American Graffiti.

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

Let’s Pretend.

When I saw that a new documentary about Barney, the Purple Dinosaur that was described as exploring “the dark side” of the phenomenon my first thought was that there were previously unreported horrors behind the scenes—things I really didn’t want to contemplate since I assumed they’d make episodes of Law & Order: SVU, or the extremely dark, ludicrously funny Death To Smoochy look tame. It’s a relief it’s not that bad. The real dark side wasn’t Barney or the cast and crew. It mostly came from outside. Barney attracted a lot of anger. These were the early days of the internet, or at least early days of the internet becoming widespread, and some people remember Usenet groups devoted to horrific ways Barney should die. Some who participated say it was “just good fun,” but some of it spilled over into the real world. One Barney performer got death threats he says were “violent and explicit, death and dismemberment of my family.” That reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut line, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

There’s a lot to delve into here. I was well into adulthood, even married, by the time Barney came along, and we’ve never had kids so I’ve never really thought much about Barney. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people who thought and wrote about doing horrible things to Barney were also adults with no children. One of the problems with almost any fandom is it’s going to have toxic elements and, yes, I would call people who devoted a lot of time to imagining doing horrible things to Barney fans, in the original sense of “fanatic”. Let me put it another way: almost everything that has its own following has positive fans who enjoy it, who get something good out of it and out of feeling they’re part of a likeminded community, but also its negative fans who are deeply knowledgeable about it but bring a lot of anger too. They range from the ones who want the fandom to be restricted to the few who know all the minutiae, or who are just like them, who respond angrily, even violently, to those they consider intruders, to the ones who just want to destroy the whole thing. And I admit I find a lot of this hard to understand, because I’ve never been a negative fan, even with things I loved dearly. Yet I also think Death To Smoochy, which is obviously a Barney-inspired parody that also skewers and roasts children’s entertainment, is hilarious, and I laughed when Charles Barkley beat up Barney in a basketball game on SNL.

Source: One SNL A Day

When I think about the aspects of the Barney phenomenon that were purely about raking in the money I can understand why some people would really hate Barney. In spite of never having been a parent I can sympathize with parents whose kids drove them crazy by playing Barney songs over and over and over. And yet I was one of those kids—my obsession just happened to be Star Wars, but that’s another story.

On the other side I know Barney taught kids about tolerance and understanding and being nice to each other. That was a genuine positive side to the Barney phenomenon. As adults it’s hard for many of us to not be cynical, to not see the marketing machinery behind the shiny curtain. I’m doing it myself, right now–I start to say something positive and immediately go, “Yes, but…” So let me come right out and say it: all that stuff about inclusion and kindness was just pretend. And we are what we pretend to be.   

Anything’s Possible.

Art criticism, I think, came out of a feeling that works of art need to be explained. But in the back of my mind there’s always a competing feeling that if a work of art needs to be explained it—or rather the artist—has failed. If a work of art doesn’t speak for itself, well, what is it doing? And yet there are also a lot of ways to pick apart this notion. Art appreciation can help you spot things you might miss. It can help give you some idea of how much work really went into a work of art. With types of art that seem baffling—conceptual art, even abstract art—it can give you insights into maybe what the artist is trying to convey. It’s like it’s a language we have to learn and it can be fun to speak that language.

And I can pick apart that notion too. A guy once told me he studied film in college and it ruined every movie he watched, even the movies he loved that were the whole reason he wanted to study film in the first place. After academically dissecting movies he couldn’t watch anything without seeing how the angles and edits were being used, how every shot must have been set up, even choices the actors made when it came to line delivery.

Still I feel like there are some things that just speak for themselves, that don’t have to be analyzed, and yet they still have depths, they still say more than just what they say.

We All Belong.

When I took my first art history class I was fascinated by all the -isms. The way it was taught gave me a pretty naïve initial impression since, after all, Impressionism was the first -ism that was covered in that class. Yes, Impressionism was preceded by Romanticism and Neo-Classicism, but we actually didn’t get to those until later, which just added to the confusion. And it didn’t help that in that first class I got a pocket-sized introduction that made it sound like the different -isms were distinct and separate: Impressionism was followed by Fauvism which was followed by Expressionism, although that mostly happened in Germany, which was then followed by Post-Impressionism and then Cubism happened and everything exploded. And along the way there were some one-person -isms like Seurat and his Pointillism.

