Category Archives: Art

Michelangelo’s Twisted Light of Day & Secret Shadow of Night

“The world has many kings, but only one Michelangelo”

In 1537, Pietro Aretino, poet, critic, and public relations advocate, offered his alliance to the artist in a letter. Michelangelo, irascible and often uncommunicative, gave a brief cordial reply declining the offer. Michelangelo never worked with others as an equal. Michelangelo was an independent contractor with higher aspirations than his class. Aretino was perhaps the first to the declare an artist to have powers that “rivaled those of God.” Michelangelo acted as if he were the equal of God’s emissary of earth, Pope Clement VII. The pope, a Medici whose noble family ruled Florence off and on during the 16th century, conversed frequently with the artist, a tradesman, whose social status was far beneath the Roman Catholic Church’s leader. Cardinals and kings thought the familiarity unwise. Aretino created the myth of supreme artistic genius.

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Pope Clement VII, by Sebastiano del Piombo, before 1527

satin DProbably using a contract specifying a cost and a time limit, Pope Clement IV engaged Michelangelo to carve tombs in Florence’s San Lorenzo Basilica to commemorate the two of the Medici family’s lesser members: Lorenzo II, Duke of Urerbino, and Giuliano de Medici, Duke of Nemours. For ten years, 1524–1534, Michelangelo labored, delayed, complained, and controlled the fabrication of the project down to the smallest detail. The pope grumbled he wished the artist would pay a bit more attention to the jobs the pope had given him. Michelangelo’s enemies said of him that he never completed anything while monopolizing the best projects for himself and never used the assistance of others. The wall tomb for the Duke of Nemours was never finished.

The tomb is a powerful composition, oddly discordant, yet imbued with energy at once distinctive to the artist and evocative of his client’s family’s authority. The sculpture, Day, is male with a highly polished body, but its head, partly obscured behind a mammoth shoulder, appears roughly chiseled and unfinished, contrasting with Night, a polished female with a rather masculine body whose breasts seem strangely appended. Day is twisted backward in tension, and coiled in frustration, perchance a partial statement of the artist’s outer persona. Night is bent and turned forward in melancholy, and stilled by grief, perhaps capturing the artist’s hidden homosexuality layered under a spoken spirituality that contemplates death, the tortured fate of sodomites. Day, the time of light, is turned away from illumination, and Night, the time of dark, is turned toward the shadows. Both sculptures, balanced at the two ends of the sarcophagus, appear to be sliding off its bowed surface, while the figure above seems unengaged and remote to what is below.

The figure above that stands for the Duke. This sculpture embodies the glory and authority of Rome, which the Medici’s saw as their heritage. Obliged by agreement to glorify the powerful family, the artist composed a vault that incorporates a duality. The duke doesn’t look like the duke and isn’t dressed like the duke. Michelangelo recreates a heroic leader with his sword balanced across his knees and expressing a gaze of disinterest. He turned Guiliano de Medici into a type. A writer later remarked the artist gave the duke “a size, proportion and beauty,” because “in a thousand years nobody would know they had been different.” The artist fashioned a dynamic assembly of contradictions that are a testament to his own genius. Michelangelo will be known forever, the Medici dukes will fade in an obscure past. The artist accomplished his aspiration to be more than the ruling aristocracy. The Medici Tomb, along with the Pieta, David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the Last Judgment, marks the artist’s place among the gods of art.

Medici Tomb by Michelangelo

Tomb of Giuliani de Medici, Duke of Nemours, by Michelangelo

in San Lorenzo Basilica Florence, 1524 – 1534

Artists like Michelangelo’s acclaimed challengers — Leonardo Da Vinci, Raffaello Santi (Raphael), and Sebastiano del Piombo — were highly paid employees for their work with brush, mallet, and chisel by the rulers in France, Spain, Florence, and the Papal States. Their jobs were to legitimize the rulers. The dukes, the kings, and the popes needed portraits, tombs, glorifying sculptures, libraries, and residences to reflect their status and make them comparable to the Roman ancestors. They needed art that made them heroes and that gave them metaphors immersed with Christian theology. The artists made visible the power, glory, and ethics of the age. This is what artists did long before the Renaissance. This role extended back in time to the Romans, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, and to the dawn of human hierarchies. In the distant past only a few had identities. Many weren’t even free. They were slaves doing the bidding of rulers who were often the religious elite. The Renaissance artist rattled the role, but they didn’t break it.

Three centuries would pass before the subservient position of the artists changed, and it only changed in means, not in value. The French monarch in1648 established the French Academy to control cultural production for the benefit of the crown. The concept was to insure that art in terms of its content and its quality serve the sovereign’s power equal to its political dominance. Neo-classicism founded on the veneration of Greeks and Romans became the prevailing style. “Theth of Horatii,” 1784, by Jacques-Louis David is a telling example. The British crown not to be out done by the French, established the Royal Academy. Portraits of distinguished nobility became the English obsession. Thomas Gainsborough’s 1777, Portrait of Anne, Countess of Chesterfield, 1777, comes to mind. Academies in Vienna, Berlin, Stockholm, Madrid, and St. Petersburg follow. Painting and sculpture supported the values of the upper classes. In America, The Philadelphia Academy of Art was founded in 1805. Its goal was to promote the Odemocratic values of the new democracy. This ideal faded by the late 19th Century, when the Robber Barons sought cultural validity through acquisition of the aristocratic approved art.

