent, nor do they in any way endorse such violence.  Timothy McVeigh died convinced (wrongly it turns out) that white right America was secretly with him, and that his death would spark the Blanco Reconquista.   On the contrary, those same white right folk drank toasts to his execution.  Most of the violence is the creation of paranoid obsessives who would stand out in any ideological camp.

And yet, that violence does not spring from the earth sui generis.  It comes out of a set of very deeply rooted myths that go way back in American history, and still have a powerful hold on a lot of people (including members of my family).   There is a whole series of myths around the idea of embattled white people with their backs against the wall, facing inundation by the swarthy hordes.  It is that old story of the conqueror identifying with the conquered.  It is the powerful nightmare of the conqueror; all that they did to others will be done to them.  Almost all of those myths revolve around the conquest of the West; or more accurately, around the memory of that conquest long after it was over. 

The Western artists at the beginning of the 20th century did much to shape that memory.  I illustrate 2 of the best known above.  They both show a story line that abounds in this type of art, the cowboy or the frontier soldier making their brave last stand against Indians, bandits, or the elements.  All of these compositions are variations in one form or another of Custer's Last Stand.  We are always there with Our Heroes in the menaced and shrinking bunker.  The Indians are always in the distance shooting at us, or coming over the stockade to kill us.  Victory is uncertain.  In fact, a sense of doom pervades these pictures. 

These paintings were made when the conquest of the West was long over, and significantly, at the height of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.  The real history of the conquest and settlement of the West is very complex and full of crime and cruelty as are all episodes of conquest.  Artists and writers reshaped that complicated and problematic history into a kind of heroic Arcadia of manly virtue.  The myth of Manifest Destiny worked more powerfully in memory than it did during the actual westward expansion.  It absolved the conqueror of guilt.  In a parody of Calvinist Predestination, it was believed that the western wilderness was pre-ordained by God as the home for His true Chosen People, Caucasian Protestants.  The people who actually lived there for millennia, the Indian nations, were simply considered part of the wilderness that had to be cleared.  Every ordeal and hardship of western settlement became in memory the Lord's refining fire.  Those who survived and prospered were the refined gold, they had endured and prevailed in the harsh tests from the Lord.  The cowboy, who in reality was a badly paid, despised, and exploited drudge (and almost half of that workforce was Black), became in memory the paragon of Caucasian manliness, braving the wilderness to claim what God had given him.  That so many early cowboys were Southern whites who lost everything in the Civil War fed the idea of Western conquest as the redemption of defeated Southern manhood.

Remington and Schreyvogel painted these pictures with passionate conviction.  They intended their audience to project their own anxieties over extending the franchise to labor and immigrants onto these paintings.  Remington was a true believing racist and xenophobe.  He wrote, "Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns!  rubbish of the earth...  I've got some Winchesters, and when the massacring begins I can get my share of them, and what's more I will!"

The Western myth is at the heart of so much American identity politics, and still has a very powerful hold on the imaginations of many.  The reason why there has never been an effective Left in this country is for one reason, race.  No one has played identity politics more successfully over the decades than the American plutocracy.  The easiest way to break a strike and destroy a union for decades was to bring in a busload of desperate Black scab workers.  After the race riot was over, the owner could be assured of a docile workforce.   Organized labor did not begin to have much success or influence in the USA until it self-segregated.  Birmingham, Alabama, a city notorious for its violent resistance to the Civil Rights movement, was a heavily unionized city. 

In my experience, those myths that fail all tests of evidence, reason, and virtue are the ones that people cling to most tenaciously.  The Western Conquest myth does not stand up to evidence, is implausible, and is arguably very harmful to others and to those who believe in it.  It is at the heart of so much racist thinking.  Commonplace bigotry, aided an abetted by some very wrong headed religious fanaticism, gets magnified into apocalyptic visions of divinely ordained supremacy.  Those notions are exacerbated by economic hardship and downward mobility. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I'll Bet Our State Legislature is More Dysfunctional Than Yours

There used to be an old joke in Texas about a reporter who was asked if he had ever covered a crime scene.  "Yes," he replied, "I covered the Texas Legislature for years."

You could say the same about Albany, especially about that corrupt boys club that passes for a legislature.  Monday, in a coup engineered by Rochester billionaire Tom Gollisano, 2 Democratic Senators crossed party lines and signed up with the Republican coalition.  The state Senate, controlled by Democrats for only 70 days after more than 40 years of Republican domination, is now back in Republican hands.  The 2 Democrats who flipped are particular standouts in that rogues' gallery of the state Senate.  Pedro Espada is under investigation for multiple campaign irregularities and corruption, accused of moving state funds into his own charitable organizations.  Hiram Monseratte of Queens faces assault charges, accused of slashing his girlfriend with a piece of broken glass.  Espada is now Senate president, which means he would effectively be the governor if Governor Patterson leaves the state or becomes ill.

Gay marriage is not the only thing in the state legislature that is now on indefinite hold.  Now, almost all the business of the state is held up until this is resolved.

Gay Israelis Press For Marriage Rights

Some couples plan to "marry" at the annual Tel Aviv gay pride rally.  Tel Aviv has had gay pride rallies for years.  Jerusalem started having rallies only a few years ago with heavy police and military protection, and menacing crowds of religious fanatics counter-protesting.

I've never been to Israel, but from what travelers and Israelis themselves tell me, it's a deeply divided country.  The majority of the population lives along the coast, and is quite secular, about as secular as Scandinavia.  About 30% of the population is very pious, some militantly so, especially those in the settler movement.  What adds to the deep mutual resentment between the pious and the secular populations is that most ultra-orthodox are exempt from military service.

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are not only different cities, but different worlds.  I remember one Israeli friend years ago telling me that Jerusalem is so soaked in religious associations that it literally drives people mad.  Supposedly there is a hospital in Jerusalem that specializes in treating "Jerusalem Syndrome," the madness induced by the city's religious charisma.  Friends tell me that there is a whole wing of that hospital for people who think they are Christ. My friend David Kaplan, who is seriously religious though not a fanatic, found the city to be too much.  After a day praying at various religious sites, he had had enough and went back to his hotel and watched Simpsons reruns.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

American Idiot

Here it is, the official anthem of America's Dirty Fuckin' Hippies:

I must admit that I like Chumbawamba a little better, but this is great for those times when George Will, Cokie Roberts, and Andrew Sullivan are on the teevee telling me to respect my Betters. It sure beats throwing things at the teevee.