If you’ve been reading my “Cultural Divide” contributions over the past several months, you’ve gathered that I go to great lengths to try to deliver evenhanded criticism. So much so that a few have accused me of being an apologist for everything from hunting to performance art. My on-the-one-hand-on-the-otherness isn’t a righteous stance of journalistic integrity but rather a reflection of a sincere belief that the terms of cultural difference in America stem from very basic misunderstandings about the structural composition of various cultures, which if inventoried, might bridge the widening divide.
An example: Many of my culturally agnostic New York friends adamantly oppose organized religion, yet they remain open to the most phantasmatic, shamanistic, quasi-religious conceptualism in the high cultural milieu. A Lutheran service severely disturbs their enlightened senses of rational propriety, but they’re more than happy to attempt the leap of faith needed to appreciate Richard Tuttle, Robert Wilson or Trisha Brown. Likewise, most of the parishioners at a Lutheran church in Wisconsin gladly throw their worldly faith behind a 2000 year-old fairy tale about a prophet conceived without intercourse, yet they walk into a contemporary art museum and feel a Duchampian readymade or a Specific Object by Donald Judd is part of a conspiracy dreamed up by cabals of elitist charlatans from Vassar trying to control their minds.
The two scenarios sound pretty similar to me.
The Lutheran church isn’t as religious as many would have it.
The High Art world isn’t as secular as many would have it.
Religion is culture. Culture is religion.
But none of that is my point. My point is that even though most of a particular culture’s eccentricities or attitudes can be written off to relativity, some can’t.
My wife told me last week that I came down a little hard on the tapas bar in northern Wisconsin that served jalapeno poppers and truffled popcorn. She said it was a little snotty of me and that in the process I tipped my hand a little. Sometimes a guy has to pass some judgment.
On the flip side, for the past week New York Public Radio has been running a series of commercials whose appalling arrogance makes me embarrassed to have participated in their pledge drive. It’s the kind of navel-gazing, self-satisfied righteousness that turns people off to New Yorkers and their near monopoly on advanced culture. New Yorkers have taken the blind patronage by the rest of America for granted. Sold out Broadway theaters and stuffed contemporary art centers aren’t a right, though. If New York dismisses everyone whose dinner conversations aren’t about Philip Glass, people may stop making the trip. Instead of traveling to New York for its wealth of culture, they’ll stay home and invent their own, spreading praise amongst themselves. Ever wonder why NASCAR is the most popular sport in America?
As a cultural producer I’m not ready to completely alienate the 20 percent of the country who hasn’t defected to NASCAR and Captain America. We, at least I, need the 60 million Americans who might rather go to a Dodgers game, but still begrudgingly visit LACMA like a good boy eating his Brussels sprouts.
So here it goes: 15-yard penalty on New York Public Radio for Unnecessary Smugness.
(The spots are read by Stanley Tucci)
“There are people who need you to explain things to them. They don’t understand about things like food co-ops and sleep deprivation in children.”
“There are people who count on you to be witty, at least smart. They don’t know what to think about Goldman Sachs or fracking in the Catskills. They expect you to tell them. And if you let them down, who knows what will happen to the world…or at least New York, which for some people is the world. You owe it to them to listen to WNYC all the time, so please don’t do a half-assed job, that’s not like you. WNYC. Never turn it off.”
I was Up North for the 4th of July weekend.
When I say ‘Up North’ people in New York look at me quizzically.
“Like, Montreal north…or like Catskills north?”
“Neither, I was Up North, not, up north.”
In Wisconsin ‘Up North’ is a proper compound noun referring to a particular recreationally active section of the upper half of the state, where waterskiing skills are a calling card to social approval and the size of your jetski matters. Shirts and visors are emblazoned with phrases like “Up North chick” and pontoon boat titles incorporate the location: “Hoffmans’ Up North Cruiser.”
In Wisconsin ‘Up North’ isn’t a geographical distinction; it’s a cultural one.
