An artist is never really gone.I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance.Haunting in the way of Bowie’s Blackstar, there’s a poignancy to listening hard to the dead.Especially when they saw it coming.Artists are never really gone, and we can forgive them because they’re oh so very human.Cohen was an exceptional poet and this album captures a man who knows the end is near.Still he sings of girls and sins and God.There’s an eternal soul there, and Cohen captures longing better than just about anyone.The artist knows longing and understands not knowing for what.The album struggles with religion and depression, a remarkably common combination.Memories of glories that linger even as the body ages.
Listening to someone else’s music is taking a stroll through her or his head.Someone once gave me a disc of songs built around a theme.Although the theme came through I feared a little of what I heard here.Some who know me primarily from my overly pious upbringing would be shocked to find Cohen on my favorites list.For me he has no pretense.Instead of ignoring religion, sexuality, or politics, he tried to make sense of them through song.For me—and listening to music is a very personal thing—I think I understand when I’m drawn into his lyrics.His experience of life was vastly different from what mine has been, yet he’d accurately mapped the direction my mind might wander, if given free rein.Religion will hold your imagination captive, if left to its own devices.
Those who reduce Leonard Cohen to his over-used “Hallelujah” catch only glimpses of this complex man.I once read an article about Bruce Springsteen in which a friend of his said that if he hadn’t succeeded in music he might’ve become a priest.There’s an authenticity to these artists who write probing songs that have deep spirituality yet allow themselves to be human.Cohen’s songs revealed he could see death with some ambivalence from afar.Even in albums recorded thirty years ago the hints were there.Instead of running and attempting to hide, Cohen’s lyrics, at least, indicated that he’d continue to try to live.Maybe these are just the reflections of a middle-aged man who’s only glimpsed a fleeting connection between an artist in perpetual motion and a one-time scholar sitting up alone at 3:00 a.m., seemingly stuck in one place.Whatever else they may be, such quiet moments will ones be haunted by Thanks for the Dance.
For the next sixty seconds… (If you were born after Civil Defense aired these commercials, it’s your loss.) I’ve been reading about animal intelligence—there will be more on this anon. Today’s lesson is on artificial intelligence. For now let this be an illustration of how difficult it is to come down from an inspired weekend to the daily technology-enhanced drudgery we call day-to-day life. One of the real joys of seeing art in person is that no tech intervenes in the experience. It is naked exposure to another human being’s expression of her or himself. Over the weekend we wandered through five venues of intense creativity and then, back home, it was once more into the web. The ever-entangling internet of things.
I write, for better or for worse, on my laptop. My writing’s actually better on paper, but you need everything in electronic form for publication, so who has the time to write and retype, especially when work is ten hours of your day? Then a system update alert flashes in the upper right corner of my screen. “Okay,” I say setting the laptop aside, “go ahead and update.” But then the message that states I have to clear enough gigs for an update. I have been a little too creative and I’ve used my disc space for stuff I’ve made rather than Apple. This is a test. Okay, so I plug in my trusty terabyte drive to back things up before deleting them. But the laptop doesn’t recognize the drive. Oh, so it needs a reboot! (Don’t we all?) I give the command to restart. It can’t because some app refuses to quit beach-balling, as if it is the computer that’s doing the actual thinking. Force quit. “Are you sure?” the Mac cheekily asks. “You might lose unsaved changes.” I need a technological evangelist, I guess.
All of this takes time away from my precious few minutes of daily creativity. Restart, login, start copying files. Time for work! Just a mere sixty hours ago or less I was wandering through showcases of genuine human creation. Art pieces that make you stop and ponder, and not have to upgrade the software. Artists can talk to you and shake your hand. Explain what they’ve tried to express in human terms. Meanwhile my phone had died and was pouting while I charged it. I know Apple wants me to upgrade my hardware—their technological extortion is well known. Anyone who uses a computer experiences it. Buy a new one or I’ll waste your time. The choice is yours. This is a test. For the next sixty years…
One of the many trails that wend their way through Ithaca is the Art Trail.(The town finds waypoints on the wine and beer trails of the southern tier as well, but we were looking for visual art.)In early October several artists open their studios—these are personal places—to the tourists passing through.Those of us on the trail are seeking inspiration in human expression.I’ve neglected my own art for many years.While other guys my age are retiring and expressing their boredom, I struggle to find enough time to write, dreaming of the day when I can again take up my pencils and brushes.Being in so many studios over the weekend jump-started something in me.Humans are at their most god-like when they create.
