Wednesday, May 28, 2008

We Are Stardust, We Are Golden (Notes from Woodstock, New York)

In 1919 Walter Gropius established the Bauhaus art school in Weimar, Germany, which would eventually become the most influential design school of the 20th century in Europe. Indeed, its impact would be equally significant in the United States, if not moreso, with the immigration of Gropius and other Bauhaus luminaries to this country during and after World War II. But in Weimar these weird artists were not all that welcome, especially personalities like the Expressionist painter Johannes Itten – the original teacher of the Vorkurs at the Bauhaus – who shaved his head and went around town in medieval-looking robes and worshipped an ancient Persian deity. Weimar was an important city for German culture of the hoch variety – Goethe and so forth – but its residents did not take kindly to these new, modern types of artists. Today they might be called “hippies,” or even “freaks” by some. But the term “hippie” didn’t exist in the 1920s in Germany. In 1925, the Bauhaus was forced to leave Weimar, and went on to greater fame (and a different artistic direction) in the town of Dessau.

I was thinking about this recently as it compares with Woodstock’s history as the home of two major art colonies, the Byrdcliffe colony (founded 1902 by Ralph Whitehead, an English disciple of William Morris), and the Maverick colony (an offshoot of Byrdcliffe, founded in 1904 by Hervey White). It was my grandmother who got me thinking about it, she said, “can you imagine? There was mostly no one here but farmers when these artists showed up, they didn’t know what to make of them!” She makes an important point, and I think it helps to explain one reason why New York is so interesting: instead of rejecting the artists and sending them packing, like in Weimar in the 1920s, the New Yorkers of the early 20th century accepted them, and in fact to some extent adopted the culture and the mindset of these artists. (It should be noted that the Hudson Rivers School of artists - including Frederick Church and Thomas Cole - had already established a strong artistic tradition in this region.) Woodstock is a very groovy place now because of the open-mindedness and the spirit of tolerance and acceptance that I think go back to New York’s early history.

New York is not part of New England, after all; New Yorkers didn’t burn witches at the stake. They didn’t persecute people who were different – at least not Europeans and Euroamericans. I know the Native Americans didn’t fare too well here; their legacy is mostly preserved only in the place names (like “Taghkanic,” or Taconic). In that respect New York is as guilty as the rest of America. But I think it’s significant that by the 20th century, folks could come here from abroad – the artists in the 1900s, the musicians in the 1960s, the Tibetan Buddhists in the 1970s – and not be labeled outsiders but rather could make important contributions to the local culture. Part of this, I’m sure, is a spillover effect from New York City, that original “melting pot” and port of entry for so many groups of immigrants.

When you go to the Wikipedia entry for Woodstock, it lists many famous musicians, artists, writers and other celebrities who have lived and/or worked in Woodstock, Bearsville, and other nearby parts of Ulster County. The local artists have contributed much to the local culture. The town is full of galleries, which is also, I believe, a function of its proximity to the art capital of the world about 2 hours or so away.

One local artist was Harvey Fite, a sculptor, who had been attracted by the Maverick artists' colony; personally I think his sculpted works are not all that interesting, but his major achievement was an extremely impressive large-scale earthwork known as Opus 40 in nearby Saugerties. Fite lived at this abandoned quarry – in a house he built himself – and over a period of 37 years transformed that quarry into a carefully laid-out network of walls, ramps, and cliffs, all assembled by hand from rough-dressed slabs of the quarry’s characteristic bluestone. Opus 40 was a labor of love. It transforms a scarred hole in the earth’s surface, wrought for economic exploitation, into a sublime landscape created purely as an expression of beauty. My husband and I got married at Opus 40, before the backdrop of the Catskill mountains, in 2003.

Woodstock’s musicians probably feature more prominently in the popular imagination because of Woodstock’s great “claim to fame,” the rock concert of 1969 on Yasger’s farm, about 45 miles away. Woodstock was a hub of musical activity well before the Woodstock concert (“3 days of peace and music”). Bob Dylan recorded his Basement Tapes in nearby Saugerties in 1967, at the house occupied by some members of The Band (that's right, “THE” band). My favorite song about Woodstock, though, was written by Joni Mitchell about the great 1969 rock concert:

I came upon a child of God, he was walkin’ along the road
And I asked him, “where are you goin’?” and this he told me:
“I’m goin’ on down to Yasger’s farm, I’m gonna join in a rock-n-roll band
I’m gonna camp out on the land, I’m gonna try and get my soul free.

“We are stardust, we are golden,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

“And can I walk beside you, I have come here to lose the smog,
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year, or maybe it’s the time of man,
I don’t know who I am, but you know life is for learning.

“We are stardust, we are golden,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

“By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong,
And everywhere there was song and celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers ridin’ shotgun in the sky,
And they were turnin’ into butterflies above our nation.

“We are stardust (million year old comet), we are golden (caught in a devil’s bargain),
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded a rockin’ version of “Woodstock” in 1970, but if you haven’t heard Joni Mitchell’s recording of it (on Ladies of the Canyon, 1970), you really should. It’s mesmerizing and evocative. Mitchell’s lyrics are an anthem of what one might call “hippie spirituality” – uttered by a “child of God,” which we all are (if you believe in any kind of a God at all). It’s a subtle spirituality that posits no religious dogma but instead a set of ethical principles having to do with love, community, utopia, and an emphasis on creating peace in this world, not the next.

So just what are hippies, anyway? I don’t think there’s a simple answer. A lot of artists are hippies, but not all of them, and not all hippies are artists, either. Same thing can be said of musicians. Then there’s “hippie spirituality,” which might also be called “New Age spirituality;” again, not all hippies are spiritual, many of them are atheists. Maybe even most of them. Then there are the proto-hippies (like Johannes Itten), followers of movements that embodied some of the same principles and values that in the 1960s came to be associated with hippies: the rejection of mainstream culture, in its various forms.

