So this is it; the last entry of Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide. It’s appropriate that I’m writing it on a plane from New York to Milwaukee – that’s where I wrote my first one and most of the ones in-between.
I boarded bent on finishing before landing in Milwaukee as a kind of ceremonial gesture, but I came down with a bit of writer’s block. More like writer’s diarrhea, really; I couldn’t seem to reduce the last 26 entries into a succinct bite-sized wafer of truth fit to reflect what I’ve gleaned.
Fidgety, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small piece of foil-covered hard candy and struggled over whether or not I should eat it.
I actually started unwrapping it, almost placing it on my tongue before rewrapping it and carefully putting it back in my pocket. The guy next to me must have thought I had a disorder. As I sat with the candy in my lapel pocket, I dwelled on this strange apprehension. Why did eating it feel so, well, unholy?
The candy in question was taken from a Felix Gonzalez Torres art piece, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”, from the Art Institute of Chicago, where I had taken a class on a field trip a few days prior. With my class in tow, I picked a couple pieces off the top of the pile, eliciting a hushed gasp from some onlookers. The security guard stood by stoically knowing very well the nature of the situation. Only after establishing that he was cool with the move did the rest of the visitors take their turn grabbing souvenirs. Did anyone get the wonderful metaphor? Did the sacredness of the context turn Torres’s point into an object to be fetishized?
I explained the nature of the work to my students, how the dwindling supply of candy represented the fragility of existence and, specifically the disease that tragically took Torres’s partner’s life. They seemed moved, if still content to have a bit of insider material.
Only a week earlier I had gone to the Lutheran church in Cedarburg. I attended in spite of the fact that I’m not religious. My wife and her family have belonged to the church for years, and the pastor is surprisingly ecumenical. That day, when it came time to take communion, I hesitated. Somehow, watching from the back pews, faking my way through the Lord’s Prayer and mouthing hymns I didn’t know, seemed ok, but consuming a wafer and some wine that represented, or, depending on your level of devotion, actually WAS the body and blood of Christ, pushed it. But, still, I headed toward the altar.
His body tasted surprisingly bland; his blood vintage Franzia, and, though I didn’t feel the prescribed transubstantiation, I did feel something more profound than indigestion.
This unexpected twinge reminded me of a piece by James Gleick that was in the “New York Time Magazine” a few years ago about the auction value of the Magna Carta. He describes a passage from Philip K. Dick’s novel, “The Man in the High Tower”, where two similar cigarette lighters are placed side-by-side, one owned by FDR and the other of no significance. One with ‘historicity’, the other without.
The narrator muses:
“Can you feel it? … You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”
Or is there?
Though he doesn’t invoke it specifically, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” seems to hover palpably over Gleick’s analysis. Are there plasmic presences? Are there auras? No and yes. As Benjamin noted in the essay we all choked down in art school, auras are born from artifacts that derive power from ritual. And rituals require gangs of believers to endure. And most of us, wherever we locate ourselves geographically or metaphysically, happen to believe in something strongly enough to wring a little plasma from it.
So, Religion? Culture? Not so different from 38,000 feet above the earth. Both are terms ascribed to all those things we can’t know for sure. And if you’re familiar with Descartes, Montesquieu, Wittgenstein, Barthes, Derrida or even CNN, there’s a LOT of things we don’t and indeed can’t know.
So what I’ve taken from 18 months of immersion in Wisconsin’s more parochial precincts is that one person’s “Light of Christ” might simply be another’s frisson of energy evoked by a Richard Tuttle wire piece or a Donald Judd “Specific Object”. Aren’t we all looking for a little transcendence, never mind where we get it or what we decide to call it?
There’s a lot of religion in a Tuttle and a lot of culture in a Lutheran pancake social.
It’s funny when you can feel the antagonism about your remarks as soon as you utter them. Now is one of those moments. My friends are generally from the tribe that would side with the transcendence brought on by a great work of art, rather than a passage from the “Book of Job”. Most of my acquaintances would probably claim that I’m making a false and probably dangerous distinction – the religious right influences politics, right? Indeed. They infringe on the civil rights of individuals because of a bunch of ghost stories in a book written millennia ago? Sure. They can’t compromise because their truth is not based in reason, but in the supernatural, right? Sometimes.
But then again, I felt something like sacrilege eating a piece of candy that was only ever meant to be a metaphor. And it occurred inside the hallowed temple walls of an institution that kind of chooses to keep those metaphors hidden, and in turn, keeps their congregations beguiled and charmed, perpetuating the aura of the object. That institution has priests who anoint objects with quasi-spiritual value. They have groups that help to canonize object makers. Not as metaphor-makers but as spirits. They have rituals, liturgies and taboos. They have saints and they have sinners. They all contribute to creating cultural relics that are sold at auction for prices that dwarf that of the most sought after religious relics on earth.
