American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

The Long View.

A funny thing about most street art is that you can usually only see it from the street it’s on. Even if it’s high up on a building there are often other buildings around blocking the view so it’s only as you turn a corner that you see it and then it disappears just as quickly.

This mural painted on a tall tower is an exception. As you drive along I-40 headed East toward downtown Nashville you can see it in the distance. From a long way away it’s not even clear what it is but it’s obviously something. It’s only as you get close, and part of the beauty of it is you can get really close—it overlooks the parking lot of White Bison Coffee, a local shop, which is fitting because it puts two things that are distinctly Nashville together in one place.

The mural is the work of internationally known New Zealand artist Guido Van Helten, and, looking at it, you might wonder who the guy is. He’s Lee Estes, a long-time resident of the area, a Nashville neighborhood known as The Nations. Why it’s known as that is somewhat controversial with no clear answer. Mr. Estes remembers much of the history of the area and the city. Growing up his family didn’t have indoor plumbing and raised chickens for eggs and meat. Actually that last part hasn’t changed—or rather it changed with zoning laws that ended the keeping of livestock within county limits. Then it changed back in 2014 when the city council voted to allow homeowners to have chickens on their property, but only chickens. Roosters are verboten, although at least one person has violated that rule—there is at least one part of the city where I’ve heard crowing, but that’s another story.

There’s more detail about the mural at isupportstreetart, and also more pictures. An important detail I missed when taking pictures of this mural is that on the other side of the building there are two young boys next to Mr. Estes, perfectly combining the old and the new.

High, Low.

When Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and stuck it in a museum he was making a point about what’s art and what isn’t, but what point was he making? Was he saying that a mass-produced object in the right setting becomes a work of art, or was he saying that people should look at mass-produced objects as art no matter where they are? After all somebody had to design a urinal, and something can be useful as well as aesthetically pleasing. Or at least aesthetically interesting.

What I’m getting at is that the definition of art is pretty loose, even arbitrary. Actually Calvin & Hobbes put it best:

Source: Pinterest

Decorating a dumpster turns it from, well, just a dumpster, into art. Or at least turns it into a background for art, a place for art. Put a picture on it, any picture, and a dumpster becomes a museum too.

And I can’t think of a way to segue fluidly into this but years ago I was in Edinburgh and a homeless man came up and asked me for some change. “I’m not gonna lie to ye,” he said, “I just really want a pint.” I couldn’t resist that honesty so I gave him a pound. He hugged me and thanked me. He told me his name was Hamish and we started talking. He asked where I was from. When I said Nashville he yelled “Elvis! My favorite singer!” I didn’t have the heart to say that while Elvis did a lot of recording in Nashville his home base was Memphis, but the more Hamish talked the more I realized there was plenty he could tell me about Elvis. Hamish was the first person to tell me Elvis was a Monty Python fan which I believed but which also completely changed my perspective of Elvis because it’s not something that often comes up when people talk about The King. It turns out the Pythons themselves didn’t know Elvis was a fan–Eric Idle only learned what a fan Elvis was a few years ago–which still surprises me. Elvis wasn’t shy about contacting people—consider his meeting with Nixon in the White House—so the only thing I still wonder about is why he never called up any of the Pythons to tell them he was a fan.

 

Art Matters.

When I took my first art history course it was simple. In fact it was just as simple when I took my last art history course. Art history was like regular history: a linear progression of events, or movements, starting with cave paintings, which were prehistory really, and going up through the millenia with widely spaced high points: Egypt, Greece, Rome, then there was the Renaissance, and the rediscovery of perspective. Neo-classicism gave way to Romanticism and then Impressionism was followed by Fauvism or Expressionism. As the chronometer ticked over to the 20th century everything exploded into a bunch of isms: Cubism, Orphism, Futurism. World War I prompted Dadaism and Surrealism. Before World War II the major center of art was Paris. After World War II it was New York, with Abstract Expressionism followed by Pop Art followed by…well, if they made it to that point the art history classes just sort of fizzled out there. Nothing was left: art history had ended. For some art historians Andy Warhol’s soup cans were the capstone. For others the end had come before that: the first time a prehistoric person placed pigment on a cave wall was leading up to the moment Jackson Pollock dripped a blob of paint, breaking the connection between brush and canvas that had been the basis of all art. The greatest emphasis was on artists who were mostly white and mostly European and mostly men, artists who were centered in Italy, Paris, and New York, with brief asides to Berlin, Moscow, and London, because they were the Artists Who Mattered.
Even from the beginning, from that first art history class, there was a question in the back of my mind: what about artists in other parts of the world? Artists from Japan, the South Pacific, South America, and Africa influenced a lot of those 20th century isms, so why did the mostly anonymous artists who produced those works matter less than Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso? The history of art history follows a pretty simple pattern. Vasari, whose Lives Of The Artists is considered the first work of art history, focused on artists he knew. In the 16th century the internet was pretty rudimentary and unreliable; dial-up hadn’t even been invented yet, and that remained true up to and even through 1950 when E.H. Gombrich published The Story Of Art, the book that was either used or influenced every art history course I ever took. And I get it. In order to make sense of art, in order to make a story of art, a few scholars had to pick what they liked and cram it into an alley. And to keep the art history classes simple we students were supposed to ignore the buildings, the whole cities, the whole world on either side.
I like taking pictures of graffiti I find but I’m also always curious about the artists behind it, and some time ago created an Instagram account just to follow them, and through that I learned that an artist I’d seen, whom I only knew by the tag Betor, had died of a drug overdose on Christmas Day 2016. Or rather it helped explain some pictures I found. Through Instagram I learned Betor was part of a group of artists who worked together and influenced each other–what art historians might call a movement, or what they might label with an ism.

