Friday, August 31, 2012

Bad Outcomes

Michael Moore recently predicted that after Election Day, we will have President Romney.  And he has a point.  The Romney and Republican voters are mostly old folk who always vote.  Obama's supporters are mostly minority and younger voters who rarely vote.  Republican voters are out for blood this year.  Democratic voters are mostly disappointed.  The Republicans have lots and lots and lots of money to buy air time and to control the terms of the debates and the reporting.  Obama is the first incumbent President in history to be at a disadvantage in funding.

It may all come down to turnout and spending money.  Remember that Nixon won a very narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968 by spending a lot of money of lavishly produced TV ads.

Even now, these remain remarkably well done commercial spots.  They cost a lot of money, and they may well have done the trick to make an infamously bitter and vindictive Richard Nixon appear like a saving statesman, and win the 1968 race.

Mitt Romney isn't nearly as bright or as tested as Nixon was, but he does not have Nixon's considerably worse "likability" problem.  With the Citizens United decision opening the flood gates to torrents of unregulated and unaccountable anonymous money,  an intelligent and lavishly produced TV and Internet campaign could make a privileged non-entity like Romney into Winston Churchill.

Michael Moore may have been trying to deliberately scare the progressive base into action, but he may also have been making a serious prediction.  Romney is currently slightly behind in the polls, but not by much.  It might not take a lot to close the distance, and he has 2 months to do it.

As bad as a big Republican win would be, I think what might be worse is a repeat of the 2000 Election.  Another President chosen by a 5 - 4 majority of the Supreme Court would be a disaster.  It could happen.  The country is at its most polarized since the Vietnam War, and there are few undecided voters this year. Romney would likely be the beneficiary of such an outcome, but an Obama "win" by such means would severely, perhaps fatally, weaken his position for a second term, and put a real cloud of doubt over the legitimacy of his presidency to replace the imaginary one in right wing paranoid fantasy.

Expect the Republicans to govern like they won a landslide if they win, and to use their win to vindicate themselves on all their enemies, real and imagined.  Expect the Right to be even crazier and to resort to violence and sedition if they lose.  Expect Progressives to withdraw into impotence and sulk if they lose.

I think Michael Moore rightly points out that our federal and state governments are becoming less and less truly representative as the electorate continues to shrink and to age, a process that can only benefit Republicans despite a country whose larger population is rapidly becoming younger and more diverse.

My Convention Speech

Thursday, August 30, 2012

News Flash!!

I'm not watching the Republican Beach Party down in Tampa, not any of it.  I'm blacking out the news until Monday because it's about nothing but the Tampa Bash.

I'm a gay man with a partner of 9 years.  I'm a public employee and a union member.  I'm an artist.  And I live up here in Sodom-By-The-Hudson.  The folks gathering in Tampa don't even consider me human, let alone a "real American."  So why should I waste my time watching a party that repeatedly likes to remind me that I'm not welcome?

What "Post Racial America?"

I've long argued that what is driving all the craziness on the right is the terror of demographic change.  By the middle of the century, the USA will no longer be a white majority country.  This prospect terrifies some people.  President Obama is the living embodiment of that change, provoking disproportionate and even hysterical animosity from some quarters.  A President whose views and policies are to the right of President Eisenhower (and even to the right of some of Nixon's policies) is painted to look like a wild eyed bomb throwing radical.

President Obama is the first black President.  It would be disingenuous in the extreme to say that his race plays no role in current political struggles.

Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic recently wrote an outstanding essay on the President and race.  You can read it here.  It is a thoughtful passionate essay with a very personal and moving conclusion.

  The central conflict of American history is over just who gets to be included in those opening three words of the Constitution.  Who are "The People" in "We the People...?"  President Obama triumphantly and tragically incarnates that central struggle.


Here's a sample from Coates' essay:
Michael Tesler, following up on his research with David Sears on the role of race in the 2008 campaign, recently published a study assessing the impact of race on opposition to and support for health-care reform. The findings are bracing. Obama’s election effectively racialized white Americans’ views, even of health-care policy. As Tesler writes in a paper published in July in The American Journal of Political Science, “Racial attitudes had a significantly greater impact on health care opinions when framed as part of President Obama’s plan than they had when the exact same policies were attributed to President Clinton’s 1993 health care initiative.”