THIS JUST IN (updated June 7, 2008):

A new museum has just opened in Bethel Woods, New York (the actual site of the Woodstock concert). It's called The Museum at Bethel Woods and is dedicated to "The Story of the Sixties and Woodstock."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My "Guardian of Identity": the Family Home (Notes from Woodstock, New York)

My great-grandfather built this house in 1951 for himself and his wife; their two daughters were grown and married and raising kids of their own, so this 2-story house with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms was more than ample for their needs as retired grandparents. Neither of them probably suspected that my great-grandmother would live here for another 36 years, until she died at the age of 102-1/2. Now my grandmother lives here, and her longevity, rivalling that of her mother, makes me realize (with my genes) that I'm probably going to be on this planet for the long haul.

This house has so many unique features and loving details -- built-in cabinetry in almost every room, a breezeway where we used to eat all our meals in the summers; the original wallpaper(!). The house sits about 100 yards from a large stream; at night you can sit out on the back porch and hear that stream, with water rushing over countless mini-waterfalls, and you can see all the stars unlike anywhere else. For me this place is nothing less than perfect.

Close by is the town of Lake Hill -- it's not really a town, it's just a blip on the map, where everyone has to get their mail delivered to a P.O. box instead of home delivery. When my grandmother first moved there in 1972 (to be near her aging mother) she had a party line. (That's an old-fashioned kind of shared telephone line, for those who've never heard of it.) We used to walk to the post office every day to pick up the mail, a mile or so down the road.

I say every day, but really I mean just on the summer vacations when I was visiting, along with my parents and two brothers. I loved it when my parents would leave us kids there alone with Grandma for a week or so, and sometimes I got to stay myself, alone with my grandmother, who was (and still is) my most important role model. Whenever we stayed in Lake Hill -- during which we visited Woodstock almost daily -- we kids would spend hours every day roaming in the woods, picking wild blueberries and finding beaver dams; we would swim in the ice cold mountain streams, with which this part of the country is riddled. Grandma would set up a bed for me on her front porch (which was screened in), and I considered it a special treat to be able to sleep out there at nights.

My grandmother moved from Lake Hill into the Woodstock house in 1984 when her mother could no longer be alone. It's hard to believe that my great-grandmother died more than 20 years ago (1987), but since that time, this house has been the gathering place for my extended family. I've sometimes dreamed of growing old here myself, though it's hard to imagine how that would happen given my present circumstances.

Although I have never, ever actually lived in New York, I feel very close ties to the state. My father grew up here, as did my grandmother and my great-grandmother. Its natural beauty, its history and its culture all mean a lot to me. Woodstock (population: 6,241 acc. to Wikipedia) embodies my idea of a perfect rural life; it has all the cultural amenities of a city, thanks to its proximity to New York City, but all the unspoiled natural beauty of "the country." Of course, for most rural Americans, my description of Woodstock as "rural" would be laughable; after all, you can see your neighbors' houses, and you can walk to "downtown" (such as it is). But to me those attributes are highly desirable; I have no desire ever to feel isolated, or to be dependent on an automobile. Personally, I like community and walkability. If the function of a house is to remind us of who we are (acc. to Alain de Botton), then this house fulfills its function better than any other house I've lived in.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Little Bit of Tibet, Here in the Catskills (Notes from Woodstock, New York)

Part of what makes Woodstock so interesting are all the different layers of culture and history that merge here. In the mid-1970s, a group of Tibetan Buddhists founded a monastery partway up Overlook Mountain; it's said that the climate and terrain reminded them of Tibet. This monastery is known as the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, The Seat of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa in North America .

Up on the mountain:

At the foot of the mountain:

(The owner of this business is a master carpet weaver, a Tibetan born in Nepal and now transplanted to New York.)

The KTD monastery in Woodstock is the North American home of the Karmapa Lama, the head of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which is one of four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He just visited the KTD monastery on May 19 for the first time (click here to read about his visit in the Woodstock Times and to see a photograph of the interior of the new shrine). The Dalai Lama himself visited the KTD monastery in 2007.

When the KTD monastery was founded in the 1970s, they were housed in this turn-of-the-century wooden frame building (which may originally have been a boarding house, it is so large):

Now there is a new shrine building, and a much larger building is still under construction that will replace the old one seen in this photo. When I was a teenager (1980, perhaps?) my grandmother took me to a meditation / chanting service at the monastery; for a monetary contribution, we had dinner with the Buddhist community there as well. Today the KTD informs visitors that they can only provide meals to people staying there on retreats.

The presence of the KTD monastery on Overlook has permeated the town with a strong Buddhist identity. One local business has this marquee:

Outside the realtor's office, the sidewalk has this design:

I think it's interesting how this western peace sign takes the place of a Buddhist mandala (a sacred, symbolic map used in Buddhist art and architecture) with the images of the Buddha set in the four directions -- not the four directions of the compass, but of the peace sign.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Keep Your Money-Grubbing, Capitalist Hands Off My Overpriced Tourist Town! (Notes from Woodstock, New York)

Today I walked past this sign on Tinker Street in downtown Woodstock and realized I had never noticed it before. The last time I was in town was 9 months ago, and since the sign is dated 2007, maybe it wasn't even up then.

I've been in Woodstock for 5 days now, and have been wondering what photo to post on my blog -- the scenic view of the Catskills? the Tibetan Buddhist monastery? the family home built by my great-grandfather in 1951? But really, this sign says it all.

I've been coming to Woodstock on a more-or-less annual basis since the 1970s, when my grandmother, after becoming a widow and traveling around the world with her daughter, moved back up here to be near her mother.

My impression of Woodstock growing up was that there were three categories of people here: artists, senior citizens, and tourists. Of course there were also the hippies, bikers, and other "alternative" people, but mostly they fit into one (or more) of the aforementioned categories. Then there were the summer-only residents; the ones I met were artists; these folks tended to live in "the city" the rest of the time. In my adulthood I realized there are also the merchants who keep the town running -- the meat market, the florist, the wine merchant, the bookseller, the town's two hardware stores. Woodstock has its middle-class, working-class, middle-aged and young adults, and families -- all in sufficient numbers to support public schools, a town council, a police department, and a volunteer fire department.