These works aren’t done by Betor. They’re done by friends of Betor, artists who admired his work. They’re tributes. There are more on Instagram, and messages too from artists who knew him, and others who are sorry they never met him but admired his work. I feel the same way. Betor was a person who mattered. An organization, A Betor Way, was founded in his memory to help anyone struggling with addiction.

There is no one story of art. Art doesn’t end with the death of any artist, or with any particular movement. And if I had to give only one explanation for why I’m so interested in graffiti it would be this: because it matters.

 

Dragon Through The Holidays.

Source: Washington Post

Around the holidays, if we can find time, my wife and I make a couple of travel mugs of hot chocolate and drive through neighborhoods looking at people’s Christmas decorations. For some reason once the season is over I always forget that the lights are one of my favorite things about the holidays. When I was a kid I begged my parents to get Christmas lights because I envied other houses that had them, and then we did get them and I realized it’s not that exciting to have lights on the outside when you’re inside the house.

Putting up lights and other decorations is a way of sharing the holiday spirit with the community, but it’s also a personal expression. The holidays bring people together but everyone also has their own ways of celebrating. There’s a house I pass every day on my way to work that has a large inflated Santa on one side of their yard and a bear holding a dreidel on the other and it always makes me smile.

I thought even more about the overlap between the individual and the community at the holidays when I read about Diana Rowland, a writer—her books include My Life As A White Trash Zombie and How The White Trash Zombie Got Her Groove Back and they sound fantastic—who made a Christmas display with dragons in her front yard. And that sounds fantastic too. I love creative decorating and the dragons are also a Halloween-Christmas crossover. The best decorations, I say, are the ones that can multitask.

Anyway Rowland got an anonymous letter from a neighbor:

Source: Washington Post

There’s a lot to pick apart here. Why are the dragons only “marginally acceptable” at Halloween? Since when are dragons “demonic”? And isn’t the real spirit of Christmas, or, for that matter, this time of year no matter what holidays you celebrate, the spirit of joy?

Rowland had the perfect response to the anonymous complaint, too: she put up more dragons.

After all it’s also the season of giving.

Windows.

With more and more holiday shopping happening online—Cyber Monday has been around since 2005—it’s hard to believe holiday windows are still important. A November 21, 2018 New York Times article gives a brief rundown of holiday windows past and present and explains why they still matter, although there are some stores that are closing. For some this will be their last Christmas. It’s a sad end to a tradition that dates back to at least 1874 when Macy’s created a Christmas window. More than half a century later in the 1926 Handbook Of Window Display, author William Nelson Taft (no relation to the president and Supreme Court justice that I can tell) said, “A number of stores have found that the mere fact of displaying appropriate Christmas goods, attractively boxed, not only stimulates buying but starts the holiday rush considerably earlier.” He’s a bit prosaic. Jean Shepherd, in his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which was partly the basis for A Christmas Story, gets a little more poetic reminiscing about a holiday window from the year he got his Red Ryder BB gun, with a Santa’s workshop display so elaborate it “made Salvador Dali look like Norman Rockwell.”

Window displays aren’t limited to the holidays, though. For more than forty years Gene Moore created elaborate setups for windows at Tiffany’s in New York. In June 1971 he created a series that told the story of a jewel thief with papier-mache mice. The president of Tiffany’s, Walter Hoving, got an angry letter from the president of Cartier for making light of the “hazards of owning fine jewelry”. Hoving’s reply: “Nuts.” He was right. If you can afford a Cartier watch you can afford a sense of humor, but that’s another story.

This is one of the scenes, from the book Windows at Tiffany’s : the art of Gene Moore (H. N. Abrams, 1980).

