Category Archives: Art

Photographic Evidence

All photographs are lies. That moment preserved, formerly on celluloid but now with electrons, is gone for good as soon as the shutter is snapped. The camera doesn’t see as the eye sees. I was reminded of this during a mountain thunderstorm. I awoke early, coated with jet lag and the residue of my regular early morning schedule. It was still dark, but the reddish sunlight soon wrestled through a valley fed by a creek across the lake. The color was impressive, but my camera washed it out to a diluted Creamsicle orange. In reality the clouds were roiling overhead and lightning was streaking through a thunderhead like synapses firing violently in a massive brain. Thunder in the mountains can’t be photographed. Nor can it be forgot.

My work used to require quite a bit of travel. Before I would visit a campus I would spend some time on faculty pages, trying to put faces together with names. Impressed with how young these professors were, I’d knock on doors armed with foreknowledge of who might greet me. I wondered who these older people were when the door actually opened. It’s disconcerting to see someone age before your eyes. I would think back to the photographs online that had assured me this person would be much younger. The picture was a fossil. A moment frozen in time. The very next second after the photo capture that smiling face had changed. The best that we can hope for is a gross approximation.

Perceptions of reality, as all religions teach us, contain a healthy dose of illusion. While it contains ethereal beauty, this vision I’ve captured in my lens is only part of the picture. There is something deeper, more meaningful behind it. Photographs enhance memory. In the days before Photoshop they could be submitted as proof of an occurrence. They are a form of art. Whatever else they may be, they are also lies. Lies need not be of evil intent. Religions try to explain what some privileged individual realized was the truth. These who found a way of looking behind the photograph. The streaking lightning outside evades the slowness of my finger on the button. The thunder rolling and re-echoing through these valleys will remain in my head long after the sound waves cease to reverberate. Reality is more than it seems. Even my experience of this mountain thunderstorm is that of a single individual seeking enlightenment. Elsewhere others are up early, observing it too. What they experience may be something very different from me indeed. I have a photograph to prove it.

Bull

Bulls have long been symbols. If I write “that’s bull” your mind will likely fill in the missing implied word. In ancient times the king of the gods, El, was known as “bull El”—probably for a very different reason than the veiled scatological reference above. Bulls were powerful and, to those in settled, agrarian societies, necessary for life. Of course, they can turn on you and kill you with little thought. Even in our high-tech, urbanite world, we keep our bulls at hand. “Charging Bull,” a golden calf if there ever was one, is a famous Wall Street statue erected to the glory of mammon and greed. On May 7, to celebrate International Women’s Day, a statue called “Fearless Girl” was placed in front of “Charging Bull.” Our symbols require some reevaluation. In a kind of Trump-up, another artist placed a statue of a dog lifting its leg on the girl, according to the Washington Post.

We creative types can be sensitive about our work. Apart from writing I’ve dabbled in drawing, painting, and sculpting, although few have seen the results. I know that the space around an artwork is part of the art. I’ve posted before about Grounds for Sculpture, one of my favorite places in New Jersey. The idea of a sculpture park is that the context of the image is important. Statues show up fairly frequently in New York City. The ever-changing art along the pedestrianized part of Broadway in Midtown keeps the walk to work interesting. Interacting with art is performance. At the same time, the respectful viewer knows, artists are making a statement. Placing a girl before a charging bull says so very much.

“Fearless Girl,” unlike the great lummox she faces, is temporary. Nevertheless, the statement she makes is loud and clear. Wall Street might more aptly be named Ball Street for the amount of testosterone that surges through the place. Men erected a system to keep women out of positions of power. And even when a small symbol of female resistance is placed, some man has to have a pug pee on her. I wonder what our society’s become. We’re hardly agrarian any more, yet we still feel “bullish” about things. When’s the last time anyone used “girlish” as a compliment in a business context? “Fearless Girl” will be allowed to stand until February. The pug is temporarily gone, but will be back. When the girl goes the pug will follow. All that will be left in Bowling Green Park will be bull.

Jericho

Those who think walls actually keep people out have never ridden the train through North Philadelphia. Or into Newark. I have to admit that I’ve always found rail-side graffiti aesthetically pleasing. Some of these vandals are real artists on a scale that is truly impressive. Speeding trains are, of course, dangerous. And in urban areas they are fenced off to keep people out. Thing is, walls don’t work. Riding to Washington DC for the Women’s March a couple weekends ago, I was watching the graffiti on the way into Philly. Vast, colorful, and with a flair for design, it makes the usual visual fare for railway riders much more interesting. Buildings, we know, have facades to be public facing. If you go around to the back of the strip mall, things look a lot more spartan indeed. I’ve spent my fair share of time in employee break rooms. Executive washrooms they’re not.