While Beck and Limbaugh have chosen direct racial assault, others choose simply to deny that a black president actually exists. One in four Americans (and more than half of all Republicans) believe Obama was not born in this country, and thus is an illegitimate president. More than a dozen state legislatures have introduced “birther bills” demanding proof of Obama’s citizenship as a condition for putting him on the 2012 ballot. Eighteen percent of Republicans believe Obama to be a Muslim. The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.

White resentment has not cooled as the Obama presidency has proceeded. Indeed, the GOP presidential-primary race featured candidates asserting that the black family was better off under slavery (Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum); claiming that Obama, as a black man, should oppose abortion (Santorum again); or denouncing Obama as a “food-stamp president” (Newt Ging­rich).


Speaking of racially charged politics, a federal court just threw out Texas' voter ID law, one of the most restrictive in the nation.  The court agreed with the Justice Department bringing the suit saying it was nothing more than a poll tax by another name and a transparent attempt to disenfranchise poor, minority, and young voters.  The AG of the State of Texas vows to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Isaac Comes to New Orleans

Thinking of folks down in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast in the path of Isaac.

 Hoping for the best.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


"No one believes that they are evil." -- Terry Anderson (former hostage)

Odilon Redon, "It is the Devil..."  lithograph, 1888

Evil is one of those things that is impossible to explain, and yet we all know it when it comes up and bites a pound of flesh out of us.

Regular readers of this blog know that I describe myself as an agnostic believer.  I believe less because I'm convinced and more because I want to.  Like all good moderns, I am very uncomfortable with the supernatural.  Like all good agnostics, I don't take a firm position one way or the other as to whether the supernatural exists.  I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

I've never been comfortable with the idea of evil as something spiritual, as something metaphysical.  I'm sympathetic to the old 19th century liberal theologians who wanted to "domesticate" the supernatural and who confined evil to the realm of the material and the human.  And yet, I recognize the limitations of this argument, the implicit folly that evil can somehow be eradicated through improved education and better hygiene.

I draw a clear distinction between what is evil and what is sin.  Sin is the inevitable shortcomings and foibles of being mortal.  No one is perfect, and certainly no one is perfectly good.  By the same token, I don't believe that anyone is perfectly evil either (though some have come very close).  Everyone of us at some point in our lives ends up hurting those around us, usually many times.   But few of us set out to deliberately prey upon our neighbors, and even fewer of us make a career out of it.  The truly evil, like the truly good, are always small in number, but always enough to do great harm and cause much sorrow.

I'm reluctant to ascribe evil to nature.  Nature is indifferent to us.  It isn't malicious.  Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, crocodiles, disease, etc. are impersonal natural phenomena.  They kill us because we are in their way or because we are food, not because they hate us.

I don't believe in karma.  What goes around does not always come around.  I don't believe people are necessarily responsible for the misfortunes that befall them, in this life or in a previous life.  Shit happens, and it doesn't mean a damn thing except that we are mortal.

I don't believe in Original Sin.  I don't believe in some taint that we all inherit at our birth that makes us God's enemies.  I suppose my position is closer to Eastern Orthodox teaching that the consequence of the Fall was death, not some spiritual congenital defect.  We inherited the consequences of the Fall, not its guilt.  (*Please note, I do not believe in the Adam and Eve story as literal history).

Most of all, I am not a Manichean.  I don't believe that the struggle between good and evil is an even match and that the outcome is in any doubt.  I grew up in a fundamentalist region that definitely was Manichean, and where the outcome was always in doubt.  Folks I grew up with took the Hollywood depictions of demonic possession and the devil very seriously. Their world swarmed with demons and malevolent spirits.  They saw the world as a great battleground between the forces of God and the Devil's legions, and victory was never assured.

Like St. Augustine, I'm reluctant to give evil any positive definition.

So what do you think?

Is there a metaphysical dimension to evil?  Is evil a spiritual power?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Farewell Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong died today at age 82.

We forget sometimes that the whole success of the first moon landing depended on Armstrong's skilled and courageous piloting. The landing could have ended in disaster. Armstrong landed the craft successfully with only seconds worth of fuel left.

Thanks for one of the best and most exciting moments in my life and in the lives of millions of others.  Thanks for being so brave and for pushing out so far the limits of what is possible.  Thanks for Everything.  Rest in Peace.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Republicans and Their Little Wimmins Problem

As Grandmere Mimi and other bloggers so ably point out, Congressman Akin is not quite so exceptional in his views on women's issues.  The little darlins need a man to make these important decisions for them, bless their delicate little hearts.  We certainly can't leave it to the wimmins by themselves to make important decisions about having babies.
And in a masterstroke of bad timing, the Republican platform committee in Tampa takes exceptions for rape and incest out of the anti-abortion plank.  That's right girls, the Republicans say you have to carry your rapist's baby or your daddy's baby.