So if it walks like a duck…
Felix Gonzales Torres might be my favorite artist in the world. And God or god or Donald Judd rest his soul, I don’t think Mr. Torres ever wished for me to be spellbound by the aura of his art, only moved by the poetic truth it could impart by being an achingly wonderful metaphor for the sadness and confusion we all share in a world that overwhelms us.
So right now I will eat Felix Gonzalez Torres’s candy as a metaphorical gesture recognizing the power of art over the supernatural and all that mystical plasma that charms us into thinking we have an answer of a higher power.
28 episodes of The Cultural Divide reduced to one wafer of truth.
November 13, 2012 · Print This Article
I left New York City for Wisconsin just as hurricane Sandy was barreling up the East Coast, and I returned in the middle of the nor’easter that came to salt the wounds that hadn’t yet healed.
That means I was in Wisconsin to observe the aftermath of both the election and the hurricane. It was the first election I spent outside of New York in over a decade, and, despite being in a place that rallied behind a lesbian senator and prides itself on its artisanal cheeses and beers, the sense that I wasn’t in Brooklyn was palpable.
Romney/Ryan signs dotted most of the manicured lawns of the bedroom communities in Ozaukee County, one of the most republican enclaves in the state, indeed the country. Cedarburg, where I stay with my in-laws sits smack in the center of the county, and happens to be the place where John McCain and Sarah Palin chose to launch their 2008 presidential campaign, which didn’t even think about coming close enough to Brooklyn to see its forearm tattoos.
When ensconced inside Cedarburg’s city limits one begins to understand why its citizens gripe about the federal government. Look around and you’ll see a community that seems from every vantage to have figured things out. Not in some kind of sinister, Ayn Randian, elitist disengagement either, but in a real, communitarian, bucket brigade, do unto others way. A way that leads many of those who don’t leave the place to wonder why a bunch of bureaucrats 1000 miles away should be shaking them down for money to pay for social and cultural programs that they manage just fine on a community level.
In Cedarburg, if you needed food, you could walk up to any restaurant and they’d give you a meal. That’s welfare. If you were sick, the doctor would see you. That’s medical care. If you were pregnant and 16, the community would politely shame you and gossip about you for the rest of your life, but would also see to it that your child was cared for. That’s social services. That’s also the police.
My dad-in-law – who happens to be named Sandy – is one of a majority in his community who if allowed would shrink the entire federal government into a 24-hour help desk whose phone number was buried so deep on the website that you’d have no choice but to use the on-line chat to reach them. But as he watched New Jersey and New York plunge into darkness and not immediately light back up, I watched his conviction waver. And as he watched his beloved Chris Christie lay olive branches in front of Barack Obama, I thought I saw a little pan-American Esprit de corps bubble up from inside and pierce his usually impenetrable exterior.
Seeing Christie and Obama together, he muttered, “This must be a dire situation because it’s not easy for someone that big to kiss an ass.”
We stayed up late talking about Jacksonian versus Hamiltonian democracy as the disaster unfolded over cable news. We didn’t agree on everything, but it was wholly amicable. I gave him a copy of Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine” which he didn’t immediately throw into the fire or back at me, a gesture as tender as a hug if you knew the man.
He liked it when I riffed about how the media’s job is to locate scapegoats where they can and to create them when they can’t. I did a shtick about natural disasters in Chris Rock’s voice and then played him Rock’s bit about why people blame music and video games when kids go on shooting rampages at public schools.
“What ever happened to CRAZY!!??”
“What ever happened to BIG, POWERFUL, IMPLACABLE, UNAVOIDABLE, NATURAL FUCKING DISASTER!!!?”
He roared like a kid telling dirty jokes on the playground. He said all journalists were like hyenas but with less loyalty, and then told me an old one about a blind stewardess and a couple of donkeys for good measure.
Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to galvanize people.
The day after the election, I caught Sandy out in the front yard taking down the Romney/Ryan and Tommy Thompson signs. He like the rest of the town was emotionally hungover from the political orgy of the past few nights. In fact, earlier in the day I actually saw a guy crying at the gas station about the election. It could have been for other reasons, but I assumed he was pissed about either Romney or Paul or Tommy. After gathering and tossing the campaign signs in the trash we went inside where the 24 hour news droned on. It was Fox News and the subject was the fiscal cliff and the end of the Bush tax cuts.