The thing about facades is that they’re fake. Like in those old westerns where we see them jutting up higher than the actual roof of the store or saloon, making them look bigger than they really are. Or even a small town boy who works in Manhattan can see it. Walk down the avenues of Midtown and the glitz is never-ending. Once you get to the minor cross-streets you see the service entrances and smelly trash bags stacked in the alleys. Would you want to enter that store if you knew what was coming out the back? We prefer our self-deception. We prefer to call our lies alternative facts. We can sleep better at night that way, knowing that our heads of state are so so brutally honest. Just don’t wander behind the cameraman. Things aren’t what they seem.

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To get to New York City from where I live, you have to change trains in Newark. The graffiti along the way is intense. Long ago I noticed a signal hidden in the noise. “Paint the Revolution” it reads. Or read. I don’t know if it’s still there. Graffiti’s often the bare truth. The thing is, it’s difficult to photograph. Trains move fast and phones focus slowly. Things look blurry and those in power can tell us the words of hoi polloi are ugly and defacement of property. Have they ever walked behind the building to where the workers come out? It’s easy to find. If you smell the piles of garbage you’re getting close. Executive washrooms they’re not. But the back door is far more honest than any facade.

Capital Carol

The idea of exchanging presents on a holiday emerges from the impenetrable veil of time. We don’t know when the practice began—the idea of copying the Zoroastrian wise men in Matthew is a bit of a stretch and the date of Christmas wasn’t settled until much later in time. However and whenever it started, giving gifts at this time of year has become one of the defining features of late capitalism—it’s almost as if Jesus of Nazareth was born for this. An economy that measures self-worth in terms of money is just the place to have God-incarnate celebrated by giving lavish gifts. Those of us who make no money off the holidays can’t deny that it feels good to give someone something. People like, in general, to make each other happy.

This year my wife asked for a non-material gift. We made our way to the McCarter Theater in Princeton to see their acclaimed performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A gift of a memorable family time and a truly spectacular play. Seeing this story in 2016 felt especially important. Dickens was a famous advocate for the poor and was well aware of how they suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Indeed, those with too much money lose their humanity almost completely. The story is focused around Christmas, but the message is needed for every day, especially in over-long years such as this. Capitalism is a form of social evil. Anything that lowers humans to mere ciphers on a page is the very definition of sin.

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We all know how the story goes, but to see accomplished actors undergoing conversion is nevertheless a strangely hopeful experience. As the story makes abundantly clear, it requires so very little to make others happy. The point of having money, after all, is to use it for the good of others. Seeing one man facing his own mortality only to realize that he has isolated himself from the care of others is a powerful experience. As we move forward into the long and dark days ahead, there is a reminder here that we need to keep close to our hearts. There may be fewer presents under the tree this year, but we are all the richer for it. This is the kind of gift that we need to share with the entire world.

So Long, Marianne

fullsizeoutput_122f“It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen has died. But can you blame him? This seems to be a week for losses. I came to appreciate Cohen’s work long after his best-known songs had been and gone. The interviews with and news stories about him that I’ve read convince me that he was an extraordinary man. Spiritual and sensual, he was a true contemplative. He strove to experience what it means to be human. I sometimes fear we’ve lost that as a goal. I see headlines proclaiming that we can now have chips implanted in our brains—we can become part computer. “You held on to me like I was a crucifix,” he once sang. Who believes in crucifixes anymore? Salvation doesn’t come from above. It comes from self-interest. From business and bank accounts. And that chip in my head.

My wife taught me the value of music therapy. When the forces of darkness gather, listening to music can help you through. Many artists have covered Leonard Cohen’s songs. So much so that some have forgotten who it was that wrote them. A true artist, I suspect, doesn’t mind. Those of us who delve in creativity know that we are more like receivers than gods. It takes worshipers to make a deity. The songs that Cohen wrote were messages to the world. Poetic and deeply personal, they are reminders that being human is okay. In fact, it’s what we’ve evolved to be. I have a feeling we’re going to be needing more poets in the days to come. Someone has to shine the shoes of those who work in Trump Tower. My mind is singing “Chelsea Hotel.” Everybody knows.

