Saturday, May 30, 2015

Commencement Season

Farewell to my childhood,
Goodbye to my school,
Dressed like a professor,
I feel like a fool,
My mother is crying,
Dad straightens his tie,
Hello to the future,
I'm only eighteen!
Good bye to my childhood,
Farewell to my school

-- Garrison Keillor

Dr. Ruth Bass, Department Chair, Art and Music, and Yours Truly at Bronx Community College Commencement yesterday.
The weather was mercifully bearable for wearing academic regalia, unlike past years.

And yes, my hat is a little too small.  Next year, I'll remember to order a size 8 instead of a size 7 1/2.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


Whitsunday at Kirchstetten (selection) WH Auden

                           …In the onion tower overhead
    bells clash at the Elevation,
calling on Austria to change: whether the world has improved
    is doubtful, but we believe it could
 and the divine Tiberius didn’t.  Rejoice, the bells
    cry to me. Blake’s Old Nobodaddy
in his astronomic telescopic heaven,
    the Big White Christian upstairs is dead,
and won’t come hazing us no more, nor bless our bombs:
    no more need sons of the menalty
diving their future from plum stones, count aloud
    Army, Navy, Law, Church …

Donatello, Pentecost, from the Pulpit of the Resurrection, 1465, San Lorenzo, Florence

Rainbows Over Ireland

Tara Hill



Skellig Michael (in the distance)

A castle near Cashel

Croagh Patrick



(photo from here)

My kind, loathed and despised pariahs that we've always been down through the ages, won a huge historic victory today in Ireland.

Ireland voted to legalize marriage equality by what appears will be a large margin.  This is the first time ever that marriage equality became the law of the land by referendum.  The turnout for the vote was enormous adding to size and magnitude of the victory.  I expect that this vote signals a sea change for far more than just Ireland.
The Yes forces carried out a brilliant campaign that mobilized thousands of volunteers and really turned out the vote.

This vote is also a stunning rebuke to the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, once an all-powerful institution in that country.  I wonder if this vote would even have come to pass if the Catholic Church's long record of crime against women and children in Ireland had not come to light.  The Catholic hierarchs could not have possibly been handed a more stinging rebuke to their claims of moral authority.  "Bishops who live in glass cathedrals should not throw stones" said one commentator.

And now the most authentic moral voice in Ireland belongs not to an elderly hierarch wearing a cassock and pectoral cross, but to a drag star wearing a wig and heels named Panti Bliss.  Unlike certain ecclesiastic Pharisees, Panti (and so many like her) really did walk that Via Dolorosa (some all the way to its fatal end).

I'm about as Irish as sauerbraten or cassoulet, but I couldn't be prouder of the Irish, or more grateful to them.


It's official!  Yes wins with 62% in the highest voter turnout for an Irish election in 20 years.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


One of my favorite things in the Metropolitan Museum here in New York is this 14th century Japanese Parinirvana showing Buddha dying his last death and entering Nirvana.  The Museum very rarely displays it.  It's not on display now, and I haven't seen it in the original in years.  But, thanks to the magic of digital scanning and the internet age, the Museum has made a high definition reproduction available.

Gautama Buddha died in a forest by the side of the road at the age of about 80 around the year 400 BCE surrounded by his grieving disciples; and according to later legends, the gods, demigods, and creatures of the forest.

The artist contrasts the majestic serenity of the Buddha as he dies his last death with the grieving that surrounds him.  The artist wants us to sympathize with the grieving mourners, but also pokes a certain gentle fun at them.  I love the grieving animals in this picture, especially the hysterically grief stricken elephant on his back kicking up his legs in a tantrum of protest.

There are a lot of beautiful passages in this painting, especially the forest and the night sky.

I'm afraid that I don't know my Buddhist iconography well enough to tell you who all the Bodhisattvas, Arhats, gods, demi-gods, etc. are.