Sandy yelled over one the pundits, “BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID!!”
“Of the host’s hair?” I added sarcastically.
“Of the SOCIALISTS!!”
“You mean of our democratically elected federal government whose taxes are roughly a quarter of its gross domestic product?”
“A quarter given is a quarter wasted and redistributed!! Protect my shores, deliver my mail, and get the hell out of my life!! And don’t let the door hit you on the way out!!”
Hurricane Sandy was back and no bucket brigade could stop it.
September 24, 2012 · Print This Article
My father-in-law was born in Cedarburg, WI. So was his father. And his father before him and his father before him. My wife’s family has eerie family portraits on the walls in their house like the ones in Scooby Doo and Peter Sellers movies in which generations of patriarchs line up side-by side, looking alike save for unique period facial hair patterns. No wandering eyes, but if it’s late enough and you have anything in your subconscious to hide, your mind will play tricks.
That father-in-law’s granddaughter – my daughter – was born last Tuesday at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt medical center in New York City. A break in geo-natal continuity that silently resonates through the family only coming out in polite, passive-aggressive reminders about the merits of life in Cedarburg.
I’ve refrained from telling dad-in-law about our labor odyssey on that special day. The previous day was Rosh Hashana, the roads were empty and the late summer sun shone gloriously. But we went into labor on Tuesday of course, driving through walls of rain and relentless traffic, from Brooklyn all the way to Manhattan’s west side. On our final approach to the hospital, on the other side of Lincoln Center, we stalled behind a handsome cab finally inching into the hospital entrance at walking speed.
Once admitted into the maternity ward, it was concluded by the nurse on duty that my wife’s situation indicated “impending” but not “imminent” labor, and should leave the hospital. Apparently, in September, there’s a run on birthing space and prioritizing is necessary. Despite my resistance we were urged to leave and “stroll around the neighborhood” until she was further along, “maybe get lunch at the Time Warner Center and relax” until we moved the ball into the red zone.
Given the driving rain and my firm belief that Per Se wasn’t an ideal location to go into a birthing holding pattern, I splurged for a hotel room that was nicer than anything I might have reserved for our honeymoon. Within a half-an-hour it was clear that my wife should be in a hospital. Desperate, we called her doctor who instructed us to drive to 77th and Columbus for an emergency visit. I didn’t finish my Shake Shack burger (almost caught in a Jujy Fruit Seinfeld moment) before my wife called to inform me that the birth was indeed imminent and that her doctor had called insisting on re-admittance to the Roosevelt birthing ward. I drove French Connection-style 20 blocks south to the hospital and escorted my moaning wife to the 12th floor, the car idling on the curb the whole time.
Yada yada, we now have a beautiful, healthy baby daughter..and a colorful only-in-New York story to crown the ordeal. Though I’m not sure I will forever cherish it. My mother-in-law who was staying with us and took in the play-by-play over the phone as it happened, wouldn’t stop telling a story about how her husband’s mother was born premature in her house with the help of a mid-wife and a life-long family physician who put her in a shoebox in a dresser drawer with hot rocks as soon as the cord was cut. I still don’t know the exact implication of the story, but judging by the frequency of its recanting, it means something.
I’m sure Roosevelt hospital spills over with all the best technology available to man and baby, but still, it’s hard to fathom all that magic could be almost out of reach because I was stuck behind a horse. And that our access to it was blocked by a nurse who was treating expecting mothers like construction workers getting egg sandwiches at a bodega at eight in the morning. But still isn’t that better than a drawer full of rocks? Who knows. But I’m not telling my father-in-law anything. I guess he can’t jab at me about the horse.
I’ve always said that I wanted my child to build her formative foundation in a sandbox in Wisconsin, and have all her crown molding finished in New York. The jury’s still out on all that construction in-between.
But alas, the concrete’s been poured.
September 11, 2012 · Print This Article
Venerable New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael is often misquoted as having said she couldn’t believe Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election because she didn’t personally know anyone who voted for him. This sentiment has long been deployed by conservatives as a symbol of Northeastern liberal out-of-touchness.
It’s September and school is back in session, which means I’m a frequent flier and again wearing slip-on shoes to get through security easier. I was thinking about Ms. Kael’s statement, and of availability bias when one of the TSA agents in Milwaukee blurted ”you’re not going to vote for Obama now are you?” He laughed after he said it, but only to indemnify himself. It struck be as strange that he would pick me, coming from New York, to needle. He must have noticed the box clipping I tote around of a Chia Obama I found under the seat of a rental van 4 years ago, though I have it as a good luck charm, not a political symbol. As far availability bias, not only can I not name a colleague in Brooklyn who voted for John McCain in 2008, I’m not sure I know anyone there who knew anyone else who didn’t consider the McCain-Palin ticket as anything more than fodder for Lorne Michaels. Yet, over 50 million Americans disagreed. And it appears one of them may work in security at General Mitchell airport in Milwaukee.