These facts are the basis of a new theory of mine called the “Rule of Cultural Chauvinism.” When, through ritualized activity, a place gains the distinction of being a cultural site, the ignorant visitor must tread with caution for there will be landmines deployed to destabilize them in an effort to reinforce cultural differences.
My recent trip to my wife’s family’s cabin Up North was as an ignorant visitor, and I hadn’t yet gained the wisdom of what would become the Chauvinism Rule to defend myself. I imagined Up North being an innocent community of kitschy leisure watersports rather than the fierce contest to master the terms of cabin-vacation culture. In other words, I thought I was merely up north, when actually I was Up North.
My trial-by-fire started when I arrived at the cabin, where 23 other friends and family members awaited the privilege to assert their outdoorsy superiority. When the waterski boat came out on the first day I agreed to give it a try. I thought I might be able to stay on my feet because I was an alright snow skier. Forty-six eyes watched me fail in spectacular fashion three times, skis whipped violently in different directions, body folded like a rag doll—you know the image. I didn’t necessarily expect success, but I did expect a little encouragement. Instead, I got uproarious laughter and persistent backhanded reminders of my failure.
“Last time I saw a body bend like that I was at a Cirque du Soleil in Vegas!”
“Man you would’ve been better off being shot into the water with a canon!”
The reminders continued as I also failed to correctly light fires, filet fish and even shit in the woods. One might think that shitting is primal and intuitive, but apparently it can be done wrong.
My breaking point came when we were lighting fireworks for the family’s annual party. Not Roman candles and bottle rockets, but Class B sky blooms that come in boxes the size of milk crates. I politely and curiously asked my father-in-law to explain how to ignite a Class B.
“I don’t know what you guys use in New York, but we use these here, ever seen one of these?!”
He held up a wind resistant propane torch like a caveman with a mammoth bone.
“What do ya use in New York? Matches?”
To be fair, all these jabs come with a sort of locker room affection, but really, New York..fireworks?
The ribbing was getting to me but I bit my tongue and took my complaints to my wife.
“How does moving to New York six years ago make me its official spokesperson? Why does having a New York address turn me into Woody Fucking Allen?!”
Then I went for beer. My indignation subsided as the Leinies took hold. Groggy the next day, I thought I’d gain some rugged-guy credits by building shelves in the garage. One of my nieces decided to follow me in and watch. Her curiosity paid off as she witnessed me slice through the power cord of the saw I was using to cut the wood. For a moment I thought the power went out until she handed me the severed, chewed up cord. After howling every word on the ‘off-limits list’ (a real list posted prominently in the cabin), I grabbed young Josie, looked into her young, brown, Christian eyes, and begged her to keep her mouth shut. Then I took the entire circular saw and buried it in the woods, like a reckless serial killer might a body.
And we all know that if one gets caught burying the body, they’re cooked. Circumstances don’t matter at that point. “She died from falling down the stairs, but I didn’t want to call the paramedics because I had a small amount of crack on the nightstand, so I decided to tie a cinder block to her ankle and drop her in the lake,” doesn’t cut it. Guilt oozes from poorly executed cover-ups. One’s only chance is good containment.
Young Josie’s secret knowledge churned inside of her like a bucket of mussels in the stomach of a queasy man on a roller coaster. It projectiled out of her in a couple minutes and spread quickly across the family. They even recovered the saw and have it displayed as an ignominious anti-trophy out on the porch.
I felt they’d turned me into a monster. Who cares about how well one water skis? Who cares about how good one is at horseshoes or baiting a hook or outboard motor conditioning? Few, perhaps, who weren’t Up North or at other lakeside retreats across the country, but still, I buried a saw a foot deep in the forest. And I paid dearly.
After the hazing that afternoon, the adults in the family escaped for a rare dinner without the children in Minocqua, the urban hub of Up North. Apparently, someone was feeling classy so we settled on a popular tapas restaurant instead of the usual Sysco orgy in a red basket or pizza parlour. I was ecstatic—boquerones followed by an Estrella Damm pilsner produces a burp that in itself is a culinary masterpiece. A plate of Pimientos de Padrón is like gambling and eating at the same time. A mess of assorted cephalopods—at once so mysteriously intelligent and so incredibly tasty— would take me to heaven that night against all odds.