This painting has that sense of sympathy and emotional range that is what's best about Buddhist art from the violent dictatorial Kamakura era of Japan.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Does Liberal Democracy Have a Future?

The liberal state is destined to perish.  All the political experiments of our day are anti-liberal.
--Mussolini in 1932

Robert Kuttner begins his assessment of the relative health and viability of liberal democracy in the pages of The American Prospect with this quote and points out that we could say the same thing today.

The world's largest economy today is China, a country that is anything but liberal or democratic.  The Chinese, beginning with Deng Xiaoping, discovered to the delight of autocrats everywhere that liberal democracy is not necessary for a flourishing market economy, contrary to generations of received wisdom declaring that capitalism and democracy necessarily belong together.

The United States, the world's first constitutional democracy, is now a democracy in name only and an oligarchy in all but name.  Low turn-out elections in heavily gerrymandered districts is not democracy but a fig leaf.  A bitterly divided and increasingly disenchanted and resigned electorate gives its active assent through the vote, and its passive assent by staying home on election day, as an increasingly powerful small moneyed class effectively purchases a new government more to its liking.

Europe endures lingering economic crisis and austerity policies.  Those problems together with identity crises and resentments caused by immigration create a dramatic rebirth of far right, and even racist, politics.

Religious fundamentalists and nationalist fanatics of all kinds everywhere openly attack Enlightenment era ideas central to the modern constitutional state, and not just the liberal democratic state.  Tribal identity counts above all else for both the fundamentalist and the nationalist.  Their worst enemy is liberal cosmopolitanism.  They reserve their worst wrath and hatred for those groups that they perceive to have benefitted from liberalism (e.g. gays and lesbians, Jews, women, racial and ethnic minorities, etc.)  Daesh's openly genocidal crusade is only the most extreme manifestation of this violent and radical anti-liberalism, but it is certainly not the only one.

Freedom and Dignity for all as a birthright will only survive if we believe that Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite mean much more than an inscription over the door of a French post office.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen written by the Marquis de Lafayette with assistance from Thomas Jefferson

Friday, May 8, 2015

Berlin 1945

The Second World War ended in Europe seventy years ago this weekend.

Below are a couple of extraordinary color films of Berlin.

The first is a German government film made in 1935 urging German citizens to visit Berlin during the coming 1936 Olympics.

The second is a film made sometime in the summer of 1945 shortly after the war ended.
Almost all of the same places that appeared in the first film are here too ten years (and a million miles of history) later.  The apocalyptic destruction is breathtaking; miles and miles of ruined and burned buildings.  What is doubly amazing is that there was anyone still living in all that silent devastation.

 An extraordinary photograph of the inside of the Führerbunker in the garden of the Reichskanzlei in Berlin in 1945 by William Vandivert.  The inside was burned by SS troops and looted by Soviet soldiers.  Vandivert was the first Westerner allowed inside the captured bunker where Hitler, his mistress Eva Braun, and Goebels with his entire family died by their own hands.

Another photograph by William Vandivert of the ruined Reichskanzlei.  While Soviet artillery pummeled the nearby Reichstag building, gunners mostly spared the Chancellery.  Stalin wanted to take Hitler alive and so ordered his advancing soldiers to redirect their fire.

 A photograph by Frank Ramage from the summer of 1945 showing Berliners towing their surviving possessions looking for a place to live.

Another photo that I think is by Frank Ramage, though I'm not sure, showing boys and girls playing in the Spree River near the bombed out ruins of the Reichstag.

For much of its history, Berlin was known as a free-wheeling libertine cosmopolitan city famous for its nightlife; its cabarets and roof-top parties.  Religious minorities from Huguenots to Jews found refuge in a once famously tolerant city.  Since the early 19th century Berlin was famous/notorious for its tolerance of homosexuality.  The tolerant, and even indulgent, attitude of Berlin and its police encouraged the largest, most varied, and most famous gay subculture in Europe for almost a century drawing men and women from all over the continent and beyond.  It is no accident that the word 'homosexual' was coined in Berlin, and the very idea of homosexuality as an identity along with the very first political movements for gay emancipation began in Berlin.

