March 25, 2013 · Print This Article
Culture’s a funny thing; so many of us accept it as a ubiquitous and powerful force, yet we tend to undervalue the level to which it influences our choices. Cognitive dissonance of the highest magnitude.
I’ve seen this in high-relief over the last 18 months, commuting between Wisconsin and Brooklyn. From television to cuisine to high-art, culture seems bent on sanding us down even as we strut about thinking of ourselves as unique splinters in the side of society. And me too, flying back-and-forth, literally feeling above the fray in mind and distance. But with my family settled safely in Wisconsin, all that commuting ends soon. At which point I’ll be back on the ground, in the fray, trying to protect my nose and exposed fingers from the ever-normalizing orbital sander of prevailing culture.
April 8 will by my last Thoughts from the Cultural Divide from the trenches.
Speaking of rugged individuals and sandpaper, today I showed my class the famous photo of ‘The Irascibles’ along with segments of Hans Namuth’s videos of Jackson Pollock in East Hampton. The imagery seemed especially dated this time around. So musty and conservative. I had to work harder than usual to remind myself that the New York School once represented a viable avant-garde. One woman. All white and self-satisfied. All in suits and clean-shaven, though Theodoros Stamos has a mustache in the photograph that would humble the most pretentious Brooklyn bartender.
As mothballed as the New York School seemed this morning, the contemporary alternative as described in Randy Kennedy’s New York Times article about contemporary social practice didn’t seem any more promising when I read it tonight.
The piece, “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture” describes a movement of art centered on affecting social change rather than making objects for the marketplace. All fine; fighting for a good cause is hardly something to root against. But the quick rise of this approach to art feels somewhat overt to me. My suspicion is that social practices, like much art throughout history will end up sacrificing content on the altar of self-conscious form. Form that will become apparent only after the initial seduction of the movement has evaporated. Or to paraphrase Roland Barthes from Mythologies, “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot of it brings one back to it.”
Even more to the point, and to my skepticism, Michael Kimmelman from a piece called “DIY Culture”, in the New York Times a few years back:
“The myth of an avant-garde serves the same market forces avant-gardism pretends to overthrow. Art may challenge authority; and popular culture (this includes clownish demagogues like Glen Beck) sometimes makes trouble for those in charge, the way Thomas Nast’s cartoons did for Boss Tweed in Tammany Hall. But art doesn’t actually overthrow anything except itself, and never has, not in 19th-century France or 20th-century Russia or 21st-century China or Iran. Even when it manages to tilt popular thinking, it still ends up within the bounds of existing authority, and there has never been a true “outside” that really stayed outside: public consumption, by definition, adapts to the change, co-opts and normalizes all culture.”
The pop analogy I often use to explain this phenomenon is the life cycle of a fashionable name. Take, “Jennifer” over the last 50 years. Not biblical and of obscure origin, the name just kind of tipped over into the popular consciousness in the 20th century. It went from the 20th most popular name in 1965, to 10th in 1966. It was the single most popular baby name from 1970 through 1984, but by 2000 it had fallen out of the 25, usurped by all the Abigails, Brianas and Madisons. While one can’t determine which mothers were channeling popular consciousness and which were drawing from their own independent creative sources, the numbers suggest most are a case of the former.
Like Jennifers, art come in waves that build, crest and crash. This might all sound a bit cynical, but it shouldn’t. It’s not the name “Jennifer,” nor that my neighbor here has a Green Bay Packers flag mounted to his house, nor making art as social practice that pricks me, it’s that the numbers, the movements and the waves all suggest that culture is shaping us while we think we are in control. That we picked ‘Jennifer’, and the handlebar mustache, and the social practice, and the DIY collective gallery space in Ridgewood, when in fact, they probably picked us. And, who knows, maybe you were inspired, but we should have some humility because the numbers show that you and I aren’t as fiercely independent as we might think.
I’ve also gleaned via crude armchair sociology over the past year-and-a-half that, yes, it’s probably true that Brooklyn gets bartenders with handlebar mustaches a year or two earlier than Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, but being the first to start a wave of pretentious affection is a dubious distinction, and simply more proof of cultural homogenization, not individuality. And we should make doubly sure that our art doesn’t follow the same trend psychology that our facial hair does.
So I suggest we leave the handlebar mustaches to Theodoros Stamos and try to avoid being battered and worn down by the relentless waves of culture.
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.”
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.