Oath of Horatio by David

Oath of Horatii, 1784, David, Louvre, Paris

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Gainsborough, 1777, Portrait of Anne

The only blip to national academy dominance of art production was the French Revolution, where the royals died by the guillotine. The revolutionaries declared the elite arts to be of no use to the nation. This verdict didn’t last long. Napoleon, quickly learning the importance of the arts in supporting a regime, reversed the situation. Not until artists established an individual status often connected to alternative political philosophies did the situation start to alter. In France, it was Realism, whose two champions Millet and Courbet rocked the arts establishment. Courbet, a political radical with a supreme ego, formulated the concept of “Realism,” which others philosophers, poets, and writers gave intellectual heft. The artist stated, “Realism would not imitate the art of ancients.” Realism would “represent the customs, ideas,” and “the appearance of my own era according to my own valuation.”

Gustav Courbet, like Michelangelo, saw himself the equal if not superior to his aristocratic clients. His painting “The Meeting,” 1855, is an excellent example of both the artist’s realism and his egoism. On a country road, the artist is greeted by his patron, Alfred Bruyas, and his servant Calas. The servant bows his head to the great artist, while Bruyas, doffs his hat. The artist, dressed like a workingman with his painting supplies hung off his back, accepts the adulation with head raised in a regal pose. Bruyas, son of a wealthy financier, had a 30-year career as a serious collector of art, and he believed art could change lives and promote social progress. He championed Courbet, who fancied himself a rebel against the prevailing concepts of art and the aristocratic rulers of France. Courbet refused to accept the Legion of Honor award from Emperor Napoleon III. His fame and his wealth came from the patronage he viewed as inferior to his genius.

Gustave_Courbet_-_Bonjour_Monsieur_Courbet_-_Musée_Fabre

 

 

 

 

 

Courbet, 1855, The Meeting, Musee Fabre, Montpellier

When Paris became the socialist commune in 1871, after France’s loss to Prussia, Courbet joined the communards and proposed a significant role for artists, in which they would participate in the running of and selecting exhibitions for Paris’s public museums. The fine arts section of the Institute of France and the French Academy would be closed. Metals and decorations would be abolished. Artists have not been the clearest thinkers about management or governance. The plan for artists’ control of the French art institutions quickly broke down. The commune didn’t last long and Courbet paid a heavy price for his involvement. He was briefly imprisoned and accused of initiating the destruction of the Napoleonic Column in Place Vendome, for which the new right wing state demanded that he pay the price for its reconstruction. The artist escaped into exile in Switzerland. The artist inflated to enormous size by disappointments of his fortune, died a drunk. In his characteristic self-important manner, Courbet claimed he was the foremost drinker in the Canton of Vaux, Switzerland. He colluded in the fraudulent creation of paintings by others that he signed. His reputation was vastly diminished.

The contradiction of his political views and the reality of his situation as a supplier of luxury objects for the rich and the nobility never troubled his conscience. He considered himself a great artist beyond the ordinary human. Current art historians and subsequPlaent collectors, especially American capitalists of the late 19th century, have honored that assessment. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York abounds in Courbet paintings. Many of the landscapes are marvelous. The world of legitimized art returned to its prior status. Yet Courbet began the great shock of Modernism that ended the culture academies when the next generation of artists — the Impressionists, and Post-Impressionists — demolished classicism, romanticism, and realism with a new way of seeing. They ended the old context, but not the reigning social value of art.

Gustave Courbet--2ps

Gustave Courbet, Artist, 1819-1877

Art of that Day, like Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpture, squirmed in a new light revealed in a transient, engaging, enticing, and ultimately very accessible way to the minimally visually knowledgeable, while the late 19th century Night, like Michelangelo’s enigmatic creation, remained the veiled, but unspoken force as it has always been. The luxury product held by the elite, which expresses their cultural hegemony. Look for Article Three in the art and economics series: Cezanne to Warhol – Pissing in the Photo Booth.

 

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Article, Courbet, Jacques Louis David, Michelangelo, Thomas Gainsbourgh

Why Make Art?

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Rembrandt in His Studio, 1628, Boston Museum of Fine Art

The question why make art? is an important issue to me. I wonder what drove me to do it, and why anyone in their right mind would bother. It provides for most of us who would like to call ourselves artists, neither remuneration nor critical attention. Remember Rembrandt was broke when he died. Out of fashion and Bankrupt, the creditors took his printing press, plates, and most of his materials. What the un-famous create isn’t held to be culturally significant, nor does it register as an economic activity. Try to find information on the economic value of the un-acclaimed artists? You will find it minimal. Neither will you discover many facts about how much money is spent on art materials. One Internet estimate says $1.2 billion. I don’t believe it.

Estimation of the number of professionally trained painters and sculptors in the United States is fewer than under 300,000. This calculation is complicated by the inclusion of craft professionals. The total of people in all the arts is almost three million. This includes actors, writers, architects, and teachers. Nor is there information on the number of people who like to make art and are not professionals. George W. Bush would not be a statistic, despite the fact he probably sells his paintings. Making art is not considered to be an economic activity, except by a misguided few. I am one of those who scoff at art defined as magic.

The art market of the very few artists held be important is reported extensively. Globally it is valued at $56 billion annually, and it pushes into the media’s awareness when a monumentally priced sale takes place at one of the big auction houses: Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and few lesser others. In 2017, a Japanese collector was the high bidder on Jean Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” at $110.5 million. Basquiat was an African-American New York artist who died of a heroin overdose in 1987 at age 28. It is always good for the market if an artist dies young. Egon Schiele died at 28. Early death of the acclaimed keeps the supply of their art limited, thus increasing the value of short supply. This is one of the laws of an oligopsony.