But most of the businesses that line the mile-long "downtown" cater to affluent tourists. The clothing, jewelry, objets d'arts, and assorted baubles and trinkets from distant lands -- none of these qualify as necessities for the town's residents. My grandmother, when she needs to buy a pair of jeans or comfy shoes (which is rare), drives to Kingston to shop at Sears or some other place she considers reasonably priced. With all the senior citizens in Woodstock, you'd think there would be more affordable shops in town, but there aren't. Even the Grand Union grocery store -- walking distance from my grandmother's house -- closed down several years back, leaving Woodstock with only a health food store for its grocery needs. (Well, the meat market and the drugstore both stock a lot of staple items too.) Me, I like the health food store. My grandmother, on the other hand, thinks it's too expensive; she has to go three miles to Hurley to shop at the Hurley Ridge market (which, mind you, is NOT a chain or big-box store).

Getting back to the photograph: I don't believe that this sign ("ON THIS SITE STOOD A LOCAL MARKET BANKRUPTED BY...") commemorates any actual market that ever really existed on this spot. (Notice that it doesn't give the name of that local market.) I could be wrong, but I seem to recall that the two adjacent buildings have always housed locally owned businesses of one sort or another. I think the sign is there for polemical purposes, decrying this country's economic and political state of affairs more than anything else. The "in-your-face," accusatory tone -- assailing any and all passers-by -- is very much in the vein of Woodstock's local rhetoric. When I walk past the stream between my grandmother's house and the town, locals have posted signs admonishing visitors not to pollute or leave garbage because "this site is sacred to many people around here." The implicit message: you are an outsider; you are welcome only if you respect and share our values.

I cannot believe that the stores in Woodstock suffer from competition from any big-box stores; they just do not share the same customer base. Woodstock caters to the high-end, and the locals who want lower prices have always looked to Kingston and other local mini-opolises for their shopping. This is not a new phenomenon of the advent of Wal-mart. I wouldn't even know where to find a Wal-mart in this part of the country.

But the sign makes a great conversation piece. When I took this photo yesterday I was not the only person doing so.

Notes on Blogging:

Special thanks to my friend A.E. for sending me a link to Emily Gould's NY Times article, "Exposed." The author discusses the pitfalls of oversharing on the internet.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

This is the Place

Recent conversations about my current hometown, Columbia, Missouri, provide an opportunity for me to talk at further length about place: the importance of place in forming individual identity, the allegiances we have to various places, and what makes for “good” places. I recently heard a BBC interview with co-authors of a new book, The Endless City, edited by Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic of the London School of Economics, in which the editors concluded that what makes for a “good” city is the amount of choice it offers to its citizens. This is part of the attraction of cities; people are willing to put up with nuisances, like traffic, overcrowding, and inflated real estate prices and cost of living, because in cities they can find many of the things they like and can’t find elsewhere. On the other hand, many people are deeply attached to very small places that seem (to me, at least) to offer very few choices. Places – as well as people’s visceral reactions to them – intrigue me. Why do people have such visceral reactions – both to places they like and places they don’t like?

California and Its Detractors

This question has been on my mind for decades now, in part because I spent 14 years in a place that many people love, and that many other people love to hate: Southern California. Having grown up east of the Mississippi River, I spent my first 24 years hearing how weird and unpleasant California was. It was described as being full of “fruits and nuts;” someone (maybe Johnny Carson?) said they tilted the country and all the loose nuts rolled to the West Coast. L.A. was notorious for smog, for car culture, and for traffic that you would sit in for hours every day in order to go to and from work. People in L.A. were supposed to be superficial, concerned only with looks and money. People were the artificial products of plastic surgery; ga-ga over movie stars; lazy sun-worshippers; vegetarians, Hare Krishnas, and followers of other such cultish ideas. As I compile this list I realize that it reflects the fears and prejudices of a very conservative populace, many of whom are either ignorant of the truth (having never BEEN to Los Angeles) or distrustful of people who are not like themselves.

California was nothing like those stereotypes. Sure, there’s a kernel of truth in many stereotypes, and the traffic in Los Angeles is unbelievably bad at times and seems to be always getting worse. But urban problems like traffic are in no way unique to Los Angeles, and the pleasures of living there are seemingly endless – at least, for people who like that sort of thing. I’ll write more about some of the specific pleasures in another post; after all, I’ll be spending a month there this summer, hopefully with some time available for blogging. Suffice it to say that the quality of life available there (especially in Santa Monica, where I lived) is VERY good.

When you are attached to a place (as I was to Santa Monica) it’s rather discomfiting to have people put it down, especially when they do so ignorantly or unfairly. When I was in grad school I went on the job market a few times, and during the course of several campus visits I was pretty astonished at the offhanded California-bashing I encountered, especially coming from people who lived in what seemed to me to be far less desirable locales. One woman in rural Missouri told me about her recent trip to Northern California, but felt compelled to add that she had intentionally avoided Southern California, with the implication that it was too distasteful for someone like herself to consider visiting. This from someone who lives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, who told me they have to drive 45 minutes to Carbondale, Illinois, to find a health food store or a farmer’s market! Likewise in Memphis, Tennessee, the partner of a faculty member made some disparaging remark about L.A. as soon as we were introduced; and ditto in De Kalb, Illinois, where the natural landscape is entirely featureless. Evidently Southern California’s natural beauty, year-round mild climate, and cultural diversity are still not on the radar for a lot of people in the eastern U.S., who instead have been brainwashed by the negative stereotypes I listed above. I also noticed in myself a slight defensiveness when people would put down L.A.; did they not intend their comments as an insult to me? Or did they believe (which is more likely the case) that I was probably eager to leave the unpleasant dystopia of Los Angeles?