It wasn’t until I was reading a biography of Picasso, while I was taking that first art history class, and he complained in a letter that one of his girlfriends had run off with “an Orphist”—Orphism hadn’t even come up yet and never would be covered in that class—that it dawned on me that a lot of these movements overlapped and really weren’t even all that strictly defined. Picasso is a good example. He’s filed under Cubism in most books but he joined the Surrealist movement.

And Surrealism is an even better, if weirder, example, since the group that first called themselves Surrealists tried to be an exclusive club with formal rules and yet they also included people like Hieronymus Bosch who’d been dead since the 16th century, and they tried to include Frida Kahlo who told them she wasn’t interested, she just wanted to do her own thing. The Surrealist group’s founder Andre Breton also kicked out pretty much everyone in the group at one point or another, including himself, probably, but it didn’t matter because the term “surrealism” quickly took on a life of its own.

Splitting up art into -isms is convenient for making art history into a narrative, even if it means putting artists who didn’t think of themselves as part of a certain group into one, and for those who did join a group it was, I think, mostly just about like-minded folks hanging out together so they could hang together in art galleries.

It’s really funny to me that someone who tags dumpsters with BRUX also came up with BRUXISM, which probably wasn’t intended to be the name of a movement. Maybe it’s just an expression of a personal philosophy, someone saying they’re an individual, they’re doing their own thing.

Just like everybody else.

Locked In.

I was strolling through Nashville’s Centennial Park and, when I crossed a small bridge that’s mostly just decorative, I looked down and saw this:

There were locks on the other side too and I don’t know why I didn’t take more pictures of them. Maybe it was because this really caught my attention:

 

And here’s where my inner art critic comes out because I thought whoever did this, and it may have been several people, was wonderful. It’s such a simple, brilliant idea, and I don’t know if the person or persons responsible meant it to have any deeper meaning but it seems like this was symbolic of someone letting go of something that was holding them back, something that had them metaphorically locked in. By taking an actual lock and leaving it behind they were metaphorically freeing themselves.

There’s a lot of cultural history in such an act. Writing down something you want to rid yourself of and burning the paper is a common practice, as is imbuing an object with the idea of something then destroying the object. And, you know, scapegoats were once actual goats. 

Not to get too far afield with this idea but it also reminded me of the cure for warts in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as described by Huck himself:

You take and split the bean, and cut the wart so as to get some blood, and then you put the blood on one piece of the bean and take and dig a hole and bury it ’bout midnight at the crossroads in the dark of the moon, and then you burn up the rest of the bean. You see that piece that’s got the blood on it will keep drawing and drawing, trying to fetch the other piece to it, and so that helps the blood to draw the wart, and pretty soon off she comes.

I don’t know if leaving a lock behind really did work for anyone who did it. I hope so. It sure made me happy.

It’s A Sign.

Source: Cinema Treasures, since I couldn’t be bothered to take a picture myself for some reason.

It amazes me the old Belle Meade Theater building, or at least its sign and main lobby, in Nashville is still there. Its history stretches all the way back to May 1940, the golden age of movie theaters, and it kept going for more than five decades, finally closing in 1991. I think I have a vague memory of seeing Escape To Witch Mountain—the original, not the 2009 remake with The Rock, because I am old—there, although it might have been the Melrose Movie Theater, which was kind of a poor second cousin to the Belle Meade one. The Melrose theater housed a music video production company in the ’80’s where some of the videos for MTV were filmed, or at least edited and had post-production work done. I went there on a high school field trip and was not one of the kids picked to be an extra in a music video that never got made, but that’s another story.

Another view. Source: Tennessean

When the theater closed it was soon reopened as, of all things, a bookstore, and they made sure the sign lit up. That ball on the very top was covered with flashing lights and the letters blinked on and off. A friend of mine worked there as an assistant manager and told me they had an electrician on 24-hour call because maintaining the damn thing was a nightmare. Even if everything was working perfectly there was always a bulb that needed to be replaced. They also used the marquee to announce author appearances, special events, and, once, it spelled out, “Annie, will you marry me?—David”. My wife and I were pretty thrilled when we drove by there the next week and they’d added “She said YES!”