Last Tuesday in my Cedarburg, WI studio the furnace maintenance guy barreled in as I was prepping panels. Though it was 79 degrees my father-in-law had called in a pre-emptive strike against what he thinks will be the “most severe winter on record.” Funny, because everyone in New York seems to think this year’s winter will be even warmer than last – which was one of the warmest on record – due to the effects of global warming. For the record, I believe in global warming; however, I also believe that many now tend to forecast weather with politics instead of meteorology, hoping it’s warm in January if only to rub salt in the eyes of those who they see as apologists for unregulated industrialization. And, of course, vice-versa – I tend to believe my father-in-law is personally willing on a cold winter so he can show all the hippies in Massachusetts that the sky isn’t falling.
Anyway, he sent the furnace guy to my studio to make sure everything was ready for the coming ice age. And without provocation and for means of introduction while we shared semi-intimate space together, he blurted, “Did you watch that convention last night, (referring to the DNC) Crazy stuff, huh? If we don’t get Obama outta there soon, some shit’s going to hit the fan.”
I’ll never reveal where I personally stand on politics, but you can be sure that if am ever invited to a dinner with your family I won’t kick off the exchange by asserting my opinions about religion, politics or sex.
The only possible explanations for furnace dude’s remarks are: 1. That he’s incredibly tactless, or 2. He’s so insulated from anyone who would find what he said unreasonable that he considered his remarks as safe as any platitude about the weather, or 3. My father-in-law coached him to try to figure out my politics. If you’re reading this, dad-in-law, you’re out of luck, because I’m a vault.
I agreed that the world was descending into the abyss and kept sanding.
This past Friday I returned to New York for the weekend and went to see a documentary about the artist Wayne White called “Beauty is Embarrassing.” It was an engrossing and surprisingly uplifting 90 minutes of chilly theater time, and the second time in three weeks I had gone to see a show at IFC. The other was for Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me.” At the end of both shows I embarrassed myself by trying to exit just as the Q and A sessions with the film’s subjects were commencing.
Especially in the case of “Sleepwalk With Me,” I felt a mild unease with the nature of the post-film discussion. Ira Glass and Mike Birbiglia fielded questions graciously and humorously, but were conspicuously on message – they were there to spread gospels to their disciples and encourage dissemination to those in the deprived hinterlands. They actually encouraged us to use the social networks at our disposal to disseminate our praises to those outside of New York.
This smacked of desperation to me. “C’mon, you’re Ira Glass and Mike Birbiglia, do you really have to pander like buskers with hats out? It’s not becoming of superstars to beg like hobos.”
I just got back into Cedarburg today and am prepping for class tomorrow. As we do every Sunday, my father-in-law picks me up from the airport and drives me through the main drag of Cedarburg to see what’s new. Nothing ever is, really, that’s the charm of the city. It’s actually kind of ironic that he’s so bent on seeing what’s new, when in fact he’s actually trying to reinforce how not new everything is.
Well, actually one thing is new every week: the movie showing at the one-screen, second-run theater in town, the Rivoli. It’s usually something that plays well with families. Maybe an “Alvin and the Chipmunk, the Squeakquel,” or a Pixar movie. This week it’s “The Amazing Spider Man.” I hadn’t even recalled another Spider Man being made – it must have gotten lost in my mind with all the Tobey Maguire sequences and the whole “Afraid of the Dark” fiasco.
We circled the town one more time, detouring by the fire station to see a new truck that he’s showed me each of my last four visits, before we arrived safely at the homestead. At home I spread out in the living room floor like a fat Labrador to prepare for class. But only before procrastinating with some Art Fag City gossip and looking up box office receipts for some recent motion pictures.
The Amazing Spider-Man Sony $260,005,361
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel Fox $219,614,612
Sleepwalk with Me IFC $535,948
I thought, Two hundred million dollars? How did it make that much money. I can’t name a single person who paid to see Alvin and the Chipmunks!!!”
You know, it’s hard to teach about Postminimalism with the box office totals for a Chipmunks movie weighing on your mind.
As I placed Eva Hesse images into a Powerpoint, Alvin went on heckling me in a high-pitched voice.
“We’re winning. We’re winning big, Mr. Shane. Bigger than Nixon in 68. Bigger than Nixon in 72.”
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.”