When I finally settled in Columbia, Missouri, during my first semester of teaching, one Architectural Studies undergrad made this comment about L.A.: “Why would we want to visit L.A.? It’s like Saint Louis with palm trees.”

Ann Arbor Bites, Detroit is Fascinating, and Other Unpopular Observations About Michigan

The job for which I eventually gave up my life in Santa Monica was at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, an urban, commuter campus in a city adjacent to Detroit. This was a one-year position, and in fact I was only there for nine months, because as soon as the spring semester ended in late April I moved to Missouri to be with my soon-to-be husband. As much as I had loved my 14 years in California, I embraced the chance to live in a new place, to get to know a major city (Detroit) that I knew nothing about, and to begin my professional life. What was weird about the experience was this: many people, both within and outside of Michigan, think that Ann Arbor is the greatest place in the world (or at least the greatest place in Michigan). I’m not kidding. When I would tell people I was moving to Michigan their response was often a very warm, enthusiastic endorsement of “what a great place Ann Arbor is.”

Weirdest of all is that when I had my first interview for the job, at the College Art Association annual meeting in (I think) Chicago, the two faculty members who interviewed me said, “if you do get this job, we think you should live in Ann Arbor,” and proceeded to describe the necessity for doing so. Mind you, Dearborn is a 45-minute drive from Dearborn. And this was before they had even decided whom they would invite to campus for a second interview; evidently they were giving everyone this advice.

Coming from L.A., where I had spent considerable time commuting to various teaching gigs, I knew I didn’t want to live 45 minutes from the campus where I would be teaching. With my mom’s help, I found an utterly charming apartment in Dearborn – actually the second floor of a 1930s brick house – a five-minute drive from campus. And since I would go to my office every day, including weekends, this was no small consideration. I definitely did go to Ann Arbor too, once a week or once every couple of weeks, but the logic of living near my workplace and commuting to the outstanding research library should be fairly obvious. (Every academic knows that in your first year of teaching you don’t exactly do scholarly research every day.)

What I discovered at UM Dearborn was that the majority of faculty – I would guess about two thirds – live in Ann Arbor, and have nothing to do with the city of Dearborn if they can help it. I was not comfortable with the implications of that situation. I mean, none of the students live in Ann Arbor, so the disconnect between the faculty experience and the student experience is, I think, pretty extreme. And the powers-that-be had a real blind spot when it came to their own biases (i.e., to minimize the number of days they teach, so they don’t have to drive in from Ann Arbor as often).

As for Ann Arbor, I couldn’t understand the prejudice in favor of it. I mean, it’s nice and all, in the way that a lot of upper-middle-class college towns tend to be (like Palo Alto or La Jolla), but it’s pretty corporate (Ben & Jerry’s, Borders Books, and other chains are quite prominent) and it’s VERY white. I think the preference for Ann Arbor over Dearborn had at least a little bit to do with racial prejudice. Of course they would never admit that; the ostensible reason for preferring Ann Arbor is the research library on the Ann Arbor campus. But I think it has a lot more to do with feeling comfortable and safe in the somewhat protected atmosphere of the town. My conclusion is that the UM-Dearborn campus likes to hire Ann Arbor grads because of their shared sensibility (i.e., belief in the superiority of Ann Arbor); those Ann Arbor grads like getting jobs at Dearborn because it means they will never have to leave the safe cocoon of Ann Arbor; and so the cycle just keeps repeating itself.

When I was living in Michigan I never expressed this view to any of the Ann Arborites (it would have been futile). I could certainly identify with their passionate loyalty to their town, which was a sentiment I shared (although for me it was loyalty to Santa Monica); my critiques of Ann Arbor would have been lost on them, or would have been met with condescending expressions of the you-wouldn't-understand variety. While I was convinced that Santa Monica was the greatest place in the country, they were equally convinced that Ann Arbor was, and for them it really was. Our loyalties to the places we call home are so incredibly deep-rooted sometimes that they lie outside the boundaries of reason or argument; they are bound up with identity and self-definition.

By the way, I might be the only person in the United States who thinks Ann Arbor is overrated. I think the problem is that Detroit is so universally maligned that Michiganers won't even try to defend it (even though it's a really cool place); and they want to demonstrate that Michigan does have its hip college towns like other states.

Blog Recommendation:

I recently discovered a fabulous blog on places called Where: A Blog about Urban Places, Placemaking, and the Concept of “Place.” There’s now a link to it on my blog, so I hope you’ll check it out. I was intrigued by his recent comments on Las Vegas as the world-class city of the future (which I’ve suspected for a while, but still can't imagine it becoming sustainable enough to support its booming expansion).

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton (book review)

Today I started reading The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton (2006). It’s an impressive, expansive text about the emotional and psychological impact of architecture and the man-made environment – and ultimately of beauty itself – on us human beings. I’m enjoying this book immensely; it makes reference to lots of writers, intellectuals, and artists, displaying the author’s breadth of interests. The best part of the book are the images – he shows everything from Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House in Prague to Botticelli’s Madonna and Child with Eight Singing Angels – and that’s just in the first chapter. His book uses images to communicate visually in a manner that almost stands independent from the text, much like Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture (Towards a New Architecture) or Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

Unlike Venturi or Le Corbusier, Botton is not an architect. Nor is he an architectural historian, or an academic of any sort. He seems to be just a smart guy who writes mass-market books for an intellectual audience on such esoteric subjects as literature, status, travel, architecture, and love. He also writes novels. So I guess he’s just a writer; or is he an independent scholar, or a public intellectual? And where are the boundaries between those categories? Anyway, here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of The Architecture of Happiness:

The house has grown into a knowledgeable witness. It has been party to early seductions, it has watched homework being written, it has observed swaddled babies freshly arrived from hospital, it has been surprised in the middle of the night by whispered conferences in the kitchen. It has experienced winter evenings when its windows were as cold as bags of frozen peas and midsummer dusks when its brick walls held the warmth of newly baked bread.