The building, as far as I know, has been empty since the bookstore closed. There was a grocery store in that space but the main lobby which, even when it was a bookstore, had a wall of photos of famous people, mostly movie stars, who’d been to the Belle Meade Theater, has been closed and dark since 2003. The sign has been dark too, although someone’s still maintaining it. The blue and red paint is still bright and the bulbs look mostly intact, at least in the daytime, since they no longer light up.

A lot of signage now seems pretty standard: a sheet of molded plastic on a pole backlit by some fluorescent bulbs. The Belle Meade sign was, and still is, something pretty special, even if it was expensive and difficult to maintain in its original glory. Maybe because it was expensive and difficult to maintain.   

I’m not sure why I’m thinking about the Belle Meade sign right now. I drive by it multiple times every week and it’s like an old friend with whom I no longer talk to but who’s still there. We smile at each other as we pass by. No one seems to want to tear it down but, I guess, like an old friend, I never know when it will be gone.

Bugged.

The other day I went into one of those giant hardware stores to get some light bulbs. I was also trying to get in at least ten-thousand steps for the day and I once walked more than two and a half miles through one of those stores—not on purpose; I was trying to find someone who could get something off a high shelf, but that’s another story.

I always go through the garden section because I like to look at the plants and I noticed they had several varieties of carnivorous plants for sale in plastic boxes. Actually they had several varieties of dead carnivorous plants.

From the information on the side of the boxes it seems to be a pretty cool company, although I haven’t been able to find much about them online. The “Women owned” part intrigued me and made me think it’s a company that deserves some support. When I had a carnivorous plant collection most of the growers I knew–I’d guess around three-fourths–were men. But there were some things about the plants that bugged me.

First of all August is a terrible time of year to buy a Venus flytrap or any species of North American pitcher plant, which I think is what they were selling based on the pictures on the sides of the boxes. These plants go dormant in the winter so they should be planted and given a chance to acclimate in the spring so they have a nice long growing season. The “Never below 40°” is just flat out wrong for North American carnivorous plants. They shouldn’t be subjected to a hard freeze, although some North American pitcher plants to grow as far north as Canada, but they do need at least a light frost to go fully dormant. Tropical carnivorous plants, which are mostly easier to grow, need to be kept warm all the time because, well, you know–they’re tropical, although some of them don’t mind cooler weather.

The plants in the boxes had also been dead for so long I really couldn’t tell what they were but one picture shows what looks like a cobra lily or California pitcher plant, or Darlingtonia californica if you want to get scientific about it. It’s a cool looking plant but it’s also not one for a casual grower. It’s not one even most experienced growers want. It’s got very special needs and, while I have heard of people trying to grow it at home, the only way they could do it was to rig up a cooler and a pump to provide it the cold running water it likes to have running over its roots all the time.

Carnivorous plants are fun to grow and there are plenty of varieties that are easy to grow which is why I hate to see dead or dying plants in lousy packaging stuck in the back of a garden center where they won’t get any attention or, worse, will get picked up by someone who doesn’t know any better. I feel like the plants deserve better and I feel like this company that’s selling them deserves better too.

Could Be Better.

H.G. Hill Park at Nashville West. Source: Google Maps

I was waiting for some work to be done on the car and decided to stroll around the small park next to the Nashville West shopping center. Not that long ago the whole area was woods. It was private property, someone’s old farmland I think, that had been left so trees grew up, providing a buffer between the interstate to the north and the neighborhoods to the south. Then, I think, the owner died, developers swooped in, and the whole area was bulldozed and they crammed in as many retail outlets as they could. The park feels like a perfunctory afterthought, probably a city requirement to provide a certain amount of “green space”. There’s a playground in one corner, and some benches, and a guitar sculpture on one side.

Mostly, though, it’s just empty, treeless space. Across from the guitar sculpture there’s a tunnel that separates the park from a few small office buildings and a preserved log home, possibly some memorial to early settlers although there’s no information about it anywhere.

And inside the tunnel there’s a lot of graffiti.

It’s disappointing, though. A lot of it just feels like people came in with markers, maybe some spray paint, and doodled a few messages and tags, a few swear words, an “I was here”. There’s no spark, no real imagination, no effort.