I doubt the Todd Akin gaffe will make much of a difference to Missouri voters.  Those few offended by his remarks will probably stay home rather than vote for Claire McCaskill.  Before the gaffe, Akin was leading McCaskill in the Senate race.  He's still leading but by a much diminished margin.  Akin could turn this to his advantage.  Politics these days is about tribal warfare more than anything.  Policy differences and competing interests have little to do with politics anymore, and reason and decency got left behind a long time ago.  He could take the spectacle of the Dems on the warpath, and the Republican Establishment demanding he quit and say to his constituents, "Look at these coastal elite snobs demanding my scalp!  The same people who look down their noses at you and despise you are now after me!"  This appeal may well work with people frightened by demographic and cultural change, who feel increasingly shut out and resentful.  Stroking people's resentments can be a winning ticket to political success.  Just ask Richard Nixon.

The Akin gaffe could well be a great "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" moment that lifts the lid off the obsessive misogyny that drives so much right wing politics these days.  That desire to write misogyny into law goes hand in hand with the increasingly extreme antifeminism of religious fundamentalists and right wingers of all types.

Probably those most likely to be motivated and get out and vote will be not only women, but even more so, parents with daughters.  They want full citizenship, full freedom and dignity for their daughters with no exceptions.  They do not want to see their children's futures compromised to accommodate the backwards views of powerful men who still regard women as chattel and holy men who still think of women as whores.

What Happens In Vegas Stays In Vegas

... unless you happen to have a cell phone camera.  Prince Harry out of uniform is going more viral than influenza this morning, and we're doing our part here at Counterlight Plaza.

Let the "crown jewels" jokes commence!  Grandma must be fuming.

Who knew 20 years ago that Harry would turn out to be the looker?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


The Watergate scandal broke 40 years ago this summer.  The discovery that the Nixon administration was behind a "third rate burglary" of Democratic Party offices would lead to the first and only Presidential resignation in American history.

What was the lesson learned?  The commentariat solemnly pontificates away about the rule of law and constitutional constraints, but the real lesson learned was "don't get caught."

The Iran-Contra scandal 14 years later was far more serious.  It was an act of high treason intended to circumvent Congress and the law in order to fund a right wing insurgency in left wing ruled Nicaragua by selling arms to the very hostile regime in Iran.  In another country in another age, all those responsible would have hanged.  In 1986, the whole affair was successfully "managed," a brilliant work of damage control that bullied Congress and law enforcement agencies into whimpering impotence and transformed Oliver North, a man who sold arms to our sworn enemies and destroyed evidence, into a national hero.  Success proved to be its own justification.

And now we live in a grotesque brutalized world where we are presented with a choice between two different kinds of savagery:  the nihilism of international market capitalism, or the tribalism of religious fundamentalism and ideological politics.  And while we all gleefully cut each others throats, those who fixed the game are quietly saying "dance puppets!"

Monday, August 20, 2012

Leaving New York Harbor

Leaving New York on a big boat is an experience I've had a number of times before, but this time, I had my trusty little digital camera and perfect weather.   New York may not be a beautiful city like San Francisco or Venice, but it is a grand and magnificent city; "The Great Rome or all who lost or hated home," wrote WH Auden, one of New York City's former residents.  Leaving or approaching the city by sea presents the city at its grandest.   One of the world's great architectural spectacles surrounds New York Harbor, and the best vantage point to see it is by boat.

These are all pictures from my camera.  Michael took some of these.  I took others.

Michael and I about to embark for a weekend in St John, New Brunswick on board the Carnival Glory.

The dock from which we left

The Empire State Building from the ship

Michael watching Manhattan pass by.

The Empire State Building with the Chelsea Piers, a popular sports and recreation center, in the foreground

The unfinished 1 World Trade Center

The new World Trade Center, towers 1 and 4, with the World Financial Center, the glass vault of the Winter Garden, and Battery Park City in the foreground

The Battery and the Financial District's towers from the Harbor

The East River bridges, the Brooklyn in front, then the Manhattan, and the Williamsburg is the furthest.

