American Graffiti.

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

It’s Inspiring.

Back in 2015 I started writing about graffiti because I saw a lot of it around the neighborhood where I work and a lot of it was interesting to me and I thought it would make a good subject for blog posts. For a similar reason I had a short-lived stint writing about local art exhibits for a local magazine: there was a gallery near me and I went to it regularly and always felt I had something to say about the exhibits but until the magazine started up I didn’t really have a place for all my thoughts. And then the magazine folded after just one issue and I hope that wasn’t my fault, but that’s another story.

Obviously what I’m getting at is I drew inspiration from the graffiti and art I saw. And I really shouldn’t be making a distinction between graffiti and art since I’ve always argued that graffiti is an art form. Some of it’s great and some, well, isn’t, but then you can walk through almost any art gallery and say the same thing.

I started with the above picture even though I didn’t think it was great but I still felt I had something to say about it. It inspired me because it seemed like whoever scribbled that had something in mind and then lost it and sort of trailed off, or maybe they were just practicing.

Inspiration is a funny thing. Recently Mona over at Wayward Sparkles wrote about inspiration, specifically naming her muse, which I got a kick out of because muses personify inspiration.

It’s funny but when I started writing this I had a clear idea of where I was going and it was going to be elaborate and profound and, I hoped, funny too. I was inspired to say something about how personifying inspiration is…a thing. And now it’s just sort of trailed off and I’m pretty sure my muse is Thalia, the ancient Greek muse of comedy, because she’s got a sense of humor.

Getting Poetry.

Source: Arts Council, Greater New Haven

As another National Poetry Month draws to a close I’m reminded that I majored in English in college with a focus on poetry in spite of the fact that in high school I had one of the world’s worst English teachers. That’s the kind of irony someone like Ogden Nash or, hey, me, could turn into a poem, and maybe I will one of these days, but decades later it still rankles me a little. What made her so terrible is how she’d go on and on about poetry as a high rarefied art that mere high school students couldn’t understand. She focused on William Carlos Williams’s The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

And she’d go on at length about how this was a deeply meaningful and profound poem but that it would be futile for any of us to try and understand it because we didn’t have the education, and, now that I think about it, she obviously didn’t have the education either because she wasn’t sharing any insights.

I understand if you’re thinking that maybe she was being clever and trying to get us to seek out information on our own by using reverse psychology. Maybe she wanted us to do some independent study and find that Williams was emphatically reacting against the difficult and obscure poets that had come before him. The French Symbolist Stephane Mallarme, for instance, felt that poetry should be difficult to understand; he even said that poetry, like music, should require special training to be read, but he was missing the fact that while it takes training to read music anyone who can hear can listen to it.

Anyway the sad fact my teacher just happened to be a terrible teacher who didn’t know what she was talking about. A few years after I graduated from high school, after I’d gone to college and studied poetry, I met her and we started talking about William Carlos Williams, and she insisted that The Red Wheelbarrow was full of deep and obscure meaning, and that This Is Just To Say was borderline pornographic. I kid you not.

What also got me thinking about this is an article in The New Criterion that starts with this:

A subscriber to this magazine writes with a problem: “Although I have advanced university degrees, I have never ‘gotten’ poetry.”

And I get it. A lot of it is the way poetry is taught. It’s taught as though it’s some rarefied art and if you don’t get it you’re either uneducated or you’re deficient in some way or maybe you’re just stupid. Let me be blunt: you’re not. Most poetry is not as hard to understand as some teachers and literary critics would like you to think, and I’d even argue that none of it should be. Poetry may use language in unusual ways, or it may not, but it shouldn’t be out of anyone’s reach. Yes, there are a lot of layers and nuances to poetry but you don’t necessarily need to know your iambs from your anapests or the difference between metonymy and synechdoche to appreciate poetry.

Let me put it another way: if you have a smartphone, or, as most people now call them, a phone, you probably know how to use it. You don’t need to know how it works, how it’s made. You don’t need to know how to build one yourself. There are ways you could learn all that if you wanted to but, again, it’s not necessary to get your phone to do what you need it to do.