In 2016, three of Basquiat’s graffiti-inspired paintings sold in the top 100 auction prices for $80.6 million. “Untitled,” created in 1982 was auctioned the previous year for $8 million. He is the first black artist to make the top 100. Only four women were in this group: Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin, and Jenny Saville, a member of the young British artists group (YBA) that includes Damien Hurst of the diamond-encrusted skull fame. Saville was number 96 on the list. Her painting of fat white women auctioned for $9 million.

For most artists, this is the unattainable. Many artists give up. I promised myself after butting my head against this wall of critical silence and lack of sales that left me with piles of unsold art and costly bills from making it, that I was going to stop. I ranted that I would burn up all this useless crap. After several days of dark depression when I did nothing and couldn’t even get out of bed, I found myself back in my studio working. An alternate awareness descended. The reason I make art has nothing to do with critical or financial success. I make it because I have to. This revelation surprised me.

In the past I have concocted all kinds of reasons why I wanted to make art. The initial reason I gravitated to was that I had something of cultural importance to communicate. No. I don’t. The way I see things is different. No, It isn’t. The way I make things is innovative. No, it isn’t. I need to express my feelings. No. I don’t. None of these motives, and a few more, meets the core reality. The desire to make art is an internal need. I am compelled to do it.

The compulsion is, in essence, an unknowable thing. It does have a connection to skills I have learned or innately have. Like most kids, I liked to draw, but unlike most kids I kept doing it. The self-accusation that I couldn’t draw anything that looked like a real thing never took hold. I carried on making my colored messes despite teachers who remarked negatively on my smudges. Drawing came naturally to me. Indecipherable scribbles and marking outside the outline was OK. In college, classes honed the skill to the extent that I could draw in many ways no matter if it wasn’t realistic. A favorite professor said draw with your whole body. Drawing, marking, and creating are biological satisfactions.

Things I see and think induce me to use my body to explore what I arises in my mind. Writing as I am now is likewise a physical demand. Practice and understanding the talent of others has refined the ability. However what I do has almost nothing to do with seeking meaning. What I do simply is what must be done. Ideas and issues form around the doing, but under it all it is the force to do something. It matters not at all, if I have talent or not or if what I make is significant. The force emerges from the gut.

My guess is that it comes down a need, not altogether unlike the need to eat. The fact there is pleasure in it reinforces the necessity. The process momentarily fulfills the want. After the making, the thing is dead. Putting the art corpse in a file, I await the next urge. The object is the leftover husk of the passing connection to something beyond the self. Is that the Divine? I have no idea, but this I do surmise: that making art has many stages. The first is what for me I have described. There are three more: what the dead thing becomes after it is created (its social value); how it is used (its artistic value); and what is appended to it (its economic value). These issues are what I will attempt next to unravel and understand. They will be incomplete and mere estimations by a visual thinker, for that is what I call myself now, who is neither an art critic, an art historian, nor an art economist. An artist, I believe, is a tradesperson engaged in self-delusion. Some of the delusion is marvelous; most of it is unspoken.

I have to make art

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Filed under Art, Christie's, Chuck Close, Drawing, George W. Bush, Jean Michel Basquiat, Oligopsony, Rembrandt, sotheby's, Why Make Art

Pity the Pieta

Michaelangelo's Pieta -2

Michelangelo’s Pieta, 1500

Michelangelo’s Pietá came to the New York World’s Fair in 1964. I was 20 years old when I saw it, and knew little about art but the required college art history course I took made me aware of this genius artist and his sculpture of 1500 for the old basilica of St. Peter’s. Michelangelo was 25 years old, and the Pietá made him famous. The sculpture was the sensation of the fair. I had to see it. Enormous crowds lined up for hours to get into the Vatican Pavilion. I stood in line on a hot and humid day for three hours to see it.

A three-tiered conveyor belt moved us past a gigantic fabric-draped cross hovering above and the blue illuminated young Mary and the dead Jesus below. Mary holds the crucified Jesus across her thighs with his right arm falling slack over one of her knees, his head bends back face upward behind a raised shoulder, and his two lower legs dangle over Mary’s left knee. You could see the beauty of the softly rubbed white marble, the deftly shaped folds of Mary’s cloak, and the stable yet dynamic composition of the two figures. However, this theatrical placement, more like a movie-opening extravaganza, was not how the sculpture should be seen. The Pieta’s white surfaces were meant to resonate in the half-light from the basilica’s rotunda windows above. They needed no enhancement by the blue light shadows cast over the bodies. Nor was the Pietá to be seen from below as the three moving walkways positioned the visitors. The sculpture’s full effect of the glorious death could only be appreciated by the viewer being on the same level; otherwise the upturned face of the soon-to-be-resurrected Christ was obscured. I didn’t know that when I visited, but what I did see was unsettling; something wasn’t right.

Pieta Crowds

The Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair 1964-65

The image stayed with me as a troubling benchmark for the art experience for decades. Since living the artist’s life starting in the 1980s and crossing into the new millennium with visitations to galleries, museums, and other spectacular art locations, where dissonant sensations became more pronounced, reasoning for what I first felt 50 years ago emerged. Art is being stripped of meaning. It has become an amusement park for the consumer-driven and authenticity-barren culture. The Pieta positioned in a pavilion as a destination for ogling of those briefly passing by, who can mark it on their list as seen and therefore recognized. It loses it’s meaning, but maintains its historical reference by keywords: Renaissance Art, Great Artist, Michelangelo, Florence, Italy, Gone-but-memorialized as a marker of significance.