The Verrazano Bridge with the Staten Island Ferry

Passengers watching the Statue of Liberty go by

Ms. Liberty from the ship

Looking back from the Verrazano Bridge;  Jersey City is on the left, Manhattan in the center, and the East River and Brooklyn to the right.

The Brooklyn tower of the Verrazano Bridge, the city's biggest and most recent suspension bridge, completed in 1964.

Traffic on the upper and lower levels of the Verrazano Bridge

Passing under the Verrazano Bridge; from our vantage point, it looked like we barely cleared the bridge, but the Queen Mary II and air craft carriers like the John F. Kennedy, much larger boats than ours, pass under this bridge all the time.

Looking back to Manhattan, Bay Ridge Brooklyn is in the foreground.

Coney Island

Coney Island

Further out to sea, looking back at the towers of Manhattan with the Rockaways in the foreground

A container ship with the setting sun and our last view of Manhattan on the horizon

Our last glimpse of Manhattan before the sun sets and the towers disappear below the horizon; it is remarkable how far out to sea these towers are visible.

Finally, the open Atlantic and the setting sun

I remember the first time I visited New York in 1982, I climbed to the top of Ms. Liberty's crown just to see the Atlantic Ocean, which I'd never seen before.  All I saw was Red Hook in Brooklyn.  Now, I've flown over and sailed upon that ocean many times.  I crossed it by ship once.  I've seen it now numerous times, and I never cease to marvel at it.

On the way up to Canada, dolphins escorted us part of the way.

On the way back from Canada, Michael and I saw a whole pod of whales spouting and leaping and splashing their flukes as we passed.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

But Before I Go ...

There is a new argument out there by political philosophy professor Michael Sandel questioning the all pervasiveness of market values these days.  Maybe, he suggests, that mercenary motives have limitations.  We live in an era of market triumphalism and seem to be making a transition from a market economy to a market society where the structures and motivations of the market shape moral decisions.

He talks about this in the wake of the Citizens United decision that equated money with free speech.

Michael Sandel asks, where do we draw the line?  If the profit motive is always good, if public enterprise is always bad and private enterprise is always good (according to the conventional wisdom), then why not buy and sell votes?  Since so few people vote regularly, then why shouldn't a non-voter be able to sell her vote?  Why not buy and sell public office?  Why not a kind of shareholder democracy where people could buy votes and influence like company shares? Why have a citizen military when we could have an entirely mercenary "privatized" military?  We already have a privatized prison system in many states, and there are those who want to do away with public education entirely.  Why not privatize all the public functions of government? 

So, all you free marketeers out there (and I know you're out there), where do you draw the line?  Or do you draw a line?


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On A Little Trip

The SS United States leaving New York sometime in the late 1940s

Michael and I are taking a short little trip tomorrow.  We are taking a 4 day cruise to St. John, New Brunswick.  We will be back on Monday.  August in New York is best spent somewhere else, and this what we could afford in time and money this year.  I look forward very much to the much needed bit of R and R no matter how short the duration.  We've been to St. Johns before, a lovely town.  Instead of a big shore excursion, we'll probably just go ashore to have lunch in the town this time.

For my cruise read, I picked Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.  I know nothing about it other than the critics swooned over it when it came out, and Oprah featured it in her book club.

I have some blog projects in mind, and a lot of continuing and unfinished blog projects remain.  However, blogging may be light this fall.  I expect to be very busy from September through January, but maybe I'll make some time.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Social Darwinists: "We're Back!"

Time to cull the herd.

Herbert Spencer
"The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many "in shallows and in miseries," are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence." 

Francis Galton

"One of the effects of civilization is to diminish the rigour of the application of the law of natural selection. It preserves weakly lives that would have perished in barbarous lands." 
 "I HAVE no patience with the hypothesis occasionally expressed, and often implied, especially in tales written to teach children to be good, that babies are born pretty much alike, and that the sole agencies in creating differences between boy and boy, and man and man, are steady application and moral effort. It is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretensions of natural equality. The experiences of the nursery, the school, the University, and of professional careers, are a chain of proofs to the contrary."
Hereditary Genius (1869; 2005), p. 56

"There is a steady check in an old civilisation upon the fertility of the abler classes: the improvident and unambitious are those who chiefly keep up the breed. So the race gradually deteriorates, becoming in each successive generation less fit for a high civilisation."
Hereditary Genius (1869), p. 414

William Graham Sumner

"A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be...The law of survival of the fittest was not made by man, and it cannot be abrogated by man.  We can only, by interfering with it, produce the survival of the unfittest."
--- William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883)

And finally from Cornelius Vanderbilt, the alleged model for Nathaniel Taggert in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:
"What do I care about law? Ain't I got the power?"