Seeing artists in context is revealing.They don’t worry too much about convention.I found myself hanging toward the back of our little group.There was so much of others’ souls on display here.While some were young, a fair number were older than me.Perhaps retired from a novocaine job that dulled many days until enough years had passed and the need to let the art out escaped.If felt like visiting a small farm where the true independent, liberal spirit of this country once resided.These were farmers with paint brushes rather than shotguns and Trump bumperstickers.Free thinkers, not Fox thinkers.Under a sky October blue after two days of rain and gray, this was a mosaic of autumn.Art is a muse.I think of my neglected brushes and dried out paints, tucked away in the attic.
Modern art sometimes feels like someone slapped a frame around something random, but in talking with the creator something different emerges.Something that doesn’t feel like plastic.Something that defies words.Like poems sometimes break conventional lines, art refuses to be confined.Some of these studios used to be living rooms.Houses converted and dedicated to creativity.Why is this so difficult to accomplish in my own life?How has the time come to be consumed with work, even when the commute has been effaced?I suppose I’ve been using words to express myself—this blog is certainly an example of that.It is, however, a mere fraction of visual ideas awaiting release.I don’t know if I could ever open my studio to strangers.Art trails are labyrinths, and once you’ve entered that maze, it will take some time to reemerge.And when I do I know I will have been transformed.
“Why is there so much people here?”The words aren’t mine, but those of a random stranger I heard in Herald Square.Not only was it grammatically offensive, I always find “much people” in Manhattan, but this was the occasion of the Pope’s visit a few years ago, so more of us were crowded into that area than normal.It was a feeling that returned last night as my wife and I wandered around Musikfest.If you’re not from around here, Musikfest is the largest free music festival in the United States, and it takes place in Bethlehem each summer.Ten days of free, live music and tents hawking wares and all kinds of comestibles, as well as that strangely satisfying feeling of being lost in a crowd.We ended up there more or less accidentally.
I was an experimental subject.Those of you who know me will probably not find this odd, and you may well come up with many reasons to find me in the psychology department, some involving locked doors.This was, however, a voluntary research project that required participants and it had been literally decades since I’d volunteered to be one of the “much people” who was not not part of the university crowd.It felt good to be on a campus again.The Lehigh Valley hosts several colleges and universities, and that draw is perhaps related to why Musikfest is held here.When we got to town my wife realized we might have trouble parking.Sections of downtown Bethlehem are closed to traffic and there are people everywhere.I finished my experiment and we became part of the crowd again.
Music and religion, I’ve noted before, hang out in the same crowd.They both have the ability to be transcendent and people seek out such experiences.Since we hadn’t planned on attending—accidental musicologists we—we had no groups as targeted hearing while we wandered.Mostly we marveled at the size of the event.The city of steel transformed to the city of music.And the religious feelings music brings.As I walked from the college back to downtown, a couple strangers accosted me.“Hi, brother,” they said.“Heading to Musikfest?”This, I realized was a congregation.I was an unknown brother.Music brings peace.Dona nobis pacem, sisters and brothers.Like those crowds a few years back hoping for a glimpse of the pontiff, an entire city had kicked off its shoes for a Friday night of potential transcendence.Why is there so much people here?Simply listen and you’ll have your answer.
Christianity isn’t known for its sense of humor.The same can be said of other religions as well, of course.What else should we expect concerning belief systems that claim eternal consequences?A story by Colin Dwyeron NPR explains that the Haifa Museum of Art had to remove a sculpture titled “McJesus” due to public violence.The sculpture depicts a crucified Ronald McDonald, and a number of althoughs follow: although Haifa is in Israel a large number of Christians protested.Although the practice of crucifixion was uncomfortably common in ancient days it has come to be associated with one particular case.Although the message might be interpreted as a condemnation of commercialism, protestors took it to be aimed at their faith.Perhaps it was.Artists can be notoriously ambiguous in that way.
Ronald McDonald is a liminal, if ubiquitous figure.Instantly recognizable, he has been challenged before as a threat to christendom.I once heard a priest lament that children recognized the golden arches more than the cross.Well, that’s not surprising—we don’t go around telling our kids about crucifixion daily.(Or shouldn’t.)A massive Ronnie, on the other hand, floats down Manhattan every Thanksgiving Day.He’s on posters, commercials, and 42nd Street.He’s the patron saint of branding.With his garish clashing color palette, his red and yellow never mix to orange and they linger in our minds to ensure us that no matter where we might be there’s always cheap, if unhealthy, food nearby.Mr. McDonald has become a religious symbol of capitalism.