Disaster struck when I saw the menu and lasted through my prolonged rant about how a live act shouldn’t be able to play John Mayer at a tapas bar. They served jalapeno poppers, spinach dip and truffled popcorn, but not a single Spanish dish. Apparently, the sangria and the small plates made it tapas. Still, no one, not even my loyal wife, stood by me as I sniped at every audible compliment about the scrumptious little plates.
“Oooooh, that chicken satay looks gooooood.”
“It’s not tapas..it’s not even satay. There’s no peanut sauce. That’s a plate of chicken strips and bowl of soy sauce. Is that supposed to pass as ‘Eastern’?” Why not serve Lucky Charms and call it tapas? No, serve the Charms with some Big Red chewing gum and call it tapas…then it’s both ethnic and spicy. All that on a small plate magically becomes tapas. Better, why don’t you just grill up a bunch of lies, serve them on a mini plate and call it tapas? They’d only be little lies, because they’re on little plates…and then they’d automatically be tapas, too.”
“Geez, who cares about whether it’s Spanish or authentic if we all like it?”
“And who cares how good I am at waterskiing if I’m happily failing at it?”
I guess the question is: who looks sillier? A happy fool being dragged across the water like a ragdoll, or someone enjoying the hell out of miscategorized food on small dishes..or the idiots complaining from the sidelines.
I spent last Saturday providing unwanted color commentary to my wife as she shopped for gifts at the Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn. For those who don’t know, the RCF is a craft-based flea market, whose proprietors and patrons share an affinity for tights-as-pants, non-menacing tattoos and, of course, crafted nostalgia. It was started in Chicago in 2003 and has since cropped up in other bourgy hotspots like Austin and San Francisco.
I might have indulgently added a paragraph here with some of my more searing moments in the booth—those comments that forced my wife to jab me in the ribs with her elbow—but taking shots at the embroidered-owl-tea-towel set just doesn’t have the impact it did before Portlandia. So thanks Fred and Carrie for stealing my thunder. You do it so well.
Because my wife wasn’t having my shtick, I wandered off through the city of tents and made like a social anthropologist for a few hours, in the process devising a crude hierarchy of crafter quality, based on degrees of transformation.
Creative Level 1 (Sedimentary): Any combination of two or more conventional images or objects that transform neither the components nor the final product. This includes eco-tote bags screenprinted with hedgehogs or bumble bees, onesies screenprinted with frogs, letterpress greeting cards and posters spelling out B-R-O-O-K-L-Y-N over a graphic of the street grid.
Creative Level 2 (Igneous): A recognizable object or image transformed into a new, distinct object or image, often characterized by the simplicity of the final form. This includes Nancy Drew books turned into memo pads, old records heat-formed into bowls and vintage beer bottles cut to become tumblers.
Creative Level 3 (Metamorphic): Material or objects transformed into another object or system of objects where the transformation is either: 1.) motivated by the material (in the Robert Morris sense) 2.) poetic/metaphorical (such as, Interventionist board games, where the rules and terms have been manipulated to better match the game’s theme…like, drawing the wrong card in the game of Life might lead to an actual cold sore) 3.) figuratively and literally transformed into a unique product (like, a telescope made out of Can’t Buy Me Love Beta Cassettes.)
Looking at all the plants potted in split Wiffle Ball bats and homemade lemonade soap and dishes formed from old Dr. Seuss books made me realize how structurally similar the craft world is to the art world. Sure, the posturing is different, but they share a creative foundation.
Jasper Johns famously said of art making, “Take an object. Do something to it and then do something else to it.”
Art, like renegade crafts, like rocks, and like enlightenment itself, is about transformation.
But a transformation to what?