This Nazi poster from 1938 translates "60,000 Marks is what this person suffering a hereditary disease costs society.  Comrades, that is your money too!  Read The New Race"

From Gustave Dore's London, A Pilgrimage

 "The same sun which never set on the Empire never rose on the dark alleys of East London" -- Will Crook, a 19th century Labour MP educated in the workhouse

Lewis Hine, Child Laborer in a Textile Mill, 1908

Sunday, August 12, 2012

More Design Changes for the WTC

The Port Authority issued new renderings last Wednesday with some significant changes.  Kenneth Snelson's spire has been discarded entirely.  Instead, there will be just a basic broadcast mast.  The architects are furious, and there is now some doubt whether the building would qualify to be the tallest in the USA.  Some authorities in the whole highest building contest do not count antennae as part of the building's height.  With the mast, the building's height remains 1,776 feet.  Without it, that height is considerably reduced.  The official explanation of the decision was something that had to do with construction safety.  No one apparently believes it, and the changes are mostly seen as cost-cutting.  The Willits/Sears Tower in Chicago may well be safe.

There are changes as well to the design of the base, but they do nothing to soften its brutality, only simplify its shape.  The tapered corners are now eliminated.

In these new renderings, Buildings 2 and 3 are conspicuously absent.  They are currently under construction, but will rise no higher than their bases until enough tenants sign leases to make their construction worthwhile.

 Here is the current design for #1.  The spire is now a broadcast mast, and the tapered corners on the base are now eliminated.

The World Trade Center has evolved from a golden opportunity to build a great one for the ages to history's largest monument to actuarial calculation.

The Genius of Ayn Rand ...

... was her ability to persuade the rentier class that they are productive and necessary, and that they are entitled to rule.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Sixties

A yoga class in Aspen, Colorado, 1969

Wagner Park in Aspen Colorado, 1969

It is said that if you remember the Sixties, then you weren’t really there.  I should point out that I wasn’t really there.  I was a kid living in suburban Texas during the whole period of The Sixties.  As far as I was concerned, The Sixties was something that happened on tee vee that made no discernable impact upon the environment I lived in.  My first tangible contacts with The Sixties came as they were ending and after they were over.  Our annual summer family road trip in 1969 took us to Aspen, Colorado, to the ski lodge my grandparents still owned at the time.  We arrived in an Aspen crowded with hippies.  Their VW vans parked everywhere, and there were always 10 frisbees in the air at any one time in the parks.  I remember the wool ponchos, the jeans, the long hair, and the bare feet black with dirt. My parents were appalled.  Eleven year old me was horrified … and a little intrigued.  I had older cousins who joined the hippies in Aspen.  Later in life, I had a good friend who was a serious hippy in those days, long before I knew him.  In his teens and early twenties, he regularly hitchhiked from his home in St. Louis to San Francisco to join friends in the Haight.  I had friends later in life that went through the Vietnam War at about the same time.  One of them joined the Navy hoping to avoid combat.  He ended up on river patrol in the Mekong Delta and told some horrific stories.  Another one I knew whose major passion in life was German literature, found himself snapped up by the draft after he earned his master’s, and right in the middle of the Tet Offensive.  He never talked about his wartime experiences and never recovered from them.  He never achieved that academic career and the scholar’s life he long wanted, though he never lost his passion for German literature.

By the time I came of age, and discovered The Sixties, the counter-culture, the anti-war movement, etc. were all coming to an end, and the long reaction against them was beginning.  Those my age who shared my interests were very few and thoroughly marginalized.  Most of the rest of Texas suburban kids I knew shared the conviction of their parents, that the turmoil and violence of the Sixties vindicated the Conventional Order.  Like French conservatives during the Bourbon Restoration of 1814 – 1830, they fully expected a return to the status quo ante as if nothing had happened.  Their expectation of restoration turned out to be as frustrated as my expectation of revolution.