And yet, the city today is most famous for a single episode in its history when it was the capital of a mad regime that criminalized an entire nation through aggression and genocide.   That vulgar criminal regime nearly destroyed Europe in the biggest and deadliest armed conflict in all of history.   Berlin was nearly erased, then divided, and slowly rebuilt returning to something like its original cosmopolitan self.

Photograph by William Vandivert of a smashed globe and a fallen bust of Hitler from the ruins of the Reichskanzlrei in Berlin in 1945

"An entire gullible nation believed faithfully in Santa Claus.  But Santa Claus was really the gas man."  - Gunter Grass, from The Tin Drum

Thus always to supremacism in all of its forms.


As Gerrit reminds us, Hitler hated Berlin precisely for its libertinism, its insolence, and especially for its cosmopolitanism.  Berlin was the one major city in Germany where the Nazis failed to win in the 1932 elections.  Hitler wanted to tear Berlin down and rebuild it as the capital of his global racist empire and rename it Germania.  But that is for another post.

Berlin remains a major German city that I have not visited.  Not yet anyway.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What In the World Are They Smoking in Texas?

The state's governor and at least one Congressman are convinced that a military takeover of the state is imminent.

Je Ne Suis Pas Pam Geller

Yesterday's shoot out in Texas between Pam Geller's posse and two Daesh wannabes left me scratching my head trying to find the good guys (maybe the cop who got shot trying to stop the Daesh loonies).  As a friend of mine on Facebook pointed out, the local Dallas Muslim population wanted to ignore the exhibition of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad sponsored by Pam Geller's group.  Instead, two Daesh wannabes showed up and fired shots that hit and injured a Dallas policeman and gave Pam Geller and her followers attention that they would never have gotten, and a terrorism martyrdom claim that they did not deserve.
Then also, the growing controversy over PEN's decision to award a Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo also got me thinking.  I still can't decide over that one.  A number of authors, including the President of PEN, object to the award and are boycotting the ceremony.  They see Charlie Hebdo's parodies of Muhammad as attacking not just violent extremists, but an entire religion and culture (what Pam Geller and her followers do without apology), especially the religion and culture of a marginalized and disadvantaged part of the population of France and Europe as a whole.  They accuse Charlie Hebdo and their admirers of a kind of Western imperialist attitude that permits the powerful to mock the powerless.
Salman Rushdie defended the award and attacked the boycotters, at first with very unfortunate and intemperate language, but later with a little more thought.  Rushdie points out that the perpetrators of Islamist violence, far from being uprooted and impoverished refugees in Europe, are extremely well funded and well organized, that most of them are from very privileged backgrounds, and that the vast majority of their victims are other Muslims.  Rushdie accuses the PEN boycotters of failing to stand up for fellow artists and of caving to threats and intimidation.
And yet it could still be objected that what Charlie Hebdo did, and Pam Geller does, is to unfairly vilify an entire religion and culture.  Charlie Hebdo was largely contemptuous of all religion, and Pam Geller focuses her hatred particularly on Islam without any sectarian distinctions.  Sufis, Shiites, Sunnis, Salafis, Rumi and Osama are all the same in her eyes.

How do you decide when you think both sides are right?
It isn't right to vilify an entire religion and culture for the actions of a violent fringe.  It's definitely never right to dump on the marginalized and powerless.
And yet, violence and intimidation to silence artists and writers are never permissible no matter who is doing the intimidating and threatening.