Window displays aren’t all fun and games, though. This is from the article:

“We track how many people are taking their photographs and sharing them back out,” said Frank Berman, an executive vice president and the chief marketing officer of Bloomingdale’s. “We also have methods in place to track how many people are passing by the windows, stopping and engaging. We also track the amount of traffic coming into the store and the conversion rates. We’re up in terms of traffic this holiday season.”

Is it weird that I’m creeped out by that? I know marketing is the reason for the season, but it bothers me that when I’m looking at store windows they might be looking back.

That’s partly why I put a picture of Parnassus Books at the top of this post, and here’s another of their main window.

Their window displays of books, I hope, draw people in. Bookstores are probably the most endangered of retail stores, and yet bookstores are places where the whole idea is to browse without necessarily knowing what you might find, and books open windows in your mind. There was an event at Parnassus the night I took that picture, and that’s one of the great contradictions of bookstores: they’re public spaces where people can get together to share the private experience of reading. And also every year my Christmas wish list is pretty much all books.

 

Let It Snow.

Snow collecting on the roof of a building across from where I work, the first snow of the year in fact, took me back to high school art class and learning about chiaroscuro, the technique of using strongly contrasting lights and darks in drawing. I was always a pretty lousy art student, not that great at drawing, but I love jargon, especially art jargon. It was a cold day, overcast, close the holidays, and there was talk of snow which made everyone a little jumpy. Or a lot jumpy. In every class while we were bent over our desks there was always one kid in the back who’d yell out “It’s snowing!” and then laugh when everybody turned around to look out the window.
Maybe as a way of holding our attention, or at least trying to since it was really futile, the art teacher gave us an extra challenge: draw the setup of bottles and boxes she’d put at the front of the room using chiaroscuro but reverse the values: make everything dark light and everything light dark. My effort was lousier than usual.

My next class was English, and I don’t think my English teacher had anything specific planned for that day because she told us to write about anything, a minimum of five hundred words. So I started writing about chiaroscuro, its nature, the use of natural light, chiaroscuro in still life painting and realistic painting. And then it started snowing. Yeah, that same kid in the back yelled out, “It’s snowing!” and this time he was right: just small flakes, but thick enough and it was cold enough that snow started to accumulate in white patches on the ground. It was unlikely we were going to be let out early but it was still snow. I kept working on my essay, trying desperately, per the teacher’s instructions, to stick to the traditional five-part structure: introductory paragraph, three developing paragraphs, and a conclusion, but I started to ramble. How much can you say about light and shadow? Well, a lot, probably, but I was running out of things I could say and I started writing about how you can use chiaroscuro to sharpen your pencil, brushing the edge of the lead against the paper, and then I concluded with a completely off-topic statement that snow fogs the brain and makes it impossible to concentrate and even though I was mixing my weather metaphors, uh, snow. I believe “uh” got me right up to four-hundred and ninety-nine words.
Even though I fell short I got an A on the essay. I was always a pretty good English student.

O! Tannenbaum!

Several years ago a friend invited me and some other people to a Christmas tree trimming party. That may sound a little odd—for most people who put up a tree at the holiday decorating it is a family event and limit it to people who live in the house, but she and her husband had just moved to Nashville and didn’t have any family nearby. So they made it a group event, which was a fun idea. Actually I think it’s weirder that decorating a Christmas tree is sometimes called “trimming”. I think if you’re going to trim a Christmas tree you should do it outside, otherwise there will be needles all over the carpet, although, let’s face it, if you’ve brought in a live tree you’re gonna get needles all over the carpet anyway, but that’s another story.

There was also the time I had my own private Christmas tree. I was, I think, in third grade, and had just read Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, and loved the idea of going out into the woods, finding a big tree, cutting it down, and decorating it with handmade ornaments. So I was a weird kid. And there were no woods for me to go to, although I did have the vacant lots behind my house where cedar trees grew, so I took a hacksaw—I couldn’t find a hatchet in my parents’ basement—and cut one down. It was only about three feet tall. I made sure to clean off the bagworms and any other living ornaments before I took it to my room, stuck it in a can, wrapped a towel around the base, and made some of my own ornaments out of paper and foil.

Looking back on these experiences makes me think there’s no way to decorate a Christmas tree—or a tree for any holiday, or no holiday. Then again I’m a weird adult.

 

Park It.