Cohen was a reminder that sacred and secular are not so far apart. In fact, they are often difficult to distinguish. There may be a problem when you discover that in seminary, but if you can put it into a song perhaps people will listen. Eras, it seems to me, ought to have anthems. F.D.R., one of the truly great Presidents of the century past, proposed “Happy Days Are Here Again.” I wonder what songs we’ll be associating with the presidency over the next four long years. Will there be any music at all? Far be it from me to proclaim any man a prophet, but can you listen to “First We Take Manhattan” and come to any other conclusion? Go to iTunes, or that chip in your head, and listen. You might just end up singing “Who by Fire” as well.

Final Frontiers

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Is there such a thing as an existential illness? Answer that if you want to, but it’s rhetorical. I’ve been voting since 1980 and I’ve taken my fair share of bruises in the process, but this time my soul feels as if God has hung his “gone fishin’” sign on the pearly gates for good. I am ill. Maybe it was the ebullience that came from having eight years of progress where, although things weren’t perfect, they were sort of holding steady. I’ve always considered myself a populist. I don’t know how a billionaire can convince millions of people he’s one. To be populist you’ve got to be one of hoi polloi. Growing up poor, I took my licks then and I’m still taking them now. No, this wound goes deeper than the bone. Deeper than the viscera. It’s an existential illness.

All things considered, I don’t write too much about politics on this blog. All my adult years I’ve been an unapologetic Democrat. I confess to having grown up Republican. But I believe in the fair treatment of others. I know not everyone will or can be happy. I also know that it’s wrong to denigrate anyone because of their gender, race, orientation, or physical ability. Seems to me that our country was sort of the final frontier where you could go if you believed this kind of thing. Where can you go from the final frontier? There are no other land masses to discover. Maybe if I put on enough layers, Antarctica might not be so bad. Beyond that, where can one go to be a liberal in a world that desperately need some heart? Where money isn’t the measure of all things. Where Mom is right just as often, if not more than, Dad.

It’s a strange thing, this existential illness. Politicians are already cooing their pleasantries, as if nothing more than a slight upset occurred. It seems to me that whenever there’s an upset the popular vote disagrees with the electoral college. It also seems to me there should be a place where the wealthy aren’t considered better by virtue of their material status. I have this existential illness, but I can still dream. Is there a way forward from here? Sometimes I think I can see that horizon where all people are treated fairly and equally, and sometimes the sun seems to be rising over that horizon. Today I feel motion-sick from being jolted backwards. I’ve been disappointed before, but I don’t remember it hurting this badly. If anyone knows a good existential doctor, please pass along her name.

Fictional Fact

Do you remember that tragic sinking of a Staten Island ferry when a giant octopus pulled it under? Sounds vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t living near New York at the time. A story in The Guardian tells how Joseph Reginella, a sculptor, made his commemorative piece of art for Battery Park for a fictional incident. Like the memorial for War of the Worlds in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, this is something we remember that never really transpired. We remember what never happened. It’s easy to forget that memory evolved for specific purposes. Mainly we remember for survival. Our brains evolved to keep us alive. If we don’t recall where we found water, or where that hidden cliff edge is, we don’t last for long. But we remember other things as well. The time that Oog borrowed your stone axe and didn’t give it back. Our social memory made us human, so we’re told.

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No doubt it is possible to develop a keen memory. Precise recollection of events just as they happened, in sequence. It’s also possible, even collectively, to misremember things. We tell stories. We make myths. There was no giant octopus incident. Maybe we saw such a thing in a movie one time. That movie, paired with the plausible evidence of a public monument commemorating the event becomes a modified reality. I’m just sure I can remember it happening, can’t you?

Studies of such phenomena tell us that memories aren’t what they seem to be. To make distant recollections Holy Writ, for example, we have to rely on divine inspiration. Without it we might just be remembering a story somebody told once upon a time. And where did I put the car keys? Yes, our memories are open to manipulation. Things that never happened become real this way. George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree and confess to his father because he could not lie. And yet we believe. We make myths because they give our lives meaning. Face it, evolution is a pretty boring explanation for why we’re here. Natural selection has no goals in mind. Things that work best tend to survive in the gene pool. And in some people’s memory there may be a giant octopus in that pool as well. Did the the Cornelius G. Kolff get pulled under or not? Would a ship with such a name ever be made up? Myths are still born every day, even as the octopuses cower in their caves, awaiting the next naive ferry to transcend reality.