Among some fish pillows made from old flannel shirts, I had a vision back to the rural, homespun version of the Renegade Craft Fair: Maxwell Street Days in Wisconsin. Also taking its origins in Chicago, from the original Maxwell Street, Days is more a flea market than a craft fair, more raw material than refined product. The last time I attended, I discovered a terrific steel drafting table in a booth run by mustachioed dude named Mike and his bang-ed wife, who, despite having a similar haircut, wouldn’t have known Zoe Deschanel from the current Under Secretary of the Interior. After chatting with Mike about hardwood and milling for twenty minutes I made him an offer on the desk and expressed my reservations about transporting the piece to the car. Mike gave me a good deal and then a hand carrying the piece out to the street, a cigarette in his mouth and a bottle of beer in his back pocket the whole time—he stuck it there when he realized he needed both hands to carry the desk. The beer sloshed around as he shuffled. I remember staring at the muskellunge on his ratty tank top to avoid awkward prolonged eye contact. It occurred to me, standing on the Brooklyn waterfront last Saturday that from a crude description of this couple, one might envision them as the types who play kickball in McCarren Park on Sundays, when in fact they’d sooner be getting their sun on a pontoon boat on Lake Geneva.
The old hubcaps, worm-eaten barnwood planks and antique washboards spawned from Midwestern garages, symbolize a past that my generation considers to be more redeeming than the one we’ve inherited. The symbolic power of vintage miscellanea to artists and craftsmen is that it evokes a nostalgia and wholesomeness of the past..of our youth. But maybe more importantly of youth in general and of innocence unspoiled by self-awareness.
If Maxwell Street is the metaphorical ore for the more refined products of the Renegade Craft Fair, that guy, Mike, in his artlessness is the ore for the artists of the urban set, whose transformative Odysseys are mostly additive, while their destinations – purity, authenticity and cultural virginity – are decidedly reductive.
Indeed: take something, do something to it, then do something else. Do yoga, read Proust, paint pictures, but also: somehow find naked, raw, aching originality at the same time. That second part is more difficult for the cultivated soul.
It makes me think of Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
Creative Level 4 (Precious Stones): Marked by an individual transformed from sophistication back into a pre-Creative Level 1 state of virtue (we might call it “Earth”), who has started making art from scratch, again. This includes: magical contradictions of all sorts, yet to be determined.
So, a transformation into what? It’s like that Potter Stewart quote about porn, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
My father in-law drove me to the Milwaukee airport a few weeks ago on the Wednesday before Memorial Day. I’d never seen so much activity at Mitchell International Airport. Typically, at 7 PM on a Wednesday, it feels like a private airstrip. This time it felt like, well, LaGuardia, save for the number of travelers in Green Bay Packers jerseys. As it turned out, one of the Packer players, Donald Driver, won the television dance competition “Dancing with the Stars,” the night before and everyone was on a cloud. Half the airport had Driver #80 jerseys and the other half was toting the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with its supplemental front-page inset hailing Driver’s victory.
Because of traffic my father in-law couldn’t drop me off curbside and had to stop instead in the far lane. I ran across traffic with my luggage like a digital frog, dashing and darting abruptly until a Chevy Suburban slammed on its brakes and stopped me in my tracks. The New York side of me expected a physical altercation or at least mighty insult, but instead the middle-aged dad politely waved me on. For his generosity, I beckoned him to go first. He then waived me on again..and back-and-forth for a good minute. I imagined we looked like those two overly polite Disney chipmunks, Dale and Chip. After a few more seconds of dancing, I finally made a dash..and so did he. And the Chevy’s massive grill put my luggage into the fender of a cab five feet in front of us. It was a clean hit; all luggage and no flesh. My suitcase was upended but in one piece. Still, the driver got out and it turned into a scene of excessive brotherly considerateness. No honking, no screaming, but an embarrassingly intense rush of Packer-jerseyed Samaritans coming to my aid.
“No worries…I’m fine”
I grabbed my rolling bag from the asphalt and hurried into the terminal before the benevolent suffocated me in compassion.
I jogged all the way to the security line, which was as long as I’d ever seen it in Milwaukee. Almost as long as the average one at LaGuardia, though, as always, much slower moving.