Jefferson Airplane poster;  I confess a certain fondness for these old psychedelic posters.  Art Nouveau and Symbolist designs redone in Dayglo colors

The Sixties was a revolution.  It was not the political revolution many expected.  As a political revolution it was a total failure.  The people who own and run the United States now are the same people who have always owned and run it.  No real power changed hands.  The Sixties was a profound social and cultural revolution that dramatically altered people’s expectations out of life down to the present day and far into the future.  During the 1960s, the Victorian era and its cultural legacy finally ended in the USA.  That culture ended in Europe much earlier with the First World War.

Alexis de Tocqueville said that expectation is the spark of revolution.  Indeed, it was expectation that drove the turmoil of The Sixties.  Expectations that were sown in the experience of World War II came to fruition in the 1960s after having lain dormant (though far from dead) in the 1950s.  As in the First World War, African Americans served in the Second World War with distinction and expected an end to segregation as their just and overdue compensation.  After World War I, they returned to violent white resistance and repression in the wave of lynchings and racist violence of the 1920s.  They returned from World War II determined to prevail in the struggle this time around.  When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, everything was ready for the long struggle that followed.  Women entered a workforce with acute manpower shortages created by the war.  They did what was long considered “man’s work,” and they did so quite successfully for high wages, sometimes higher than what their husbands earned.  Many began to feel that baby-raising and housekeeping were not necessarily destiny after all.  Gays and lesbians who long felt isolated and were invisible to each other as much as to society, found each other and discovered their numbers in the wartime mobilization.  Some gay veterans described visiting Paris’ once famous gay nightspots as a transformative experience.  The gay clubs and cabarets of Paris reopened immediately after Liberation and were packed with soldiers dancing with each other, a first glimpse of substantial numbers of men and women who shared their same feelings and the first suggestion of potential political power.
Most veterans after the war wanted to return to some kind of structure and stability after the experiences of combat and dislocation, and welcomed the “normalcy” of the late 1940s and 1950s.  Other veterans had a taste of a larger world and of possibilities in life beyond the conventional expectations of a still very insular United States.  They congregated in port cities like New York and San Francisco and created the first bohemias in the USA since the 1920s.  The Beats created that yearning for freedom, adventure, and authenticity that would be central to the later Counter-Culture.

Expectation may be the spark of revolution, but there is nothing more combustible than frustrated expectation (as the rulers of the Arab world are now finding out).  That same frustrated expectation drove the racial violence of the 1960s, and the later turmoil of the antiwar movement.

Captain Beefheart poster

The now much vilified sexual revolution of the 1960s was perhaps the most far-reaching and profound transformation of the era.  The taboos that surrounded sex in the Victorian era dropped.  People pulled back the curtain, hiked up their dresses, pulled down their pants, and took a good look.  No fault divorce became law in state after state, and with it came a dramatic increase in divorce rates and a corresponding sharp drop in rates of domestic violence.  Pre-marital sex was always more common than people assumed, and now it was no longer secret.  The Pill transformed sex and what people expected from it.  The Pill made it possible for the first time in history for women to control their cycles of fertility, and to have the final and decisive say in the decision to have children.  Biology was no longer destiny.  This opened up worlds of new opportunities for women, and forever changed traditional gender roles.  I suspect that this might have happened in some form even without The Pill.  Since World War II, women pushed ever further outward beyond the roles traditionally assigned to them, even in the face of resistance.  Feminism remains under-rated as a major force in Post World War II history, nationally and internationally.  I strongly suspect that reaction against feminism, and fear of the expectations it creates, drive religious fundamentalist movements around the world.  It was the combination of the inspiration of the Civil Rights Movement and the sexual revolution that dramatically transformed the tiny marginalized movement for homosexual rights into a global popular movement for gay rights in the Stonewall riots of 1969.  Family life will never be the same again.  The old Victorian domestic ideal of the Master of the Castle and the Angel of the Home with silent obedient cherubic children is gone forever.  The family today is more egalitarian and democratic with spouses thinking of themselves as partners sharing the responsibilities of raising children and maintaining the household.  That spouses are two different genders or the same gender hardly matters anymore.  The stability once provided by the clear Victorian hierarchy of pater familias on top of a descending order based on age and gender that safeguards its members against life’s uncertainties was replaced by the home as a less clearly structured and more vulnerable loving community facing the contingencies of life together however imperfectly.