And I had the unsettling feeling that this was all a metaphor for where I am in my life right now. I’ve been in a holding pattern, stuck. My boss reminded me the other day that I need to take some vacation time or I’ll start losing it. I’m not sure what I’d do with vacation time. There aren’t a lot of places I feel safe going, not that much to do. I’m not depressed but I feel down. I need to get through this. I need to make a change.

There’s a poem by Rilke called Archaic Torso of Apollo that’s all about looking at a great work of art and feeling it completely change your perspective. The poem ends, “You must change your life.”

Sometimes looking at really lousy art can prompt the same thought.

Tag, You’re It!

I took this picture on November 6th, 2021:And then I took this picture on March 15th, 2022. Same spot, but someone had added, or, depending on how you look at it, tried to cover, what had been there.

 

And then there was this, which I took a picture of a couple of weeks ago.

The addition of “Your move!” is a nice touch. The funny thing about this is, in all my years of looking at graffiti, I’ve noticed that even most taggers–the ones who just put up a name without doing more elaborate pieces–have a certain amount of respect for each other and even public art. They mostly go for blank spaces like empty walls, light poles, occasionally even sidewalks.

Here, though, are a couple of artists going back and forth. It’s not just a static work. It’s a work in progress.

Playing Around.

I’ve been playing Artle almost as long as I’ve been playing Wordle and Worldle and there are probably at least a dozen other -dle games out there I could get hooked but I’ve decided to limit myself to those three. 
Artle is the hardest of the three. For one thing it’s usually pretty easy to figure out a word if you guess enough letters correctly, and while Worldle throws in the occasional obscure island most countries and territories have recognizable boundaries. But Artle requires a pretty good knowledge of art history—and so far artists have ranged from the Renaissance almost to the present—and you only get four tries.

I lose about half the time. It’s a game where you either know the answer or you don’t. And recently I knew it.

Miro is one of those idiosyncratic artists who’s instantly recognizable—he doesn’t fit into any specific movement. He was a member of the Surrealists but he really did his own thing.

Looking at the other three clues really showed something I think about a lot when playing Artle. Even the most recognizable, distinctive artists go through different phases, trying different styles. Here was the second picture:

That’s another one I would have recognized as a Miro right away, which is lucky because the third clue would have completely stumped me if it had been the first one:

Sure, it’s a Miro—the caption says so—but I wouldn’t have guessed it was one of his. In fact I can think of at least three other artists I would have guessed first.

And the last one, well, I might have said Miro but it also reminded me of a couple of other artists. It’s funny because Artle usually seems to start with more obscure, early works, and then finish with something famous. This time it seemed to go in no real order so if I hadn’t gotten it first I wouldn’t get it at all.

Castle Building.

 

Source: Reddit’s oddly satisfying thread

A friend sent me a short video of someone making drip sand castles from Reddit’s oddly satisfying thread and asked, “Did you ever do this at the beach?”

Yes, yes I did, and it’s funny it came up just now because it’s been a while since I’ve been to the beach but we have some gardening sand in the backyard, in a bag, that we bought, oh, a few years ago for some gardening project that’s forgotten now. And I’d been eyeing it and thinking it would be fun to reenact a small part of my youth and make some drip sand castles somewhere in the backyard. And then I could let the dogs run through them.

Even though sand castles are most popular at the beach because, well, that’s where you have a pretty much unlimited quantity of sand, technically you could build sand castles anywhere. It’s just that some places you have to bring your own sand. And drip sand castles are especially fun because they don’t require a lot of skill and there’s also a certain amount of randomness to them that you don’t get by filling buckets with sand and building straighter structures.

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate the artistry of really elaborate sand castles, or even sand sculptures, and building one that looks, well, like a castle is fun too, but I really love how a drip sand castle manages to straddle the line between something made and something grown. They’re reminiscent of the architecture of Antoni Gaudi.

And sand castles are, by nature, very ephemeral. At best they’ll last as long as a summer day at the beach, or at least until the tide comes in, or until some jerk comes along and kicks them over.

Not a drip sand castle but damn if it isn’t impressive. Source: kezj.com

Then there was the time I lay down on the beach and started building a drip sand castle and without even thinking about it I’d built a massive multi-turreted structure that was at least three feet tall and about four feet across…and I’d built it over my legs. There was no way to get up and move without destroying most of what I’d built. But I was okay with that. Being destroyed is what sand castles are made for.

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