It has provided not only physical but also psychological sanctuary. It has been a guardian of identity. Over the years, its owners have returned from periods away and, looking around them, remembered who they were.”

I think the same might be said about the cities and towns we call home.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg (Obituary)

The revolutionary postwar American artist Robert Rauschenberg died on Monday, May 12, at the age of 82, as reported in the New York Times on May 14 (obituary written by Michael Kimmelman). Along with Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg was one of the most important artists to react against the high-seriousness of modern art as represented by Abstract Expressionism. He revived the subversive, playful spirit of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp in his various collages, assemblages, and combines, including Bed (1955) and Monogram (1959). The former "combine painting" represents a bed splattered with paint in an Abstract-Expressionist manner; at the time, the New York Times described it as a “police photo of a murder bed after the corpse had been moved.” With his Neo-Dada artistic strategies, Rauschenberg attempted to bridge the gap between art and life, thus helping to expand our definition of art.
Rauschenberg was awarded the Grand Prize at the 1964 Venice Biennale, the most important international art exhibition. That's pretty good for an artist who never even saw a painting until he was an adult, a medical technician in the Navy Hospital Corps during World War II.

Rauschenberg's work in the 1950s and '60s, including many works on display at the 1964 Biennale, were fairly unmistakeable cultural and political commentaries on America's growing cultural hegemony. In Retroactive I (1963) Rauschenberg collages together images of American astronauts and President Kennedy, emphatically repeating Kennedy's "pointing" gesture, just one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Likewise, Rauschenberg's collage called Coca-Cola Plan (1958) - three Coke bottles with wings, above a small globe - refers to global domination, and is a play on the Marshall Plan, sending Americanism over to Europe in the form of commercial mass culture.

Kimmelman's obituary is a must-read for anyone interested in American avant-garde painting, with lots more information about what Rauschenberg was up to during the past four decades. A fascinating scholarly account of the 1964 Venice Biennale can be found in Laurie J. Monahan's “Cultural Cartography: American Designs at the 1964 Venice Biennale,” in Reconstructing Modernism, ed. by Serge Guilbaut (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1990).

Also seen in the New York Times:
Austrians Strip for Lens
(Monday, May 12, 2008)

"Spencer Tunick, the photographer known for his mass nudes, did his thing on Sunday in Vienna, where hundreds of Austrian volunteers stripped in Ernst-Happel Stadium. It is the site of seven matches in the Euro 2008 soccer championships next month, , including the June 29 final, Reuters reported. Mr. Tunick said on his Web site,, that the 'ephemeral installation' was 'devised to capture and combine the spirit of sports, the grand sweeping waves of stadium architecture and the abstract relation of the human form to modern structures.' "

Friday, May 9, 2008

Persepolis (book review)

Our most recent Book Group selection was Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi and, having chosen the book, I was pleased that people responded well to it. Although one person at the meeting said "it's not literature," the graphic novel as a literary form has matured to the point where some pretty powerful and significant expression (both literary and visual) takes place within its pages.

I believe the first such appearance of the graphic novel was Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, an incredibly smart book about the Holocaust and about his family's post-Holocaust experiences. For those unfamiliar with it, I recommend the Wikipedia entry on Maus, which does an excellent job of explaining the book's significance, depth, and creativity. Maus appeared in various formats beginning in 1973. Other important graphic novelists include Alison Bechdel (author of the graphic novel Fun Home and the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For); and Harvey Pekar (author of the American Splendor series, which is illustrated by various artists including Robert Crumb, Alison Bechdel, Columbia, Missouri artist Frank Stack, and numerous others). All of these examples are autobiographical in their subject matter, which seems to be a pretty significant factor in separating the "serious" graphic novel from its pop counterparts. [Many thanks to my friend Brad who helped me to compile this list, though I take full responsibility for the opinions contained herein.]

As for Satrapi's graphic novel, it makes the history and experience of revolutionary Iran accessible to a wide audience, dispelling Western stereotypes of Iranians as religious fundamentalists. (The hostage crisis, of course, planted the seeds for a lot of American hostility.) Having lived in Los Angeles for 14 years, where I could witness the Iranian exile community first-hand (since Southern California has the largest Iranian population outside of Tehran), I knew these stereotypes were untrue, but the book reminded me again of the tragic loss of a culture and civilization that Iranians have experienced.

Satrapi was 10 years old when the Iranian Revolution occurred, and her vivid recollections of her childhood are magically illustrated, capturing both the universal psychological experience of childhood and the trauma of growing up during some of the biggest upheavals imagineable.

After living abroad during her high school years, Satrapi returned to Iran, where she attended art school. As a cartoonist her images are simple yet convincing; I like how she varies the size and dimension of panels to avoid visual monotony. Then there are those things that cannot be expressed either in words or in pictures, as for instance in this very powerful page of the novel:

Satrapi's friend, a girl who lived across the street from her, was killed when an Iraqi bomb destroyed her apartment building. In the final panel, instead of pictures we see a completely black box with the caption "No scream in the world could have relieved my suffering and my anger." Notice too the stylistic difference between the rubble of a bombed-out building in the top panel, rendered with lots of shading and less stylization, compared with the mostly unmodulated areas of black and white of her other drawings. I see this as a rare gesture towards realism that underscores the emotional impact of the incident being represented.

Satrapi injects a lot of humor, though, in this sad history of her country. I enjoyed the encounter between Descartes and Karl Marx:

And the comparison between Marx and God:
Satrapi is critical of the West as much as of her own country. Her husband wants to emigrate to Europe because he's sick of Iran; he tells her, "You'll see, a year from now people will disgust you. Always interfering in things that don't concern them." Her reply, based on her own experience of living in Vienna: "Maybe so, but in the West you can collapse in the street and noone will give you a hand." (I should mention that Satrapi now lives and works in Paris.)
Her sophisticated humor reveals the high intellectuality of her family and her society; from her wise and defiant parents, her revolutionary uncle and her strong but loving grandmother, Satrapi eventually learns how to live up to the ideals that they represent. Through this graphic novel / memoir, a portrait emerges of a very smart, sophisticated, and painfully honest woman who's not always likeable, but is always compelling.