If you’re out doing holiday shopping—and it seems like a lot of people still go out in spite of the growing number of people who do most of their gift-buying online, maybe so they can wander up and down the aisles of stores and malls gaping at the decorations or so they can laugh at some poor person trying to lug a big box to their car—you have to park somewhere. I don’t mind parking lots. I like to park a long distance from the store or wherever it is I’m going. I like the exercise and if I’m buying something big I know there’ll be some people laughing at me. Parking garages, on the other hand, make me nervous. The narrow spaces and tight turns always leave me worried I’m going to hit somebody else’s car, or damage my own. Plus they’re such dismal, utilitarian buildings. Most of them are, anyway. These pictures are from a parking garage just off Nashville’s Elliston Place—not a great place for shopping, although it is near some restaurants and if you’re up for a bit of a hike Centennial Park is a few blocks away. And you’ll probably hit somebody’s car because you’re distracted by all the cool decorations.

Even the stairwells are decorated and worth lingering in.

And don’t miss the roof.

We Can Be Heroes.

I have a complicated relationship with comic books. For some reason I never had any when I was a kid. It’s not that my parents had any objections to comic books, but I don’t remember going anywhere they were for sale. When I was, I think, in second grade there was some kind of school contest and I won a single issue of <i>The Fantastic Four</i>. I don’t remember what the contest was exactly–I wasn’t really paying attention, and maybe if I had I could have won more than just a single issue, but that’s another story. And I loved it. I could never figure out where to find more, though. I hear people talk about comic books racks at the drugstore or the grocery store, and eventually, when I was in my teens, the bookstores in the mall had racks with offerings from Marvel and DC, but at that point I’d moved on. I was making regular trips every Thursday–new comic day–to a local comic book store where I spent my money on mostly independent titles. I liked, if I could, to pick up a comic from issue one so I wouldn’t miss any of the backstory. I avoided the old classics because the size and depth of their universes intimidated me. My friends were all big X-Men fans and yet I avoided it because I felt I’d missed so much. I was fascinated by them–and several times seriously considered getting back into Spider-Man, my childhood hero–but kept my distance.

And yet there had been a glorious summer, maybe in between second and third grade–I don’t really remember because I wasn’t paying attention–when every afternoon the local UHF station ran a series of Marvel cartoons from 1966, and, starved for superhero action, I soaked up a good dose of Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and Namor of Atlantis. The stories were great but at first the animation seemed a little shoddy and goofy to me–characters barely moved, and the design seemed, well, flat. Over time it grew on me, though, and I realized these were faithful interpretations of the originals. The quality of the animation may have been intended to save on costs, but it also captured the spirit of the comic books. I like to think the singular genius behind all of these characters, Stan Lee, had a hand in making the comic books characters he created and helped write the stories for, accessible. And that he got a kick out of the catchy theme songs. They opened me up to the worlds of comic book stories, and those comic books I collected in my teens–that included The Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman–probably wouldn’t have existed without him.

Tom over at Tom Being Tom has a great tribute to the comic books of his youth and the profound influence Stan Lee had on him and, reading it, I realized that even before I started collecting comic books regularly Stan Lee had an influence on me too, and even that his influence reached beyond just giving us memorable comic book characters who’ve become part of our collective culture. He made it possible for us all to be part of the world of heroes.

Hail and farewell Stan Lee.

Here are some of the openings to those old cartoons. Enjoy the catchy theme songs.

Out Of The Depths.

Source: National Geographic

The oldest known cave paintings have been discovered in Borneo, or rather rediscovered since somebody knew about them once, when they were being made, and no one knows for how long after that before the knowledge was lost. The art dates back at least 52,000 years. One of the interesting things about this is that previously the oldest cave paintings were thought to be in Europe, dating back 35,000 or 40,000 years. People didn’t arrive in Borneo until 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, steadily progressing across the planet after first migrating out of Africa around two million years ago, give or take a few millenia.
One of the biggest questions about cave paintings is, what do they mean? And if you think modern art is hard to understand try making sense of art from fifty-thousand years ago. In the book The Cave Painters Gregory Curtis examines multiple ideas–that they were markers of clan identity, that they served shamanistic or religious purposes, that pictures of animals or hunters pursuing them may have been meant to increase herds or aid in the hunt–and takes down the weaknesses of all of them. The fact is we just don’t know why people made cave paintings not just thousands of years ago but continued making them for thousands of years.
Researchers have also wondered why it took so long after they arrived in an area for people to start making cave paintings. And I have some thoughts of my own on that. Caves are remarkably good at preserving things but I think humans were creating art long before that. Cave paintings are maybe the most badass forms of early art: many remained unknown for so long because they were so deep in caves, in places that were difficult to reach, that were in total darkness. Cave painters had to work by firelight, often in cramped spaces. Their work wasn’t likely to be seen by most people at the time it was created. And then there’s the fact that cave paintings don’t just span across millenia but also continents, all speaking to two fundamental human needs: the need to move and explore, and the need to create art. And maybe those two needs aren’t unrelated. Travel is a way of exploring the world around us; art translates the explorations of the worlds within us.

 

 

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