Even as a child I noticed the great deal of excitement that accompanied the opening of the local McDonald’s.In a small, corroded corner of the rust belt, families piled into cars to drive to Oil City to see this wonder.It was like an epiphany.Eating out that the poor could afford.Just about everything in downtown Oil City is now closed, but the last time I was there that McDonald’s still stood.Back in Haifa an ironic depiction led to real violence.Angry Christians carrying stones couldn’t see the statue as a condemnation of consumer culture.Their beleaguered religion was at risk.Blood flowed and the art piece was removed and packed off to Finland.Although the point of the display was to question religious appropriation in the support of consumerism, and although that message could ultimately support the teachings of the religion it evokes, the branding came across all wrong.Church is your kind of place…
Over the summer the New York Historical Society had an exhibit, now over, on Norman Rockwell, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms.I think we may be down to one or two freedoms by now, but nevertheless.One weekend my wife and I went to the exhibition.She’d just read a biography of Rockwell, and although his Americana is my America, I suppose, his pluck is sometimes unnerving.You see, an artist has to show emotions on people’s faces and in their gestures.Long ago I learned that if you show what you’re feeling in real life, people will quickly take advantage of you.I learned, even as a teen, to be subtle.If you think you’ve got me figured out, here’s a hint—that subtlety continues even into my writing.It’s often not what it appears to be.
Some months back I wrote a funny piece on this blog.Some people who actually know me—or the part that I let be known—thought I was depressed.Or angry.Or both.That’s a side effect of subtlety.Episcopalians have it down to a science.At least they used to.The only place they showed emotion was in high mass, and that, if done right, packs a wallop.One of my brothers comments that I seldom smile.I might say too much about myself if I did.What would you do with that knowledge?In my earliest experience, you might use it to hurt me.Walking through Manhattan to the exhibit, I noticed the stone facades.Some buildings have solemn stonework, almost gothic is aspect.Behind the windows, however, I can sense emotion left unshown.It’s not very Rockwell.
I admire Rockwell’s outlook.Indeed, I might share more of it than I want to reveal.Rockwell, according to the exhibit, believed in America for all races and all creeds.Strong women dominate his paintings and illustrations.Equality was what America used to stand for.And although I’m reluctant to admit it, when my writing’s most serious an element of humor enters in.Like a Rockwell painting.He wished to be taken for a serious artist, but had a difficult time suppressing the irony of life itself.I get that.It’s just that if other people see what’s beneath the surface—what goes on behind that stone facade?—they will find a means of extorting it.Best to be subtle.Words can mean the opposite of what they say or can be literally true.The shades between the extremes are endless.
The days of angry white men backlash are hopefully numbered.One thing this strange phenomenon of privileged males feeling under threat has brought to the surface is the long struggle of women for the basic acknowledgment of human equality.Ironically, it took a horrible war to move the cause forward.Rosie the Riveter became a fixture during World War Two, blazing the message that women could do the tough jobs men had always done, now that males were off trying to kill one another overseas.These images of Rosie have found new life in the era of Trumpism that has objectified women in the crudest possible ways, because it’s, well, monkey-see monkey-do in the world of politics.Just consider Brett Kavanaugh and try to challenge the point.
One of the more famous portraits of Rosie, back when Fascism was an evil thing, is that painted by Norman Rockwell.A pugnacious Rosie eats her lunch with her feet on Main Kampf and her riveting gun in her lap.(These days she would need to have her feet on an elephant rampant.)Something about this painting always bothered me.I could never put my finger on it.It certainly wasn’t the confident look on Rosie’s face—she’d earned that and deserved it long before it became a reality.Even the patriotism at that time was tasteful.No, it was her posture.There was something uncanny about it.Then I learned that Rockwell had consciously copied Michelangelo’s Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Isaiah, according to that famous rendition (Isaiah has never been a popular subject for paintings, for some reason), has his head turned at that peculiar angle because an angel is whispering in his ear.Instead of a riveting gun, he’s packing a nascent Good Book, but he is receiving a direct message from on high.I like to think it might be “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord,” but then I’ve always been a dreamer.Rosie, in Rockwell’s rendition, is prophetic.She is proclaiming an equality which, inexplicably, coming up on a century later, is still unrealized.Why?The angry white man only recognizes God made in his own image.