The same is somewhat true of poetry. The barrier to entry is just much lower. If the words on the page or, if it’s a spoken poem, that you hear are meaningful to you, if you enjoy them, then you get it.

Getting It All Wrong.

Source: Wikipedia

The importance of Vincent Van Gogh to art history can’t be overestimated. He didn’t just leave behind a massive and profound body of work that includes several iconic paintings. He’s also the archetypal misunderstood and starving artist. He’s the painter all the critics and collectors—especially the collectors—got wrong in his lifetime. I remember in the early ‘80’s hearing about a Van Gogh being sold in an auction for a “disappointing 13 million dollars” and I thought, yeah, I bet Vinnie wouldn’t have been disappointed. And to get back to the critics, well, the 1996 film Basquiat sums it up pretty well in its opening lines: “Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh boat. There’s no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it…No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another like Van Gogh.”

I’ve always taken it as a given that Van Gogh’s reappraisal was gradual and the work of a lot of different critics who gradually came around to seeing his work differently, but really I was wrong. Or at least I was missing a big part of the story. Vincent’s brother Theo was extremely important but until recently I had no idea—and most people don’t seem to know—how important Theo’s wife Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger was. There’s a lengthy article on her in The New York Times Magazine and the title, “The Woman Who Made van Gogh” is not an exaggeration.

In short, when Theo died—just six months after his brother—she started teaching herself art history and criticism and spending time in artistic circles while also promoting Vincent as a genius whose paintings deserved to be seen and valued. Without her we wouldn’t have the myth of Vincent Van Gogh, and paintings like Starry Night might be packed in an attic somewhere or, worse, destroyed, instead of hanging in major museums.

Still I think this reappraisal gets some things wrong. I’m not sure Van Gogh’s paintings are the first to be viewed with the artist’s psychology being such an important part of how they’re interpreted. Van Gogh may be the most dramatic example of a shift in art criticism toward more personal interpretations, but there had been artists’ biographies published since at least Vasari, and I doubt any critic could honestly claim to look at, say, Michelangelo’s work without thinking about his life or the times in which he lived. Art criticism really started as a way for writers to promote their friends work—or take down their enemies.

The magazine article also, I think, gets Jo van Gogh-Bonger wrong too. She was married to Theo for less than two years and it was a transformative time for her. The article concludes that promoting Vincent was her way of “keeping alive that moment of her youth, and allowing the rest of us to feel it.” I think she was more complicated than that. Her diaries show that she was ambitious, that she had a desire to change the world, long before she met Theo.

The idea that Vincent Van Gogh was plucked from obscurity is also at least partly wrong. He met and hung around with prominent painters of his day, including Toulouse-Lautrec who made a portrait of Vincent. There’s a great scene in the 1956 film Lust For Life in which Vincent, played by Kirk Douglas, meets Seurat, played by David Bond, who gives a lecture on how to arrange colors on a palette. Sure, it’s fiction, but it seems plausible.

Then there’s the overarching issue: art history isn’t fixed. How do we judge Vincent Van Gogh’s importance, really? Most people think his paintings are great—including me—but we can’t say, objectively, what exactly makes them great. We can’t even say if his life story is part of what makes them great. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

When We Go…

Source: Dying Art

So I knew a guy who decided he wanted a tattoo, and his girlfriend suggested—really strongly, I think—that he should get her name, which was Linda, tattooed onto his arm. He wasn’t so sure and finally came up with a compromise: he got “Love Is Not a Dying Art” tattooed inside a heart on his arm. And even though I lost touch with him years ago I’m pretty sure that relationship didn’t end well. This is also almost entirely unrelated but I thought of him when I ran across the website for Dying Art, a company that makes creative caskets.

Source: Dying Art

They’re based in New Zealand and, well, I can’t think of a nicer place to die.