The Pieta was mined of the capacity to inspire spiritually or to generate passion by several means. The experience of seeing didn’t allow the viewer to halt and contemplate either the sculpture’s ecstatic refinement, its composition, or its inclusion of spiritual importance. The Pietá became a thing seen on an endless itinerary of things needed to be seen that validate the viewer. In this sense it was no different from another great attraction of the fair, the “it’s a small world,” boat float by Walt Disney that provided an amusing, but totally irrelevant ride through models of toy soldiers and sunny animated flowers. Disneyfication is an apt metaphor for the displays at the New York World’s fair.

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“it’s a small world” at the New York World’s Fair, 1964-65

The Pietá was elevated, made precious, and removed from close experience. The Madonna and dead Son of God were diminished as art, but reinterpreted by the soft blue illumination as an important statement of western culture. In this sense it relates to another great attraction of the New York World’s Fair, the IBM pavilion, where Charles and Rae Eames installed the immensely influential Mathematica Exhibition. The Eameses were masters of enhancing information. The New York World’s Fair made them master communicators of the new American-driven computer culture. The Pietá installation was heavier handed, but the principle of enhancement is similar. The purpose was more emotive. Nonetheless the emotion was hollow based on allegiance, either as a Catholic or an admirer of art as learned in a college textbook, collected on a postcard, seen through TV, or in a toured visitation to an identified monument.

 

Mathamatica NYC fair 1964-65

IBM’s Mathematica Exhibition at the New York World’s Fair 1964-65

This is what the art world, its institutions, and many of its monuments have become: an amusement park for sanctioned culture. Driven by visitation counts, money received, and justification of the elite, art drifts toward emptiness teetering on the abyss of irrelevance. Pity the Pietá, marred by fame and overfamiliarity, which later in 1972 was badly damaged by a deranged man and now lies isolated behind a bulletproof glass in the Vatican, removed forevermore from anyone to experience close at hand its majesty and the inspired vision of the artist who chiseled it. There is residue of wonder in the Pieta, but much has been drained away. Similar diminishment has happened to other great works and other great locations. This sorry circumstance is perhaps inevitable, when art becomes a rich persons collectible, a financial asset, and celebration of celebrity. Art shouldn’t need augmentation. More on this in the next installment: jewel boxes, gift shops, and restaurants.

 

 

 

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Filed under Art, Article, Charles and Rae Eames, Culture, Michelangelo, New York World's Fair 1964-65, Walt Disney

Contemporary Art is a Farce

Contemporary Art is a farce. Most of it is meaningless and boring to view. Note that the artists who make it aren’t important. Who is important are the curators. They, carefully trained at Universities to know what is worthy of our attention, are the arbiters of cultural significance. It is they who are mentioned first in any reviews.

I find I can say this without concern because artists like me will never get the attention of the curators, the mainstream galleries, the art market, or the museums. Therefore I have nothing to lose. There is no reason to hold my tongue or kiss ass.

Why? Perhaps it’s because I am a lousy artist? That I can’t measure, but I can measure these factors: I am too old. The art world feeds in the young, whom the market devours in new batches every year. Most of whom are forgotten within a year of discovery. At 72, it is presumed, I have nothing new to add to the art dialogue. New is lexicon of selection. There is always a new, even if it is really old, because if it looks different, utilizes a weird material, technique, or context. It is new at least to the selectors. What I do is not new. I draw in an old way. I do not have an art degree. I came to art after first being an architect.

Art schools are what produce contemporary artists. They are professionals, and art is now a profession. It is the place that is patrolled for the next versions of the viable for the art market’s needs. This deplorable situation, which to me leads to phony and pompous intellectualism from the teachers, most of whom aren’t intellectuals, but probably read the current art rags. and the students, most of whom weren’t smart enough to get into medical school or business or management school. This wasn’t always the case. Many of the acclaimed modern masters weren’t trained artists. Henri Matisse was first a lawyer.

Then there is size. Contemporary art should be big. The size inflation, I think, began with Abstract Expressionism. Some of the Pollock’s are really big. Size seems to have grown over the decades. I remember going to the old Whitney Museum in New York in the 1960s and 70s; the Poons’, Oliski’s, and Morris Lewis’ were huge. I was impressed with this stuff and bought into it as a definition of the avant-garde. James Rosenquist, an artist I liked who just died in 2017, had a painting that spread over more than one wall. I was blown away by this appropriation of billboards into art.

Every year big kept getting bigger. This could of course have to do with the expansion of the art market to contemporary work. In this market that equates cultural value with economic value, it could be said, that art is best appreciated by its square footage. For whom then, but a rich man or a museum, could have the wall space to display and the wallet to acquire huge art? But as art got bigger, it seems to me, content faded away.

Morris Lewis at Whitney

Morris Lewis, Tet 1958, 12’ by 8’, Whitney Museum of Art

Pop Art was the precursory to meaninglessness because, in my thought, the less content the more art was avant-garde. Andy Warhol, the artist who is the icon of the importance for Pop Art, established the idea that art was not the arcane territory of the historians and the cultural elite, but should be accessible to all. He, whom I neither dismiss nor dislike, initiated the slide into vacuousness of contemporary art. To see an Andy Warhol is to get it. It is a fast transfer of meaning. You don’t stand in front of one of his self-portraits and contemplate. You look and move on. Warhol was no intellectual. He liked money, and money was what he achieved. He was a perfect fit to the needs of the art market — Easy to comprehend and ultimately expensive to buy. That is once it was declared culturally acceptable.