The high culture of the 1960s may have been cool (from formalist criticism to Pop Art), but its popular culture was hotly Romantic.  Thousands upon thousands of young men who never heard of Goethe lived out The Sorrows of Young Werther in The Sixties.  The old Beat idea of life as a never-ending adventure, once confined to a small marginal population, now became the expectation of millions of people.  Those old conventional satisfactions of a comfortable home and happy family were not enough anymore.  People woke up to a modern world full of social and legal constraints that no longer seemed legitimate.  This desire to be absolutely free was anarchic and had a corresponding longing for the authentic in a commercial world where language and imagery were entirely manipulative.  Ironically, the always adaptable culture of commercialism found ways to transform these very deep desires for liberation and authenticity into sales pitches.  The anarchism of the Counter-Culture could also take some very dark turns when people threw off all restraints as Charles Manson reminds us.  This popular culture is still very much with us, though much transformed.  Now everyone is in some measure a heroic outsider.  The grungy jeans from the Army Navy surplus store with a tee shirt tie-dyed in a tub of Ritt Dye look that began as a rejection of consumer culture now comes tailored and costs a fortune in a high end boutique.

We usually associate The Sixties and its counter-cultures with the Left, but it transformed the expectations of the Right as well.  The Romantic hero defying corrupted convention shades easily into Ayn Rand libertarianism and even into far right supremacism.  Ted Nugent’s far right machismo is as far removed from the old 1950s domestic ideal as any group of Vegans in an Occupy encampment.

One of the things that I always admired about the TV drama Madmen was its very original vantage point for looking at The Sixties.  Instead of the usual Vietnam War soldier, Civil Rights protester, or peace activist, the creators of the show chose a Madison Avenue advertising firm.  In a business very sensitive to transformations in popular culture and public expectations, the show took a very clear eyed and somewhat jaundiced view of both the conservative idea of the world before the Sixties as some kind of prelapsarian paradise of social stability, and the left idea of the Sixties as an entirely benevolent transformation.  The show very ably pointed out the pervasive and casual brutality of that ancien regime with its old boy networks and its racism and sexism.   It also demonstrated that while some of the transformations of the era were very brave and full of promise, especially for women and minorities, others opened up new and unexpected opportunities for cynical exploitation and cruelty.  Self-actualization can easily degenerate into selfishness and self-absorption

I know a lot of you out there lived through The Sixties and saw a lot more of it than I did.  What do you remember and what do you think of it now?

Friday, August 10, 2012


The Golden Temple at Amritsar, India

Sympathy and solidarity with the Sikhs of Oak Creek, Wisconsin in their time of loss and grief.

"Aae-i-aa marann dhuraahu houmai roee-ai ||
From the very beginning death is ordained, but egotism causes one to bewail.

Gurmukh naam dhi-aa-e asthir hoee-ai ||1||
By remembering the Name, through the Guru, one becomes eternal. ||1||

Gur poorae saabaas chalan jaan-i-aa||
Blessed is the Perfect Guru, through whom the way of Death is known.

Laahaa naam su saar sabad samaan-i-aa||1|| rehaao ||
The sublime persons earn the profit of the Lord’s Name and in the divine word are absorbed. ||1||Pause||

Poorab likh-ae ddaeh se aa-ae maa-i-aa||
The days of one's life are pre-ordained, they do come to their end, O mother.

Chalan aj ke kaleh dhurahu furamaa-i-aa||2||
One must depart, today or tomorrow, according to the Lord's Primal Order. ||2||

Birthaa janam tinaa jinhee naam visaar-i-aa||
In vain are the lives of those who have forgotten the Lord’s Name.

Jooai khaelan jag ke ehu man haar-i-aa||3||
Playing the game of chance, in this world they lose their soul. ||3||

Jeevan maran sukh hoe jinhaa gur paa-i-aa||
In life and in death peace resides with those who attain their Guru.

Naanak sachae sach sach samaa-i-aa||4||12||64||
O Nanak, the true ones are truly absorbed into the True Lord."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes died yesterday at the age of 74.  He was a writer, and for many years a widely read and controversial art critic for Time magazine, among other publications.  He was originally from Sydney, Australia where he once had ambitions to be an artist.

I know a lot of artists who really didn't like Hughes.  Others artists I knew loved him.  Some thought his views were remarkably bigoted, and he did indeed have a habit of making sweeping pronouncements that he sometimes had to walk back, and also sometimes regretted.  He could be strikingly insensitive when it came to women and gay men.  And yet, as much as he complained about "political correctness," he insisted that the United States was nothing if not multicultural, and that it was always such, to the great irritation of very conservative critics like Hilton Kramer.  Other artists I knew thought his views were remarkably refreshing, and relished his regular skewering of more conventional art criticism.