It does seem a little strange to me that someone would want a personalized casket because, well, it’s not like they’re still around to enjoy it. Although I also think, hey, if in the end you want to blow all your money on a glitter casket, go for it.

Source: Dying Art

There’s no better time to do something that makes you truly happy. As Mark Twain wrote in “At The Funeral”,

If the odor of the flowers is too oppressive for your comfort, remember that they were not brought there for you, and that the person for whom they were brought suffers no inconvenience from their presence.

Most of what they offer is a standard coffin shape with a personalized outer design but looking through their gallery there are some absolute gems, especially this memorial plaque:

Bigger Bird.

Source: The Art Newspaper

The artist Alex Da Corte is putting Big Bird on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he’ll stay from April 16th through October 31st. Strictly speaking it’s a sculpture of Big Bird, painted blue, which is a nod to Big Bird’s Venezuelan cousin, who’s named Garibaldo. Da Corte was born in the United States but his father is Venezuelan and Da Corte spent several years of his childhood there. Big Bird also has a blue cousin in The Netherlands named Pino, and in the 1985 film Follow That Bird Big Bird is captured by a circus, caged, dyed blue, and forced to sing as “The Bluebird of Happiness”.  

It’s weird to me to think that I’m part of the first generation to literally grow up with The Muppets. From The Muppet Show and Sesame Street through so many movies and spinoffs and appearances—Oscar The Grouch even once came to a church some friends and I were going to for a weeklong Vacation Bible School when I was five—that it’s hard to know what to say about them, or about Da Corte’s sculpture, other than that I absolutely love it and wish I could see it in person. Talking about The Muppets is like talking about Greek myths. More specifically it’s like talking about Greek myths in, say, 400 B.C. Jim Henson—the Muppet Homer, if you follow my metaphor—is long gone but the stories are still very much alive, very much part of our current cultural fabric.

Maybe that’s partly because the Muppets are such a reflection of who we are. They don’t look human—most of them aren’t even supposed to be human; they’re frogs and pigs and bears and dogs and rats and shrimps and whatever the hell Gonzo is supposed to be. (Yes, I know, he’s an alien.) That’s the thing, though: we can project ourselves onto the Muppets because, like us, they come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colors, and personalities. And they’ve been brought to life by a wide range of very talented performers who, though they’ve mostly stayed behind the scenes, projected themselves through the characters. Carol Spinney, who played Big Bird—who, you could even say, was Big Bird, told a funny story about Jim Henson moving the Ernie puppet out of the way.

Ernie was on the floor, right where Henson needed to stand. 
‘So he kicked it to the side,’ remembers Spinney. ‘After the scene I picked Ernie up and said, “Are you alright after that bad man just kicked you?”‘
As Spinney recalls, Henson replied, ‘Oh that’s funny, are you sentimental about the puppets?’
‘I said, “Well yeah, they’re kind of real to me,” while Henson said, “To me they’re just tools.”

Yeah, if you grew up watching Sesame Street and the Muppets that might seem pretty dark, but the Muppets are alive because of the people behind them, which is also why we can project ourselves onto them.

Da Corte’s sculpture, by the way, gives Big Bird a ladder, giving him the power to climb even higher, and he’s perched on a crescent moon in imitation of Donna Summer. The title of the sculpture is As Long As The Sun Lasts, taken from an Italo Calvino short story. So there’s a lot of cultural layering here, but at the heart of it is Big Bird, which reminds me of something a friend said when the Muppets, who were on SNL in its early years, returned with Jason Segel in 2011: “It doesn’t matter who you are, whose show it is, or what else is going on. When you’re with the Muppets they’re the stars.”

Being There.

One wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Source: Wikipedia

April is National Poetry Month which got me thinking about poetry as an art form and also poems about art. And there are so many, from poems on Grecian urns to multiple poems inspired by Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”.

However recent events made me think about a very specific one: Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem Facing It, about his visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Komunyakaa is Black, descended from a grandfather who came to the United States as a stowaway from Trinidad. He grew up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, just sixty miles north of New Orleans, and he’s written about exploring the woods and picking blackberries to sell by the side of the road. He also served a tour of duty in Vietnam.