In addition to the tendency for Wisconsinites’ to be exceedingly thorough in performing routine tasks, the process of getting through MKE security is gummed up by a state-of-the-art body scanner that everyone must pass through one at a time. To boot, I was behind what appeared to be the University of Wisconsin girls’ softball team. I had to consider that if I had been selfish enough to walk out in front of the Suburban without hesitation when he waived me on, I would have overtaken the Lady Badgers and saved a half an hour. Oh well.
In line, people started getting anxious. As the chatter escalated and people began sharing their thoughts with strangers – the beginning of any revolt – I mentioned the absurdity of Milwaukee possessing a top-notch body scanner when they don’t have one at LAX or LaGuardia. A guy behind me claimed that the scanner was made possible by the “generosity” of the recent economic stimulus as well as a surplus due to the airport’s good financial management.
By that logic, if Peoria, Illinois had a budget surplus and a little bit of irrational insecurity, the city might just erect a surface-to-air-defense system at the airport whether they needed it or not. Meanwhile LaGuardia, the financial sieve that it probably is, would continue use something like the honor system that make its lines go so fast.
After a good 45 minutes I made it to the conveyors. Super efficient; no belt, no loose change, slip-ons and keys in a pocket of my shoulder bag. After going through the body scanner I waited for my effects when an agent asked me to follow him to a back area. He was holding my shoulder bag in his right hand and a small black case in his left.
It was an open pack of 100 razor blades.
“Why on earth are you bringing these through security?”
“They were for an art project and I forgot to take them out.”
“Razor blades…for art?”
“An accessory to art making, actually.”
“Hmm,” he said in the most stoically judgmental way. The way only a good Lutheran can.
After talking about it with a supervisor the man came back and told me I could go but that he would be taking the blades and that I shouldn’t try anything so foolish again.
His disapproval aroused my shame.
I cowered into Nonna Bartolotta’s to order an Irish whisky before the flight and help forget the experience.
As I sipped Bushmills, I ranted on the inside:
“I once traveled from JFK to Charles de Gaulle via Heathrow, post 9-11, with a box cutter in my coat pocket, and THIS guy at Milwaukee airport is going to bust my chops about some razor blades…I made it through security at LaGuardia with a bottle of turpentine, and he’s going to treat me like I returned his daughter late on prom night with her sweater on inside out?!?”
Later, calmer, I landed at LaGuardia, deboarded and went to meet my wife who was waiting with the car. Outside, I saw her waiving at me from across two busy lanes of traffic. I tried to dash across, but I couldn’t catch an opening. From the curb I threatened to lurch out with my body, sort of playing chicken with the cabbies, but it was clear they’d run me down if I tried. New York driving is a free-for-all and its drivers don’t conform to any informal social welfare system for the greater good. Systems are New York’s only ensurance of greater good, and because of this there are rarely accidents caused by people expecting another car to stop out of pure kindness.
Walking fifty feet up to that safeguard called the crosswalk, it occurred to me that Wisconsin, which just confirmed its support for a conservative, some might say, socially insensitive governor, is partially regulated by an informal, de facto welfare state where everyone considers – perhaps a little too much – the well-being of the next guy. Chicken-or-egg, who knows, but it seems government regulation might be undesirable to some in Wisconsin because most are so busy regulating each other informally that any more imposed order on top of all that Chip-and-Dale politeness might inspire people to run into oncoming traffic to regain a sense of liberty and individualism.
My wife drove us home in some pretty nasty traffic. We finally reached our exit at Morgan/Meeker on the BQE and stopped at a red light at the bottom of the ramp. She was anxious from the white-knuckled driving and I leaned over to kiss her forehead. As I did, the light changed and a symphony of impatient car horns sounded. No informal, unwritten civil code; just rules penned by politicians and enforced by public officials. Green light means it’s time to devour those who hesitate for a split second, like “hike” means it’s time to annihilate the opposing team in football. Good will is irrelevant when you’re playing to win and you’ve subcontracted all your rules to referees.
I’m sure that our Wisconsin license plate and the Green Bay Packers bumper sticker didn’t arouse any sympathy, either.
