Commentaries - September 2008
Lately I'm thinking... about how bad the Emmy's are on television. I know I shouldn't be surprised but I was last night astonished - shocked, even - by the extent of the self-congratulation. These people actually believe that television is currently our most effective medium. (One TV exec said this explicitly in a speech - TV is "the most important medium for bringing people together," he announced - that was perhaps the most uninteresting thing I've ever seen on the tube, and that's saying something.) Gee, in this view the television people are at least five or six years out of date in their thinking. Yet haven't these been the medium-changing years? Their ignorance is their only willful quality.
Tim Carmody adds: "It was also bizarre to watch the Academy on the one hand honor Tommy Smothers for political insouciance and to watch everyone, EVERYONE, not just presenters, skirt anything resembling a direct political comment. We had bizarre claims about how The West Wing "was a nonpartisan exploration of politics," purely formal invocations to vote or speak truth to power, joking denunications of ugliness in political advertising, and oblique references to John Adams as a time when politicians could express complex ideas in full sentences. It was as though if anyone spoke the words Obama or McCain or Bush, the TV shock troops would have descended on the stage and the screen would go black."
I've been using "Google Alerts" for some months. Simple to use: just enter a word or term and each morning you will receive an email message listing and linking all the web entries (including blogs) that were created in the previous 24 hours that used your word or term. My last name is rare, of course (the other Filreises--few of them--are all in my small extended family), so one term about which I have Google alerting me is "Filreis." It will pick up my own bloggy doings, and occasionally references to me elsewhere (in this sense, Google Alerts is an automated clipping service--since these references fall under the old general term "reviews").
Another term I have Google Alerts set to search is "Wallace Stevens." This is imperfect, since I pick of new uses of "Wallace" as well as a few, each day, about "Wallace Stevens." One can set Google Alerts to search only the blogosphere; I have it set to search the whole wide web including the blogosphere, blogs being, of course, merely easily updated web pages that follow a preprogrammed design protocol.
This is how I come in contact with the outer edges of the blogosphere, and occasionally I'm charmed, excited, stirred, surprised, miffed, etc. Mostly I find the air up there at the edge fairly thin. This morning, for instance, I awoke to find someone named "anf" whose blog is called "smallfriends" and whose profile says "forever hoping to look large." I don't see or sense anything small about anf so I'll assume the self-narrowness is a Dickinsonian modesty, which thus might be ironic. Perhaps she's powerful. A link to her web site tells me she's "ashlee nicolle ferlito," a San Fran-based artist, trained at Yale and in France and Cyprus. She's been blogging since January 2007--which is right about the time blogs exploded.
So, Wallace Stevens. What does Stevens mean to this young artist? She's lately been "obsessed with money" and been "fascinat[ed] with the concept of value." So she read or re-read Stevens' lecture (in The Necessary Angel) called "Imagination as Value." The value of money is "a pretty amazing mass hallucination," anf decides. She's losing (she says "loosing") the "ability" to have faith in the value of currency. Somehow symmetry become an alternative to psychic monetary deflation. Putting her blog entries (thoughts) into artistic practice seems to be anf's daily mode, and so here's what follows: photos of some dollar-bill cut-ups. If you look at anf's paintings you realize this is a digression from her usual work. For the moment her art is to make paper part of her world of smallfriends - "paper that just happens to be money." So here, above right, is what Wallace Stevens in the blogosphere has become this morning. I am intrigued by the morphing. Why not?
Pier Marton's film Say I'm a Jew is about Marton's inability to talk about the Holocaust. He is a child of survivors and found that he could not talk articulately at all about it, so he decided to talk about that--his inability to talk about it. And about the inability to talk he could talk about freely.
Here's what Stephen Feinstein has written about Marton in Witness and Legacy: "Pier Marton is a second-generation artist who has wrestled with problems of his parents' survival and the impact of contemporary anti-Semitism. This led him to merge the video interview of children of survivors, called Say I'm a Jew, with an installation entitled Jew, set in a cattle car. Being a member of the second generation and experiencing European anti-Semitism in France in the 1950s and 1960s led Marton to the inability to openly express his Jewishness. Drawing from his own experience, Marton was obsessed with the question of how children of the second generation have coped with growing up in Europe after World War II. While attending a convention of second-generation survivors, Marton advertised for individuals willing to tell the story of their European and Jewish identity experiences on camera. Many volunteered. Marton edited bits and pieces of the video together to form an engaging artistic and psychological work. The American-European painter R. J. Kitaj has represented what he terms "diasporism" as a major component in contemporary artistic life. This is a useful concept to explain the works of many artists in this show, who constantly have to deal with a Jewish identity problem in a world that is potentially enticing and supportive and also contains anti-Semitism, denial and insult. Marton's space was made to represent a blend of cattle car, barracks and a mausoleum. As Marton has written, "Memory can fuse separate locations in an inextricable blend." Within the installation area were seats where the video played continuously. Those attending the show were encouraged to write their responses on the walls of the entrance and boxcar itself, recalling the memory of how deportees did the same on their way to death camps."
Collapse of the financial markets has me thinking about which parts of the economy go first. The arts are not first to go, not now, in part because so many artists are already affiliated with institutiona through "regular" jobs and with universities. Once upon a time artists were among the first two or three economic segments to suffer. This isn't to say that those with regular (non-arts-related) jobs won't get hurt--only that they will get hurt in the usual order of bad times, sector by sector without respect (and I mean that word) to the arts' relevance or irrelevance.
In the 1930s, of course, the government put unemployed artists to work in federal arts projects that included murals for post offices. Many of the post offices had themselves just been designed and built by people who'd been on the dole and picked up work through the New Deal feds.
This meant - famously - that for the first time residents of American bohemia were in more or less direct contact with small-town America. I mean, it's really the case that federally employed artists were "sent out" to communities to paint murals in what then was one of the few social meetingplaces in such towns, the P.O. This produced quite a convergence, and the social results were mostly good. (Much has been written about this.)
Not often but occasionally local conservatives hated the populist, pro-worker, bottom-up scenes depicted in the murals, or thought the paintings showed too much leg, or in general believed the local culture had been mis-represented.
Residents of Port Washington, New York objected to the artist Paul Cadmus's designs for the local post office showing the resort town's summer people engaged in youthful sports, and especially to a girl clad in shorts in a yachting panel. Cadmus reworked his design and put pajamas on the "hot stuff" in the yachting panel.
Westward on the prairie, the Cheyenne Indians pitched a tepee on the lawn of the Watongo, Oklahoma, Post Office until the artist Edith Mahier changed the Indian ponies in her mural which Chief Red Bird said resembled oversized swans and Indian children who looked like cornmeal-bloated pigs.
The artist Joseph Vorst repainted the post office mural in Paris, Arkansas, when local civic groups objected that the lone farmer pushing an antiquated plow in the first mural failed to reflect the progressive nature of the community.
In the mining community of Kellogg, Idaho, Local 18 of the Mine Workers and Smelt Workers praised Fletcher Martin's dramatic design, "Mine Rescue," as distinctly appropriate for the post office while local industrialists rejected it as not in harmony with existing conditions. The industrialists carried and Martin eventually installed a noncontroversial scene of purely local interest. At the top of this entry is a reproduction of "Mine Rescue," the rejected work, and just below is the painting with which Martin replaced it.
In Maryland the director of Glendale Children's Tuberculosis Sanitarium ordered receiving room walls whitewashed after the artist Bernice Cross had decorated them with scenes from Mother Goose. The director considered the work "unsuitable to the dignity of a public institution."
For more about all this, click here.