I've noticed lately that there are a spate of books by Iranian expatriates of my generation, who evidently are all coming into their own as writers; others that spring to mind are Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America, by Firoozeh Dumas, and Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran, by Azadeh Moaveni. I'm please to see that their stories are finally being told.

More on Why I Like Columbia, Missouri

I just started this blog two months ago and didn’t know what to expect from it. Recent developments have been gratifying in the “social networking” category because of the unexpected dialogue that has emerged, and because of readers I never expected. Thanks to all who have left comments and emails.

Living in Misery (I like to call him LIM for short – he calls himself comoprozac) posted his top ten responses to my March 24 blog entry. I thought I’d bring them to general attention and respond, so here goes.

1. You forgot to mention that Columbia is really white. I like a little diversity in my cities.

No argument there. Columbia has a sizeable African-American population, but the geographic, economic, and cultural segregation are disheartening. But we do have a mosque, and a significant Muslim population who are mostly first- and second-generation immigrants from the Middle East and Pakistan. As a professor I see a fair amount of diversity on campus, both among the students and the faculty. Not as much as when I was at the University of California, but some anyway. We also have a lot of Asian students. Plus Columbia has a fairly visible gay and lesbian community, which is not something you can take for granted either.

2. Knowing everyone in a small town is not that great. Trust me.

Like I said, it’s not a small town.

3. Columbus, OH was ranked higher in where to educate your children. I didn't take the time to check the other lists.

Well it is a lot bigger. I’m not saying there aren’t more options in a larger city, I’m just saying that for what it is – a small city in the heart of a “red” state – Columbia’s got a lot more options than one might expect.

4. I do not consider anyone who likes this place to be "uncultured". I just disagree with them. Am I not allowed to do that?

It’s a free country. And I wasn’t just talking about you when I said that. Mostly that attitude comes from transplanted East- or West-Coasters. Now that I know you’re from Columbus, Ohio, I know you can’t be as much of a snob as you let on.

5. Grass-roots peace movement? The people who stand by the post office every Saturday?

Yes, and they also stand on the corner of Broadway and Providence EVERY Wednesday afternoon, and they have done for the past five years, which to my mind shows incredible dedication. When was the last time you protested for peace? (For me it was before my son was born.)

(Tip for how to keep your kid from ever being drafted: As he’s growing up, make sure he goes to peace rallies and protests; take photos so there’s evidence to back up any potential claims to “conscientious objector” status. I’M NEVER SENDING MY KID OFF TO WAR!)

And don’t be so cynical about the efforts people here make for social change and for making this city and this world a better place. That’s why your blog is offensive, it seems to belittle all those people and what they’ve done.

6. "It hasn’t been coopted by corporations and chain stores..." I know you added that downtown bit, but come on. Wal-Mart owns this town, literally.

I don’t shop at Walmart, and I used to wear a button stating that. However, an employee at the post office once asked me about it (I think her response was something like, “but where DO you shop?” as if there were no conceivable alternative), and I was overcome with an incredible sense of middle-class elitism and guilt over my insensitivity to the financial realities of working people. I’m not defending Wal-Mart, but there ARE alternatives for those who can afford them (and who are conscientious).

7. The farmers market is good.

Yes, and the farmers are nice.

8. Santa Monica sounds nice.

Unsurpassed. But it does have its problems, including ever-escalating traffic congestion and the wholesale conversion of affordable housing to condos affordable only to the rich. This will be the subject of my third book. (Mind you, I haven’t written the first book yet, but I do have plans.) As an architectural historian, I’m interested in issues of urban development, and have often reflected on the pervasive tendency among cities and towns like Santa Monica towards gentrification and exclusivity. Lots of places I love have been ruined by that trend (including Woodstock, New York, a place near and dear to my heart). On the opposite extreme are cities like Flint, Michigan, as documented by Michael Moore in Roger & Me (1989), that disintegrate from middle-class to lower- and working-class because they’ve lost many of the features and amenities that people need in order to maintain a middle-class lifestyle (like jobs, for instance). I wondered aloud (in the presence of my friend Brad) if there’s any alternative? Do cities and towns have to develop in one of these two directions? Is change necessarily that volatile and irreversible? It was Brad (and not me, the so-called Columbia booster) who pointed out that Columbia does do a really good job of maintaining a certain middle-class lifestyle that is not always preserved elsewhere.

9. Many of those best city lists were written last century. I don't trust anything Forbes has to say.

I don’t blame you. But what's wrong with the last century, anyway?

10. 100 miles is a little ridiculous to have to drive just to board a plane, don't you think?

Yes, but I’ve been spoiled. Just think, you could live in London and have to drive for 90 minutes to get to the airport even though it’s located in the same city! (Traffic and all.) Ditto New York.

More things to like about Columbia:

Two words: historic preservation.

A, they got rid of the arcades, finally; bravo!! B, the Helzburg Building. It used to be the hideously unattractive "Strollway Center" with a concrete, windowless facade from the 1970s; thank god they restored this building to its original beauty. C, the Missouri Theater is getting a similar makeover. D, the new Ragtag Complex breathes new life into an old disused building. E, Similar efforts are planned for the up-and-coming gallery (and possibly theater) district in the Benton-Stevens neighborhood.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Living in Misery needs to get a new name for his blog

Every time I read this blog (Living in Misery) I get annoyed. (It’s supposed to be a pun on “Missouri,” in case the subtle humor has escaped your notice.) The first time I read LIM I dealt with my annoyance in a less direct way, answering with my own post entitled “Why I Like Columbia” (March 24, 2008). That approach is no longer enough for me. Despite the fact that the author is someone in my not-quite-immediate social circle, I am finally going to come out and say it in public: your blog is annoying. Not the whole blog, just the attitude. Which is really unfortunate, because it and your other blogs together are otherwise a pretty interesting forum for music, movies, food, the private life of Z&R, etc. Since some of our mutual friends are aware of it and interested in what you have to say about music etc. I’ve checked it out on occasion.