I met Komunyakaa once, which was a real thrill for me because I’m a fan of his poetry, after he’d given a talk about William Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily, which he described as “a distinctly American short story”—a story of terrible secrets, death and resistance to change, but also a glimmer of hope in the possibilities of revelation and understanding, and life going on. Then he read some of his poems, including Facing It, and I thought about how great poetry should be read aloud, how the sound and sense go together.

I also thought about the first time I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, just a little over two years after its installation, just under a decade after the end of the Vietnam War. It was a school trip and the teacher talked about how Maya Lin, the memorial’s designer, was the daughter of Chinese immigrants.

The poem “Facing It” is a distinctly American poem: a grandson of an immigrant standing before the work of the daughter of immigrants, seeing himself in it, but also finding hope in reflection and understanding, and life going on.

Writer’s Block.

Source: Nickelodeon Fandom

Centuries ago cable TV finally came to my neighborhood. People of a certain age will understand the significance of that just as there will presumably be a time when people will remember “cutting the cable”, assuming that time hasn’t already come and gone. Anyway my friends and I would run home after school—usually to my home, which, for some reason, was where we gathered—and turn on this new network called Nickelodeon so we could watch You Can’t Do That On Television and Danger Mouse. And then, later in the evening, usually after my friends had left, there was Kids’ Writes.

If you’re feeling nostalgic right now for that era of Nickelodeon the YouTube channel poparena has a playlist called Nick Knacks that are an incredibly deep and entertaining and explore the channel’s history and shows. They track how Nickelodeon went from a commercial-free “green vegetable channel” of mostly cheap PBS castoffs that struggled to fill a twelve-hour broadcast day to a massive multi-media conglomerate.  

The premise of Kids’ Writes was simple: kids wrote in with ideas for sketches or songs and a troupe of adult performers would act them out. At the end of each show they’d put up an address and encourage kids to send in their ideas. If that sounds familiar PBS’s Zoom had the same idea.

I’ve been trying for years to write something about Kids’ Writes, trying to find some hook that would lead into it, something I could say, like maybe how I sent in an idea and they performed it. Except I didn’t. The fact is I never could come up with an idea even though I wanted to so badly. I thought it would be so cool to see my idea performed—maybe I could even convince my friends, who hated Kids’ Writes, to watch it. But I couldn’t come up with anything. I was completely blocked. It was weird because, before that, I had no trouble coming up with stories, but somehow as soon as Kids’ Writes came along, as soon as I had what seemed like a place to share those stories, all those ideas I’d had either seemed wrong or just disappeared.

That may be just as well—it turns out the show only had one season and all the stories performed were selected before production started. I don’t think they were being dishonest when they asked kids to send in ideas. Maybe they hoped they’d have a second season, and I’m sorry they didn’t. But I also imagine I’d be disappointed to have my idea rejected or, worse, get no response even as the same episodes of Kids’ Writes ran over and over. There were just seventeen episodes and they continued airing until 1987, although I quit watching it long before that. I don’t think I even made it through one cycle of reruns and, really, I think I liked the idea of the show more than the show itself.

Anyway I was recently asked to write something for work, which was a pretty cool thing. Creative projects don’t come along often in my job and I was excited just to be asked. And then, of course, I couldn’t come up with an idea. I struggled to find a hook, some way in, something to say, but the well was dry. Performance anxiety of a hell of a thing.

Finally I sat down and just started writing. I won’t say it’s that simple—I did have an idea of what I wanted to do, so I had somewhere to start, but it was so vague I kept putting off even starting. I couldn’t take that first step, metaphorically, because I didn’t know what the next step would be. But when I finally did sit down and start writing the next step appeared, and the one after that, and the one after that.

And, as an added bonus, I finally came up with a way to write about Kids’ Writes.

Heavy Metal.

