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 Gee, in this view the television people are at least five or six years out of date in their thinking.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."
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.
I've unearthed Robert Shelton's September 29, 1961 NYT review of Bob Dylan at Gerde's Folk City. "Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik, Mr. Dylan has a cherubic look and a mop of tousled hair he partly covers with a Huck Finn black corduroy cap." "Mr. Dylan is both comedian and tragedian." "...a scarcely understandable growl or sob..." "All the husk and bark are left on the notes." Here's the whole review.