Others might argue it was Marcel Duchamp, who began this process. I would argue that this is not true. Duchamp, a French intellectual, changed the idea of what art could be with his fountain, the urinal displayed under the name R. Mutt at the Armory show in the early 20th Century. Ever since then artists have been searching for meaning in different way. Duchamp with his room, his boxes, and his spinning wheels created the precursor of most of them. Conceptual art was becoming the mode, where meaning had its last gasp.

Thus art traveled down the lane to irrelevance. Each movement: Op Art, Minimalism, Neo-expressionism, and others descending ever further into the cave of nothingness. I look at the current rages in art: feminist outrage, black backlash at exclusion, LGBT expression, climate change awareness and description, as important issues, but do they do more than point the finger at cultural problems? Most, like Warhol’s work you get by a quick take, and move on. Why linger and look? They are visually uninteresting, and these issue-oriented works are the best of the lot. All, perhaps not all, (John Baldessari is a prime example) are pure rubbish for art market consumption. Dare I say balloon dogs and stuffed sharks in tanks?

Thus, I not being a member of a identifiable movement, not much of a maker of beautiful objects, nor someone who does big all the time, and who doesn’t hew to the model of making consistent things as if I were a light manufacturer serving the market of oligarchs, corporate elites, or financial manipulators, have no chance in this world. I strive for something meaningful, visually and comprehensibly, that is outside the established new parameters, (Perhaps it is conservative of older values?), and I am not alone. I know artists who follow this same course and feel the same frustration. Video artists in general suffer the same fate. They don’t attract the same fervor of hip curators. Most museums aren’t audio-visually set up to display the work. For example a recent show at the Whitney on portraiture displayed a large photograph augmented by video of rippling water by Corey Arcangel, called Diddy/Lakes, 2013. It was a wall work that explored none of the greater possibilities of video. I found it pretty but thoroughly meaningless. The Whitney has become the warehouse of contemporary cultural vacuity. I shall explore more on this situation in a second article about why make art and three subsequent articles about the artistic, social, and economic value of art.

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Corey Arcangel, Diddy/Lakes, 2013, Whitney Museum of Art

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The Eagle Blinding

 

self-portrait-2016psFebruary 2, 2017, 22 days after the inauguration of the mad president, Dondolf Twittler, (I can’t bring myself to say his name.), I completed my 2016 self-portrait, the 35th drawing in my series. It is a remembrance and celebration of Rembrandt’s great painting “The Blinding of Samson.” Samson is blinded by the Philistines after they pay Delilah to cut off his hair and thus his strength. My version of the story is the blinding of America by Corporate Wealth and Right Wing Racists. “The Eagle Blinding” captures my view of what has happened in the 13 months since the beginning of 2106. Our Eagle has been paid off and pecks out one eye. Yes, it is a metaphor and narrative. Conceptual art is generally boring and is the cultural corruption of the 1%. I am leaving the USA February 23 to go see the Rembrandt’s and escape from my country, which I am no longer proud. America is half blind, but there is hope resistance is rising. The eagle could reject the Philistines.

staedel_altemeister_rembrandt_dieblendungsimsons_1636

 

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Filed under Art, Capitalism, Drawing, Racism

LA’s Heart Attack

tomkellycalendargolden-dreams                                                                     Golden Dreams Calendar 1954

LA’s heart and soul is having an attack. The real heart is not Tinseltown, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City, or Burbank, those centers of glitzy, glamour, and celebrity, which are the world’s image of Los Angeles. The blood-pumping center is the place of its diversity, its founding history, and creative spark. The area is ringed by four freeways with the Arts District nestled within, epitomizing its soul. Rapacious development is killing this essence.

Gentrified developments threaten to Manhattanize LA’s heart, making it solely a place of corporate uses and the abode of the wealthiest citizens. Diversity of people and use plunges. This is to the detriment of the vibrant place that was long the unrecognized center. Economic value increases, but cultural variety and mixture lose. The Grand Central Market, once a wonderful paseo between Broadway and Hill Streets, where cheap produce and products abounded for all, is now half empty, its grocery stalls priced out. Isolated food stands await pricier wine and cheese boutiques, while across the street the glass-atriumed Bradbury Building, LA’s seminal 1893 office building, is being considered for condominium apartments. Boyle Heights, once the neighborhood where Jewish and Japanese settlers could prosper, and Mexican Americans established their Southern California homeland amid “Iowa by the Sea,” where anyone not white wasn’t accepted, is vulnerable to house flippers buying up the Victorian homes.            meteor_brand_lemons_crate_label-courtesy-oviatt-library-csun                                         Fruit Crate Label by Western Lithograph Company

The Arts District established in the early 1990s is losing the artists who populated this once depressed warehouse zone and gave a new creative energy that recaptured the mythic forces in LA’s history. These warehouses and service structures stored the products moved into and out of the agricultural paradise that drew people west in the manifest destiny of America. Oranges and lemons shipped out of the sector’s railroad sidings. The emblematic fruit crate labels by anonymous artists were printed at Western Lithograph on Rose Street in the Arts District. Pianos and furniture brought by immigrants were stored in buildings like the Citizens Warehouse on the other side of the LA River Bridge from Santa Fe Railroad Depot. The depot was demolished in 1939 to be replaced by the Art Moderne masterpiece Union Station. These storage structures and the printing shop became the cheap studios for creative people in the last quarter of the 20th century. The printing shop in the early 21st century was demolished for apartments. The Citizens Warehouse was partially demolished for mass transit over the river, and what remains lies vacant.

tractionandthird               Apartments at the corners of Rose, Traction, and 3rd Street in the Arts District