For those who have not had the dubious pleasure of LIM, let me explain. The most recent post (May 2) is about the new Ragtag Complex, which LIM calls “Best Spot in Town.” I, too, am a fan of the new Ragtag Complex, which also includes Uprise Bakery and Ninth Street Video. The problem is that LIM frames his discussion of the venue this way:

The problem with living in a small, Midwestern town is that there is often no way to escape the fact that you live in a small, Midwestern town. There is nowhere to have a cup of coffee that makes you feel as if you’re in a Seattle coffeehouse, where you sip on a hot cup of joe, reading The Stranger in search of a cool art theater where you can simultaneously down a good, American IPA and take in the latest Harmony Korine flick. Well, that is, until now.”

The final paragraph of his post reads:

Since moving to COMO, we have struggled to find a place that made it just a little less miserable. The new Ragtag/Uprise/Ninth Street Video complex has done that for us. Hopefully other downtown businesses will show as much creativity and forward thinking to make other parts of ‘The District’ a little more like the Ragtag.”

LIM comes to us from Dayton, Ohio, which is evidently a real cultural mecca. But since he is no longer a newcomer to Columbia, he is no doubt aware that the Ragtag Cinemacafe, Uprise Bakery, and Ninth Street Video all have been mainstays of downtown Columbia for several years. I have been looking forward to the new Ragtag theater myself for a couple years, where they have two screens instead of one, thus doubling our movie-going options. The unveiling of the new theater in February (one week before True/False opened), and the breathtaking advertisements for Ragtag and True/False that were unveiled at the 2008 True/False Film Festival (“Jump and the net will appear” featuring stunts performed by the MU gymnastics team) conveyed a compelling sense of the remarkable achievement of the Ragtag folks who have made all this happen over the years. However, I do have some mixed feelings about the new complex, which I’ll get to later.

What LIM is not in a position to know about is what Columbia was like before there even was a Ragtag, when the only movie-going options were the two large multiplexes in town – neither one of them located downtown -- both frequently showing the same selection of mind-numbing Hollywood pablum. Now that was something to complain about.

One of the reasons I like Columbia as much as I do is the grass-roots, local, non-mainstream, non-corporate, and (for lack of a better word) authentic vibe of this college town. We’ve got great locally owned businesses and private initiatives – the Ragtag, Uprise, and Ninth Street Video have long been part of that, but so have the Main Squeeze, Sparky’s, the Root Cellar, the Cherry Street Artisan, Lakota’s, the Peace Nook, Ernie’s, Teller’s, and more. We have a cool and interesting downtown without having Ben & Jerry’s or Barnes & Noble (both ubiquitous in other college towns like Ann Arbor, Santa Barbara, Palo Alto, etc.), and I think that’s pretty exciting.

I do NOT agree that other parts of “The District” (which I agree is a silly name) need to follow Ragtag’s example. You’re looking in the wrong place for the root of Columbia’s problems. The real problem is the suburban sprawl and unchecked development south of town that drains necessary financial support. For my birthday we recently checked out the newest restaurant in town, Hemingway’s, south of Nifong. It is clearly trying to fill the niche formerly occupied by the longtime downtown restaurant Trattoria Strada Nova (RIP 2007). It was fun – the food is great, the atmosphere is great, and we’ve been fans of the chef (Brian James) since he owned our favorite downtown restaurant (Petit Bouchon) until it closed a few years ago. But I’m not going to be going back very often, and it’s not just because the whole strip-mall aesthetic turns me off(!), but chiefly because I want to support the downtown. And now, with three big new vacancies where the old Ragtag, the old Uprise, and the old Ninth Street Video used to be, downtown has that many more shoes to fill.

The new Ragtag/Uprise dining room is really slick, it’s really hip, and it’s the new place to be. But some people (I won’t name any names) actually preferred the old Uprise (to which my friend KR says “ooo! that was like eating lunch in basement!”). But that basement was simple, unpretentious, and out-of-the-way. (Not to mention quieter and less crowded, though from the restaurant’s point of view that may not be a good thing.) Besides, you can’t park on Hitt Street.

Ninth Street Video, after leaving its space on Ninth Street and moving into this complex on Hitt Street, is still calling itself Ninth Street Video. Bad idea. As KR points out, it’s lazy, and the name will be confusing for people who are new to town. And she’s a journalist, so she oughta know.

BTW, you describe Columbia as a small Midwestern town, but I must insist that it is in fact a city. The non-student population is over 80,000 (over 90,000 according to some).

And what’s with this Missouri-bashing from someone who comes from Dayton, Ohio? I mean, Ohio is still the Midwest, Dude. I can’t believe it’s that much more enlightened than Missouri.

P.S. You mention the “towering sculpture” over the box office; my architectural history students this semester (and really any student of 20th-century art/architectural history) know that it’s a replica of the Monument to the Third International designed by Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin in 1919-1920; it’s a symbol of revolution. The actual building, had it been built, would have been taller than the Eiffel Tower. (Photo: Leningrad, May Day 1926)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Immigrant Song

Having grown up in the 1970s when Led Zeppelin was ubiquitous on FM radio, I have been familiar with their music for a long time, but never gave them much serious thought. That all changed last fall at, of all places, Osaka's Japanese restaurant, where we were having a birthday party in the karaoke room. When one of the ringleaders (AH) selected "The Immigrant Song" I thought it was a bizarre choice, but as it turns out it has changed my life. I'd never thought about the lyrics before, they are fantastic. I'm convinced they are ironic and camp, but most long-time Zeppelin-watchers (including my husband) insist that's not the case.