Like Hilton Kramer, Hughes is considered a conservative art critic, though no one could be more caustic in his criticism of the intersection of the Free Market with Fine Art than him.  Hughes' politics, unlike Kramer's, were not right wing.  He had no illusions about Morning Again in Reagan era America.  If anything, the Reagan years were for him the nadir of the American art industry, when the distortions wrought by easy money, hype, investment mania, greed, and ambition were at their most grotesque.  Hughes kept his distance from the right wing intellectuals over at The New Criterion and The National Review.  Hilton Kramer was one of them.  Hughes was not.

I began reading Hughes' reviews in Time magazine even before my art student days.  He was something most writers about art are not, really fun to read.  He insisted on putting modern and contemporary art into larger contexts of history and meaning, something that is usually the domain of more Marxist critics.  Hughes began writing during the later days of the domination of formalist criticism that insisted on reductivism; everything "extraneous" to pure form was to be ruthlessly purged.  Hughes built his career by challenging those conventional assumptions.  His writing suggested to very young artists like me (and others) a bigger world filled with possibilities beyond the narrow constraints of ideological formalism.
His book The Shock of the New suggested to artists like me a very different way of thinking about modern art, as less about the search for pure and meaningful form, and more about a complex engagement with modern history that was far more interesting and satisfying, and -- unlike the work of  more learned art historians of the time -- accessible.

What made Hughes conservative in the best sense was his insistence that art stick to certain basic criteria that were tried and true throughout history.  Art should keep criteria that were refined by experience, not ideology.  Hughes believed first and foremost that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, not the recipe.  A bad work of art was a bad work of art no matter what kind of critical or historical justification could be concocted for it.  He rejected the aesthetics of failure (as did, surprisingly, that arch-minimalist painter Agnes Martin).

His hero was the great Spaniard Francisco de Goya, the living embodiment of what Hughes believed was best in art:  an authentic vision made powerful and compelling through formal excellence, and an engagement with history, not as ideology, but as witness.  Looking at Goya's best work, it is hard to argue with success.

The Shock of the New began as a series on modern art on the BBC in the 1970s.

What I'm Working On

These are some photographs that I took yesterday with my trusty little digital camera of a painting project I've been working on for some time now.  I'm remaking a series of paintings that I finished more than ten years ago about the artist and writer David Wojnarowicz.  I've posted about that earlier series before.
In this version, I'm making him a little less of a martyr and more of an artist and adventurer.

Some of these paintings are finished and others are not yet.

Painting David.  

I never met the man, but here I am painting him.

The Green Pterodactyl.

David Wojnarowicz was a regular at the West Side piers, a now destroyed ruin that was for decades a gay cruising area.  He painted many works of the walls that were all destroyed when the piers were torn down.  He painted at least one large painting of pterodactyl there.

What Is This Little Guy's Job in the World?

I can never get the colors to come out right whenever I photograph this painting.  I'll have to wait for my professional photographer Steven Bates to get these colors right.

This painting is based on this text by Wojnarowicz:

What is this little guy's job in the world.  If this little guy dies does the world know?   Does the world feel this?  Does something get displaced?  If this little guy dies does the world get a little lighter?  Does the planet rotate a little faster?  If this little guy dies, without his body to shift the currents of air, does the air flow perceptibly faster?  What shifts if this little guy dies?  Do people speak language a little bit differently?  If this little guy dies does some little kid somewhere wake up with a bad dream?  Does an almost imperceptible link in the chain snap?  Will civilization stumble?

Krazy Kat Landscape

This painting is not finished and will undergo a lot of changes.

David Wojnarowicz traveled frequently in the west, usually by hitchhiking or hopping freight trains.  In later years, he drove a motorcycle out to the western desert which he loved.  He said that the desert reminded him of the background landscapes in George Herriman's comic strip Krazy Kat from 1913 to 1944.  Wojnarowicz was a big fan of Krazy Kat, and quoted that cartoon strip frequently in his paintings.

David Acts Up

This painting is also unfinished and still has to go through several changes.

David was active in ACT UP, and took part in many ACT UP actions, including stopping traffic as in this painting.

Here is a life study for a future painting in the series.

Here is the same model, the same pose, in pencil.

My messy studio