In the center of the Arts District, near the location of the original Santa Fe Terminal, is a small hotel called the American. Often representing discrimination, it nevertheless embodies the spirit, the rich, and multicultural history of Los Angeles. After many years of neglect, The American is preserved, but the remodeling has turned an icon of possibilities into a fashionable nightly rental. Artist Stephen Seemayer created a film, “Tales of the American,” which tells the story of this hotel built in 1905 for African American railroad conductors and porters, who wouldn’t be allowed into LA’s larger and more prestigious hotels. Over 111 years of existence this small transient lodging with a bar on the ground floor has passed through many transformations while retaining it affordability and strange allure. During Prohibition it was a speakeasy. Japanese Americans took over the facility as Little Tokyo arose. World War II saw the Japanese internment and the hotel was sold to other ownership. The lodgers were workers in the produce district arising along Alameda, when trucks supplanted railroads as the primary commercial transportation.

deeprivergallerywithdanielmartinez-2                                      Deep River Gallery with Daniel Joseph Martinez

As the area around the hotel declined, its warehouses gradually vacated, and artists discovered the area. The American became access to the district. The bar became Al’s Bar, an internationally known venue of the punk rock scene, and art flourished on and in galleries of the American. Dustin Shuler erected his plane with a monumental nail to the façade of the building. “Two Ton Common” was used to attach the sculpture “Pinned Butterfly,” declaring the ascendency of an art community. A hotel gallery, Deep River, showed the work of provocateur, Daniel Joseph Martinez and allied artists to European acclaim. But as the 20th Century passed into the 21st Century, developers sensed money and descended on the area, newly proclaimed by the city as The Arts District. Gone are: Al’s Bar, Pinned Butterfly, the galleries in the American, AAA Art Gallery that showed drawing by Paul McCarthy, The Art Dock, the Drive-by Gallery in the Citizens Warehouse, Deep River, The Galleria by the Water, the Spanish Kitchen performance space, and the Waldenboyd Theater. The District Gallery, which showed the work of many Art District artists, fights to save and fund its lease in the new development, One Santa Fe, which lies where the old railroad terminal was, from the new owners who have raised the rent to a prohibitive level.

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The American about to become gentrified 2016

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The American in 1980 with “Pinned Butterfly”

Change driven by money always been LA’s mantra, but the shortsightedness discounts the creative and diverse cultural inclusiveness that flourished in the past, and could still flourish in the future, if not destroyed by unaffordability. Artists can’t compete with the money of the new urban settlers, nor could the big inexpensive creative spaces survive. This transformation is inevitable. Huge developments are planned in the expanded district. A 30-story development called Mesquite Place extending from 6th Street to 7th climbing over the railroad tracks to edge the river is in the approval process. All that can be hoped is that the Arts District is not swallowed up in towers and ersatz “loft” compounds. What might be demanded of the city is that it restricts the size of developments in old Arts District, perhaps by selling air rights. And perhaps some miracle might happen like what Michael Connelly imagined in his latest Harry Bosch detective novel, “The Wrong Side of Goodbye.”

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Proposed Mesquite Development at the 7th Street Bridge and the River 2016

“The Wrong Side of Goodbye” is an apt metaphor. The wrong side of progress is kissing goodbye to the artists, along with the outside the system galleries. The art market exemplified by the Hauser Wirth & Schimmel Gallery has descended on the Arts District. The chauffeur driven limousines of the collectors are not far behind. This is could be a good thing or a bad thing, but it will precipitate the loss of other artist-sponsored spaces. Michael Connelly spoke to this condition as detective Harry Bosch investigated the reality of a multi-billionaire heir hidden in the Arts District. The conclusion of the story imagines the creation of an organization that sponsors artists and artists’ affordable workspaces. If only Los Angeles, with its surfeit of multi-millionaires, were to make places for functioning artists and not concentrate only on the market value of the art they produce, the heart of Los Angeles would be a Mecca of cultural inventiveness that isn’t just media and movie driven.

Or we could hope that Hollywood history would remember The Arts District printing company building on Rose Street, which became the studio, where photographer Tom Kelly shot the calendar image of a nude, young starlet, named Marilyn Monroe. But do not expect it to happen. Miracles only happen in the movies. Time to pull down the Arts District signs.

OMR Downtown Hotel

Map of the Heart of Los Angeles

 

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Article, Arts District, Capitalism, Culture, Los Angeles

Coltrane’s Coal Train

 

The great plains of the western United States are still a beautiful carpet of spring greens and summer yellows, at least where the voracious energy companies haven’t destroyed them yet. Thinking about the Lakota Sioux’s successful Last Stand against the oil pipe line in North Dakota to protest the despoliation of their water, the submergence of their timber and hunting grounds by the US Army Corps of Engineers for Lake Oahe, and the taking of their sovereign land by a treaty-violating American Government, my mind resonates with the evocative sounds of the blues as I envision the partly raped ground. In December, 2016, in the waning days of the Obama Administration, the US Army Corps of Engineers relented in its determination to run the pipeline under Indian land. The Standing Rock Indians and their environmentalists spoke of their joy, but voiced their concern that the white man and his corporations cared little for the sacredness of all land. What the incoming Trump Administration supports by the energy corporations and what Wall Street will do remains to be seen, but it won’t be good for land.