* The country of Iceland is smaller (pop. 317,398) than Wichita, Kansas (pop. 382,368), but I can name dozens of Icelanders making avant-garde art and music and can’t name one from the entire state of Kansas (pop. 2,871,238).
I fear the culturati in New York often fetishize strangeness, obscurity and diversity – and any other challenge to homogenized, corporatized, late-capitalist existence – rather than appreciate it. I’ve said too many times in polite Northeastern company that an artist with a few of those Norwegian Ø’s or umlauts in his name has an edge in getting into a summer group show on the Lower East Side than a Molly McEverybody from Peoria.
This is obviously anecdotal analysis, and perhaps slightly cynical, if they do reflect a real trend, one needs to consider both the possibility that Kansans tend to eschew the high-cultural and that Icelanders and Norwegians actively embrace it.
Holland Cotter, one of the foremost champions of multi-everythingism in the art world, holds that the degree of cultural diversity is an indicator of its vitality. I agree, but it’s only an indicator, not necessarily a cause. Like, the number of Mercedes in a neighborhood is a good indicator of privilege, but giving a Mercedes to someone without money doesn’t necessarily make him privileged. Or, many of the best restaurants, drinking establishments and art galleries happen to be located in alternative and edgy areas, but that doesn’t mean you can serve my grandmother’s green bean casserole in a cool guy’s closet in Ridgewood, Queens and have it taste avant-garde.
I love diversity and uniqueness as much as the next guy. Probably more than the next guy. I’m writing these words from a hotel lounge outside of Toledo, Ohio that I chose by sight from I-80 based solely on the chance that it might look something like the Mos Eisley Cantina on the inside. Incidentally, it doesn’t. I’m one of three people here and the other two are a couple with matching Crocs, quietly sharing some super nachos.
On my way to Brooklyn last week in the truck I’m now returning back to Wisconsin, I stopped for an interview with a small Lutheran university. It was my second meeting. The first one was the standard HR routine; this one was for real, with the head of the art department. He had my resume on his desk and from it served up a steady stream of questions.
“Did you live in Providence when you taught, or did you drive to Rhode Island from New York?”
“I commuted. It was actually rather enjoyable. I listened to courses on tape for eight hours each week. If I had gotten credit for all of them I might have a B.A. in history from Yale.”
“Looks like you’ve been showing in New York.”
He read some of the galleries on my resume. It was clear none of them had any significance to him. It seemed only the number mattered.
“Ten shows last year, you were a busy guy.”
Was I? I felt I could’ve given him a list of ten Arena League football teams and it would’ve stood up to his scrutiny. I could’ve given him the name of ten independent coffee shops in Oshkosh and he might have hired me on the spot. Who the hell knows? If I was a Ph.D. in biochemistry we’d be discussing the same journals and publications, but not in the wild west (east) of the art world.
Maybe the milestones on my CV symbolize my migration into obscure territory too devoted to umlauted avant-gardists and, generally, non-Kansans and non-Wisconsinites. Or maybe flyover culture is all too happy to be whitewashed. It is a fact that I graduated from Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City packed with Costcos, PetSmarts and lots of white protestants who don’t put anything as strange as contemporary art high on their list of worldly interests. Did I voluntarily leave the reasonable center, or did they?
I was dwelling this quandary when he launched into his dismount.
“How does your faith influence your teaching style?”
I was caught off-guard but gathered myself in time to save an awkward face-off. It seems I had checked a box on the application that indicated I was a Lutheran, which is technically true through marriage.
“I believe art, like faith…like love and like golf is about withdrawal and submission. ANYONE who wants to control their way to God or art or a perfect relationship will ultimately find their own ego and not salvation.”
“I read a book about the spirituality of golf.”
It was clear my answer satisfied him profoundly.
And it disappointed me to the same depths. Not because of any indignation about my professional bona fides nor because of his faith. I’m not spiritual in any supernatural sense, but still the answer I gave him was as pure and true as anything I know. I could relate to his version of art and culture, yet I felt to him mine remained an unintelligible morass of strangely named art spaces, arcane publications, esoteric theory, obscure locations populated by heathens. I can’t decide whether this is my fault or his.