I have my own recent personal experiences with these issues.  The fundamentalists who attacked my Passion of Christ series always demanded that I do another series about a gay Muhammad.  That presumed a couple of things that I reject out of hand.  First, it assumes that identifying any person living or dead, holy or not, as gay is an insult and a libel.  I was especially surprised at that accusation coming from other gay men (not from any lesbians that I can recall).  I wanted to say to those gay men, "But YOU are gay!  Do you feel slighted and insulted to be identified as such?  Are you ashamed of what you are?"  Second, that demand that I paint a gay Muhammad presumed that I did that whole 24 panel project over 4 years just to insult the fundamentalists and to mock their conception of Christ.  That assumption reveals how self-absorbed and insular that crowd can be.  If I was simply out to poke my finger in their eye, I wouldn't have spent so much time and effort on those panels.  Pissing off fundamentalists is about as much sport as dynamiting fish.  Those brittle sensibilities are too easily bruised to be worth that kind of effort.
I was after something much more ambitious over 10 years ago when I painted that series.  I wanted to restore to the Gospel narratives something of their original force, to take them out of the anodyne realm of conventional piety and show them to be the radical messages that they are.  As a gay man, I wanted to reclaim those narratives for my self and my own despite the best efforts of some to block my access to them.  If I got a few people to rethink their views and maybe show some gay person that a choice between their faith and their sexual identity is a false choice, then I think I did my job.
The very last thing I was out to do was to mock the Christian faith.  Quite the contrary, I hoped to give it some fresh life.

Friday, May 1, 2015

An Even Taller Manhattan

A rendering of projected new towers, many under construction, some still in planning in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn to the year 2020 from The New York Post.

New York City is going through its biggest building boom since the Great Depression.  Perhaps that is a measure of the depths of our lingering economic crisis.  Just as in the 1930s, the combination of cheap labor, cheap building materials, and ever more concentrated wealth creates opportunities for construction on an immense scale.  At least 4 new buildings currently under construction will dwarf the Empire State Building when they are finished.  One of these new buildings will be (unofficially) the tallest building in the city.
What is different about today's building boom is that most of these huge buildings will be residential.  Four Thirty Two Park Avenue is already taller than the Empire State Building and will soon hold the title of the world's tallest residential building.  It is all condominiums supposedly selling for a minimum price of $50 million for a unit on the lower floors.  The penthouse, rumored to be priced at $150 million, has already sold.  Instead of office towers rented out by corporations using these buildings as headquarters, these are entirely private buildings off limits to the public.  Most of the buyers are international plutocrats looking for secure and profitable places to park their money.  Manhattan real estate is very much in demand as just such an investment.
Very few of these investors will actually live in these residences.  Many will sublet them to slightly less wealthy tenants.  Other units may well remain vacant as pied-a-terres with a live in staff, and visited by the owner only occasionally if at all.

Here are my photos of 432 Park Avenue.  Pardon the schmutzig pictures.  The trusty little digital needs to go to the shop.

432 Park Avenue viewed from Williamsburg in Brooklyn.  That's the UN in the foreground with the Trump residential tower on the right (at one time the tallest residential building in the world).  You can see the two green towers of the Waldorf-Astoria on the left.

 A close up of the new tower.  I think it has topped out, but as you can see, it is still under construction.

 A picture that I took last year of 432 Park Avenue under construction from the Bronx Community College campus.  The Empire State building is to the right.  Second from the right is the new WTC, still officially the tallest building in the city, and expected to remain so...officially.  You can see the top of the Chrysler Building on the left, with the Citicorp Tower and the new Bloomberg Center further left.  The spire on the far right is the top of the new Bank of America building by Bryant Park.

Midtown Manhattan at night photographed a few days ago from the Burnside Avenue station in the Bronx.  432 Park Avenue is the tall glowing blue thing on the left.

The reign of 432 Park Avenue as the tallest residential building in the world will be brief.  Already under construction and scheduled to be finished by 2018 is the new Nordstrom Tower near Carnegie Hall on West 57th street in Midtown.

Here are the latest renderings of the future Nordstrom Tower.  A huge hypodermic needle in the sky.