Recalling the trains rolling across Nebraska in 2016 on September 11 (9/11, the monumental day that America was attacked in 2001) carrying Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal, I hummed the John Coltrane rendition of “These Are Some of My Favorite Things.” Looking at the coal convoy, I remembered what eastern Wyoming looked like 40 years ago when the scraping away of the gently undulating grasslands had barely begun. I lived in the Wyoming then. Estimating the amount of coal that passed us by on Ground Zero Day when the World Trade Center was destroyed, I wondered what huge patches of black and barren landscape the Wyoming Powder River Basin had become. Was it a hollowed-out wasteland resembling the devastated hole of the World Trade Center? Later, pulling up images from the internet, I saw that it was vast black hole, not filled with human carcasses, but nonetheless a horrendous wound to the earth. I wanted to cry to the sounds Coltrane made playing his melodious but rifting jazz. Meiguo, beautiful land, the Chinese call America, but it isn’t. It is a land exploited for its profit potential by an uncaring set of white invaders. The sacredness is in dollars, not in spirit.

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Powder River Basin Coal Fields 1975

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Powder River Basin Coal Fields 2016

Paralleling US route 30 from Grand Island to Oglala, the railroad tracks of the BNSF stretched across Nebraska less than 20 feet from the highway. Twelve trains sets of over 100 aluminum rotary gondolas transporting Wyoming’s soft coal headed east. Each gondola is over 50’:long, 10+’wide, and 12’ high. Each open hopper car holds 100 to 125 tons of coal for a total amount of 13,225 tons of coal per train. In the three hours and 210 miles we were on the highway, a grand total of 158,700 tons in 12 convoys passed us. The coal was en route to: Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all to provide fuel for midwestern and eastern power plants.

The clackity-clack of the gondolas separated by their steel-knuckled couplers, interspersed with the hollow whistles when the trains neared a crossing, the whish of cars and trucks the passing on the road every now and then, and the rattle of the gusts of wind lifting intermittently our vehicle’s roof top carrier, played in my mind the melody, “These are a few some of my favorite things” that Coltrane croaked and dragged slowly out of his saxophone, notes beautiful and painful at the same time. “Dah-da-dah, dah da dah, da–de-dada-da-do, waahh, waahh, woo.”

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BNSF Coal Train in Nebraska

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Power Plants supplied by BNSF trains from Wyoming

I love trains and the long convoys that slide across vast landscape. The corn processing facilities beside the tracks from Gothenburg to Kearney and beyond are punctuation points of reflective silver colored cones, tubes, peaked roof warehouses, and ramps. I am awed by the big blue sky wisped with clouds. I love the occasional buttes and rock pinnacles that punctuate the grasslands. The culture, spirituality of Sioux (Lakota) Indian tribes, and their great stoic, elegant and brave leaders: Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Black Elk, and Crazy Horse, who once roamed these plains, attract me. The Manifest Destiny of pioneers, striking out to find a new life across the Oregon Trail that follows nearby the new superhighways and the train tracks, is a story of perseverance and courage.

The slaughter of the buffalo and the massacres of the Ogallala, Mineconju, and Hunkpapa old men, women, and children, starting in places like Blue Water Creek (Harney’s Massacre), near Lake McConaughy, Nebraska, in 1855 and ending with Wounded Knee, South Dakota in December 1890 are a terrible stain on US history. The environmental damage of the enormous Powder River Basin, Wyoming, supplying 40% of American coal, the multitude of railroad trains burning diesel fuel for thousands of miles across the US emitting pollutants, and the coal-fired power plants, often located in urban minority and low income neighborhoods, emitting health destroying particulates of heavy metals, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide, are killing my country, my countrymen, and the planet.

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Buttes in Scottsbluff National Monument

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Spotted Elk Dead at Wounded Knee

The problems of the coal trains and coal-fired power plants can be solved. Use of solar and wind energy, restriction on particulates in the air, and closure of coal-fired utility plants promoted by an activist Environmental Protection Agency would help America slow climate change; however a country dedicated to maximizing profits for its energy companies and utility monopolies will try prevent it. The servants of crass corporate capitalism are dead set against big profit-reducing changes as the naming of Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General, an avowed opponent of the EPA to lead the agency by the incoming Trump Administration testifies. The reconstruction of much of the sacred grassland is probably impossible. The survival of the planet as viable to support human life even with to its warming is possible, but much that was once land will become water. The only humans to continue to live reasonable lives may be only those rich enough to provide themselves with the materials to exist in a hot place surrounded by dead seas.

How does one reconcile the contradictions? The United States is an electrified country with a capitalist driving force. The power plants light up our cities, give life to our appliances, and drive the digital information world. The need is insatiable. American are addicted to electricity and have been getting fixes since 1882, eight years before Wounded Knee, when Thomas Edison’s coal-burning Pearl Street Electric Power Station first supplied electricity to Lower Manhattan and Wall Street.  New York City’s greatest testament to the beauty, sensational, visually magnetic, and mind blowing power of electric addiction was and still is Times Square. From the beginning its electronic signs were advertisements for the entertainment and consumer-driven life financed and managed by Wall Street. Today every American city is ablaze. Its businesses and houses are lighted, directed, and controlled by electricity. The grandest holy temple of our electronic god is Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas emerged from an isolated train stop to an electronic fantasyland of immense size and digital animation. I track its history, astounded that this place was simultaneously founded on another addiction, gambling. What Times Square and Las Vegas are evolved from, and will warp into, are endlessly fascinating to me. I am an electronic junkie who likes the art it bestows.