Source: periodictable.com

I’m not a jewelry guy so maybe this isn’t that strange but I overheard a jewelry store commercial and was thrown to hear that they had rings made of tantalum. Even if you’re into jewelry that may sound weird to you—maybe even if you’re into metallurgy or alchemy. Actually if you’re into alchemy tantalum probably isn’t your thing because it wasn’t discovered until 1802. Anyway most jewelry is made from silver or gold, occasionally platinum, or brass or pewter if it’s costume jewelry. Tantalum is a weird choice for jewelry. How often do you even hear about tantalum?

Well, odds are you have some. If you have a cell phone it probably has tantalum in it. In fact tantalum has a pretty bloody history—and that history is recent. The genocide in Rwanda was fueled in part by a skyrocketing market for tantalum and another element, niobium—also used in cell phones and jewelry. They’re frequently found together in an ore called coltan that is so abundant in some places anyone with a shovel can dig it out of the ground, and the high prices it can get make scooping up coltan a lot more attractive than, say, farming, even though you can’t eat cell phones.

That’s pretty dark, and now most of the world’s tantalum comes from Australia. I’m pretty sure Anders Ekeberg, the scientist who first isolated tantalum, didn’t have a clue it would be so valuable or cause so much suffering but then he did choose to name it after Tantalus, a mythological figure who murdered and cooked his own son and was condemned to Tartarus where he’d stand in water he couldn’t drink, under fruit he couldn’t eat, eternally thirsty and hungry, which you might think about the next time you describe something as tantalizing. And the name choice wasn’t just a coincidence. Because tantalum is found with niobium Ekeberg knew Tantalus was the father of Niobe, another tragic Greek figure: her children are murdered by Apollo and Artemis and she’s transformed into a weeping rock, and, seriously, ancient Greek myth writers, isn’t real life bad enough?

To get back what started me down this morbid path in the first place, tantalum jewelry does seem like a good idea if you’re looking to wear something that’s tough and made to last. Consider this: the melting point of gold is 1064 Celsius, the melting point of silver is 962 Celsius, and the melting point of platinum is 2041 Celsius.  Tantalum only melts at 3017 Celsius. Even though it’s not found in its pure state in nature it’s incredibly non-reactive: its nemesis is hydrofluoric acid which can also dissolve glass and, oh, it will kill you if it gets on your skin. So, yeah, it’s got a nice ring to it.

 

Behind It All.

It’s been, well, about a year since I was last in an art gallery. The office where I worked before the lockdown is right across the street from the Vanderbilt University campus and sometimes when I needed a break I’d walk up to the Sarratt Gallery and see what was on display. In fact I had a short-lived job writing art criticism and wrote about two exhibits at Sarratt before the magazine folded. Something I’ve never thought about in any art gallery or museum, though, is the walls behind the paintings or other artworks on display. Well, who does? Curators, I guess, but, really, have you ever been in a museum and turned your attention away from the paintings and looked at the walls? And it’s not something I would have thought about if I hadn’t read about New York City’s Frick Collection being temporarily moved from the opulent mansion, built in 1912, where it’s normally housed to a 1966 office building that’s an example of the aptly named Brutalist architecture.

Here’s a good example of the difference, first paintings in the Frick Mansion:

Source: New York Times

And here are some of the same works in their current digs:

Source: New York Times

I guess whenever I looked at paintings I was always on some level conscious of where I was—I mean, I did once get lost in the Cleveland Museum of Art because it’s huge, and when I went to the Louvre, where I also got lost because it’s even huger, but that’s another story, I looked around and thought, yeah, I could believe Napoleon rode horses through these hallways. I still knew what building I was in. I just never really stopped to think about how the surroundings, even the color of the walls, affected how I was seeing the paintings on those walls. And I know curators and even some artists are very particular about painting placement and even lighting. I just didn’t give it that much thought.

It’ll still be a while before I go back to an art museum or gallery. I know I’ll be getting a COVID-19 shot sometime soon, but “soon” is still pretty vague. When I’m finally back out and about, though, it seems fitting that I just won’t be thinking about what I’m seeing but where.

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