The Nordstrom Tower will be officially a multi-use tower, but as you can see, over half of it will be über-expensive residences above a thousand-dollar-a-night hotel.  The bottom 10 floors will be the largest Nordstrom's Department Store in the USA.  The penthouse at the top will have the world's highest private terrace.

The Nordstrom Tower will officially be the second tallest building in the city, just a foot short of the new WTC at 1775 feet.  However, the Tower will stand on ground that is 70 feet higher in elevation than the land supporting the WTC.  Thus, the new Nordstrom Tower will be the unofficial tallest building in the city.

Just wait until the next blackout.  Life for the residents of these ultra tall towers will be very interesting with no elevators and no running water.  I can't imagine living someplace so high that I might as well be in a plane.  But, as I said, most of these condominiums will likely remain empty.

These towers are objects of widespread resentment throughout the city and beyond.  The prices that these condominiums are fetching, even before they are built, are wildly skewing the city's housing market driving up already insanely high rents to even new heights of unaffordability, even in the less desirable parts where the city warehouses its poor in the Bronx and easternmost parts of Brooklyn and Queens.  That so much of this new high priced residential space will likely remain empty is especially galling since the city has its biggest homeless population since the Great Depression, and those who are housed are typically paying half or more of their incomes on rent.  Unscrupulous landlords are resorting to all kinds of measures, legal and illegal, to drive out longtime residents to make room for higher paying tenants.

It's hard to imagine a clearer and grander expression in architecture of our transition from democracy to oligarchy than these tall and taller towers.  Our overlords will indeed look down on us quite literally as the class divides harden and widen into chasms.  A coarse and brutal culture gets the brutal out-of-scale architecture that it deserves.  Albert Speer is smiling in his grave.

The new WTC is getting smaller and smaller, and the old Empire State Building will be practically a midget in a few years.


An article by Emily Badger in the Washington Post about the unanticipated costs of the building boom in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington DC.  It turns out that the shadows cast by these ever taller buildings is a very contentious issue.  The new towers on "Billionaires' Row" in Manhattan will cast shadows a mile into Central Park, and cast the whole southern part of the park into shade during certain times of the day.  Access to light is becoming the privilege of those who can afford it.  This pits the need to keep cities livable for the majority of the people who live there with the need for housing construction that drives construction ever higher.
And yet, none of the huge housing projects under construction here in New York (or in San Francisco or Washington for that matter) even remotely qualify as the 'affordable' housing that those cities need so desperately.  The towers of Manhattan are being built as lucrative investment property, not as housing.  Nothing of even remotely similar size is being built for middle class or poor families who now compete for all the remaining affordable rental space in relatively ground hugging buildings in Queens, the Bronx, and the remaining affordable areas of Brooklyn.
It is also striking how much this building boom has altered the makeup of neighborhoods and entire boroughs of New York.  My old neighborhood in the East Village is unrecognizable.  It is now so much richer and whiter than I remember it.  Even the old unofficial capital of Black America, Harlem, is getting richer and whiter.  The ethnic identity of neighborhoods in Brooklyn, even the white ones, is changing rapidly.  It used to be that you couldn't rent anything in Greenpoint unless you spoke Polish.  Now luxury condos are springing up all over Greenpoint housing people who either can't speak a word of Polish or learned it at Yale while working on their degrees in financial management.
In 1915, New York went through a lot of argument and controversy after the completion in 1913 of the Woolworth Building of unprecedented height for a historically ground hugging city.  In 1916, New York passed a zoning law requiring set-backs in tall buildings creating the distinctive look of so many older New York City skyscrapers that get narrower as they get taller.

Happy May Day!

The International Labor Day, a holiday created by Americans that Americans find to be so threatening that they created a separate American Labor Day in September.

Print by Walt Crane

Lotsa talk these days about inequality and widening wage gaps by lotsa politicians.
I say to them all, put your money where your mouth is.

So let's dance.