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Times Square in 1953, painting by R. Nagele

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Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2016

You can’t kick the habit completely, and I don’t think anyone can. Electricity has provided us with too many benefits, but everyone should be aware of its negative effects. Minimally the aesthetic of electric power distribution damages our apprehension of the landscape from the ugly power lines crisscrossing the land and city, and to the hopelessly horrid piles of coal next to the utility plants whose enormous vent stacks belch smoke into the sky. They are the eyesores people no longer see, since they have been with us for over a century. I admit that the utility plants have a brutal beauty. The forms are geometric concatenations of towers, ladders, lines, and rectilinear forms horizontal and vertical that fascinate. The Brunner Island Power Plant hidden along an isolated stretch of the Susquehanna River south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, surprised me with its visual power. Artists like Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth used the romance of these industrial forms to great effect.

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Electric Landscape in California

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Brunner Island Power Plant on the Susquehanna

In the jazz age appeared several important American artists, who found cultural innovation and meaning in the industrial world. Charles Demuth was a Pennsylvania-born artist who had his studio in Lancaster. He painted industrial forms he saw in the state, like his image of 1920, End of the Parade, Coatesville, Pennsylvania. His semi-abstracted style fit with the forms he depicted. Photographer, painter, and print maker Charles Sheeler made a stunning silver point gelatin photographic print in 1927 of the River Rouge Plant of the Ford Motor Company. America was flexing its industrial and aesthetic prowess. Today these industrial types are disappearing as America de-industrializes and utility and refinery complexes are only places where these forms are still used. In the 1920s and ‘30s no one, except perhaps an Indian whose land was taken in the 17th and 18th centuries and an anti-modernist, was aggrieved at the reality of industrialization and its generation of a new abstracted form of art. Today the applauding sentiment is confined to the museum, poster, and postcard.

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Demuth, 1920, Parade End , Coatesville

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Sheeler, 1927, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Co.

The rusting hulks of lost industry have only served to embitter the blue collar workers laid off by this great shift, who have flexed their political clout into the election of a populist who says he can bring back jobs, but won’t be able to do it because control of the whole system in the hands of global corporate capitalists. Look at who owns the whole of the electronic network and the energy that powers it. The Wyoming coalfields are owned by corporations like Peabody Coal, Arch Coal, and Kiewit Corporation. Most have international interests. These energy producers are making enormous profit off the largest source of soft coal in the world. They aren’t about to stop mining. The coal is carried to the power plants by BNSF railroad, a duopoly controlling half of all western rail transportation, owned by Berkshire Hathaway. The coal is delivered to utility plants owned by corporation like DNR, Dynergy, and PPL (Pennsylvania Power & Light), corporations whose investors include Wall Street financiers and capital asset managers such as Goldman Sachs, Blackstone Group, and Vanguard, that in turn are owned by other capital controlling groups and high wealth investors.

The utility companies have sorry histories with relationships to criminally convicted Enron, bankrupted Lehman Brothers, and fines for non-compliance with court-ordered pollution measures. The utility plants were under pressure to halt burning coal by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). At the Will County, Powerton, and Baldwin Plants in Illinois, owned by NGR and Dynergy, the corporations closed some of the coal burning units of multiple unit facilities. Closures occur with a concomitant layoff of workers. Job loss at Baldwin was estimated to be 122 positions. Some units remain open. No doubt that an eviscerated EPA will not close, but perhaps allow reopening of the closed power generating units. The generated electricity is then transferred in some cases to other corporations. In Illinois, Dynergy sells its power to MISO (Midcontinent Independent System Operator). PPL operates its own system serving 10 million customers in UK and the US because PPL owns the English Utility Company. I would venture a guess that all the coal mining, coal transporting, coal utility users, and coal-fired electricity suppliers are interlocked by mutual investors and members of their boards of directors. This system serves them. They are the shareholders; most Americans and most of the world’s populations aren’t. We get what they give us at the price they determine often in collusion with the governments that say they serve us. We are the sheep. They are the shepherds. The fenced fields are opened and closed by gatekeepers bought off by the shepherds. It makes me angry.

Unless there is a revolution, the situation will not change. We know a communist revolution will not change it. Communism replaces one set of masters for another. The revolution must be individual. It must begin with awareness, knowledge, and opportunity. Awareness is diminishing because the elite committed to profit at any cost controls media and technology. The individual must his or her own path to awareness. Turn off commercial TV. Make your own video. Speak your own truth. Knowledge is available. The Internet provides a portal, but only one of many. There are still books. Opportunity can be found. The technology of wind and solar allow a person to be come a power plant owner and a mini-utility for others’ empowerment. Personal power will have to be forced from hands of and laws of use from the utilities. There are other opportunities, too. All that is needed is imagination.

All of this requires group activity, courage, and creativity. Don’t look to contemporary art or established cultural sources to show the way. The cool observation of the earth’s demise of present day conceptual art, and individualistic ego focused art has neither the anger nor the power to change the current situation. The art world sold out long ago the capitalist world of money. Most dramatic arts at least those displayed on television are locked down by corporate sponsorship. Music, since the demise of record labels, maybe the only place where the call to significant change can be heard. Look to for groups that can harness a new energy, viewpoint, and innovative message. Just as John Coltrane didn’t play his jazz alone, his quartet, sextet, and band provided the support for his revolutionary sound. Be creative in any way you can. Take what’s old and turn it upside down. “Some of My Favorite Things” could bring this cold removed uncaring global capitalist world crashing down. A new reality could arise. It won’t be a walk in the park, but it will be worth it. A new hankering for honking will hammer the ham-fisted honkies.

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John Coltrane and the Thelonious Monk Quartet

 

 

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Filed under Art, BNSF, Nebraska, Wall Street, Wounded Knee, Wyoming