Then I heard a fascinating cover version in March at the True/False Film Festival: a young woman (Karinne Keithly) playing "The Immigrant Song" on her ukelele. The True/False website describes her voice as "whispery and romantic;" to me her quiet, whispery rendition of the song was eerie and haunting. That's the thing about covers -- hearing a song in an unfamiliar context forces you to reconsider its meaning. That process of defamiliarizing and decontextualizing is a key strategy in pop art and postmodern culture in general, especially when it's done effectively. I mean, Zeppelin on a ukelele?? Who woulda thought?

For those who aren't familiar with the song, here are the lyrics:

Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying:
Valhalla, I am coming!
On we sweep with threshing oar,
Our only goal will be the western shore.

Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
How soft your fields so green,
Can whisper tales of gore,
Of how we calmed the tides of war.
We are your overlords.
On we sweep with threshing oar,
Our only goal will be the western shore.

So now you’d better stop and rebuild all your ruins,
For peace and trust can win the day
Despite of all your losing.

"The Immigrant Song," like all Zeppelin songs, is sung by Robert Plant with Jimmy Page on guitar. It's a clear homage to Norse history, evoking Viking raids on the pre-Christian peoples of England and Northern Europe (the midnight sun refers to the extreme northern latitudes where the sun shines for almost 24 hours a day in the summer; Valhalla was the Viking paradise). For someone like me who's exposure to ancient history and mythology is limited to the classical world, these barbarians of northern Europe seem quite alien. Since I'm a novice at Zeppelinography, I consulted the famous story of the band, Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis, which is thorough and well written for its genre. Davis describes the song as follows:
" 'The Immigrant Song' reflected Robert [Plant]'s fascination with Celtic Britain and the tides of English history, especially the four-hundred-year period from the eighth to the eleventh centuries when the English fought for their island with generations of Viking invaders form Denmark and Sweden. "The Immigrant Song," with its images of barbarous Norse seamen and pillaged abbeys, was the first of Led Zeppelin's many hammers-of-the-gods threnodies..."
Threnodies? what are threnodies?? Other than that bit of jargon, Davis' explanation is pretty straightforward. I find I'm not the only one who picks up on the song's ironies; Davis writes, "The song was hard to take seriously because its premise was so goofy, but Zeppelin fans adored it; the song set the tone of overwrought Dark Ages fantasy--a cross between an antiquarian edition of Beowulf and a stack of mint Marvels--that would be the standard psychic backdrop for all the heavy metal bands to come." (Davis' comment about a cross between Beowulf and Marvel comics reminds me of this awesome publication -- Gareth Hinds' Beowulf -- the epic poem as graphic novel.)
Davis' analysis still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. To me what's puzzling about "The Immigrant Song" is that it encompasses two different and in fact opposed voices -- the voice of conquest and pillage ("we are your overlords") versus the voice of reconciliation and healing ("peace and trust can win the day"). Is the song intended to be a dialogue? If so, who are the two interlocutors? And why is there only one singer instead of two? If I am correctly understanding the syntax, the band is equating itself with the Norse invaders (the "immigrant" of the song's title) and not with the Britons (the ones being conquered) and with whom they more commonly identified. N. suggests the advocate of "peace and trust" is the hippie persona ("what's a little anachronism?" he said when I pointed out the song's fictional world).
And the title -- "The Immigrant Song" -- how could that not be seen as ironic?! "Immigrant" as a euphemism for invader and destroyer? (Given today's political climate in America some people seem to share that interpretation -- which itself is ironic in a society where more than 95 percent of the population are descended from immigrants...)
One of my favorite Fresh Air interviews was Terry Gross' conversation with Robert Plant, which aired on August 24, 2004 (recorded January 2004); Plant talks about some of his songs ("Stairway to Heaven," "Whole Lotta Love"), his singing style, and the band's music. He was so articulate and charming that I was completely won over. [Cf. Terry's interview with Kiss member Gene Simmons on Feb. 4, 2002 -- Simmons was so utterly obnoxious and offensive that I had to turn the radio off! You can't listen to the interview on the internet; the NPR website says it is "unavailable for legal reasons."] I wish Terry had asked Plant about "The Immigrant Song," but since she did not, I have to extrapolate from his discussion of "Stairway to Heaven" that he did intend his lyrics to be taken as serious social commentary (though he appreciates the many parodies of "Stairway to Heaven" that have since been recorded).
Speaking of the book Hammer of the Gods, I enjoyed reading about Jimmy Page's fascination with Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), an extremely eccentric and debauched English poet/necromancer/heroin addict and self-professed "Wickedest Man in the World." At one point Crowley travelled to Mexico "where he spent a year trying to make his image vanish in a mirror." (Sounds like a character from One Hundred Years of Solitude.)
Truth (if indeed the book is truthful) is stranger than fiction: Davis writes about the band's experience in Copenhagen, where a woman named Eva von Zeppelin, "who claimed descent from the Count von Zeppelin who had designed the first German airships," tried to prevent the band from using her family name and to prevent them from appearing on Danish television. "Finally she was calmed down by Peter [Grant, the band's manager] and Jimmy [Page], but as she was leaving the studio she saw the first album cover with the zeppelin going down in flames, and she blew up again." I don't suppose you could make this stuff up.
Check this out:
Val's Halal -- internet advertisement for the (fictitious) Val's Halal Kebab Shop. Notice the banal music, and imagine instead "The Immigrant Song." (They used to use the Zeppelin track, but N. thinks they must have gotten busted for copyright infringment and had to remove it.)


Mondegreens: misheard song lyrics

This is my favorite new word, I don't understand the etymology (monde=world, "green world"??) but I didn't know there was a word for this concept until my hubby (N) told me today. Here are some links to funny sites that collect examples:

"All Time Funniest 100 Lyrics" at (homonym for "kiss the sky" as in " 'scuse me while I..." in Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze")

"The Misheard Lyrics Hall of Fame"

Funny Pages blog

"Blinded by the Light" lyrics