One of the direct consequences of the recent sexual misconduct and sexual harassment revelations concerning men and power, be it in Hollywood, Washington D.C., and elsewhere, is that now, it seems, men of all walks of life, and professions, are feeling pressurized to step forward and say what they know, when they knew it, to confess and repent. Even when it comes to the matter of art criticism, male critics do not feel safe. Whose art you choose, and how you choose to frame your criticism, could reveal you as being complicit in patriarchy and sexual exploitation.
To wit, Julian Barnes and Peter Schjeldahl. Both art critics, though the former makes his living as a fiction writer, Barnes, in the January 4 2018 issue of the London Review of Books reflects on French Impressionist Edgar Degas and his representation of women, while Schjeldahl glosses his relationship with the Surrealist Balthus in The New Yorker, and that artist’s obsession with pubescent girls.[i] The differences between the two critics could not be starker, and their relationships with artist, and their reading publics. Both speak to the scrutiny that the recent #MeToo movement has brought to men’s actions and words towards women: at least, if they are listening (the Golden Globes being a shining example, it would seem, of men not being tuned in).
But what is the proper response to artists – dead artists, who cannot explain nor defend themselves – that some people accuse of producing work that relies heavily on voyeurism and sexual objectification for its effect, and even the artist’s achievement? Barnes quite intelligently, and skillfully derides, those who claim that Degas was a pervy onlooker, an artist who used models and real-life situations (the ballet, laundresses, horse-races, brothels) to debase women, and art along the way. Barnes puts it thus: “But has there ever been a major artist whose portrayal of women has received more abuse that Degas? […] Degas’s work has been held to be an offence against both art and women, and against society’s understanding of them.”[i] Degas himself stated that he wanted to watch women as if through a keyhole, Barnes points out, adding that “in many of his nudes the model’s face is turned away from us. Keyhole – voyeur – perv – obliterator of women’s individuality; so runs the easy, moralizing elision.[ii] So what does Barnes really think?
We’ll get back to Barnes on Degas, but let us now dispatch or Schjeldahl and Balthus, in particular the Met’s Thérèse Dreaming, an always controversial painting and one that, in the current political climate, that thousands of people have called to be removed from public view. The reason? As Schjeldahl puts it, “because it brazens the artist’s letch for pubescent girls – which he always haughtily denied, but come on! The man was a creep. The subject sits with head turned, eyes closed, and a knee raised to expose her panties.”[iii] Now perhaps I have been inured to nude and/or erotic paintings by years of museum of gallery and museum going. I get it. This painting by Balthus, and others, eroticize young girls, not even close to adulthood. Other painters do this, sculptors as well, many of them who have also been ostracized as sexist and exploitative. Does this devalue the work of art? At what point does the painting’s notoriety, and the painter’s lack of moral compass, or interest in battling inequality, become decisive factors. Certainly, Balthus comes off as a perv in some paintings. But, then as well, he was a Surrealist, and part of their project was to shock the bourgeoisie. What better way to do that than to eroticize the middle class’s daughters? Not that he would be the last: Madison Avenue has been making money off of this tactic for decades now. Its seems that Balthus’ main crime is to do so in the name of high art. Balthus’ genius, albeit a creepy one, lies perhaps in the fact that his fame rests on paintings that eroticize the underage, cementing his notoriety, while allowing him to spend hours in the company of young models.
As for Degas, Barnes goes on to point out – and anyone who has seem much of his work, for example at the Orsay, Norton Simon, Met, Jeu de Paume and other museums – can see that the “keyhole” paintings he chose to make were, more often than not mundane, not particularly erotic, often empathetic portraits capturing intimate, yet unremarkable moments, and focusing – as Impressionists were wont to do – on line, color, shadow, composition, light and atmosphere. Why nudes? Again, the artist’s bread and butter, and how you were trained. Nothing more difficult than to paint and draw the human musculature and form, in different light, in different poses, that expresses not only the artist’s skill and eye, but also reveals the personality and social setting of the sitter(s). Was Degas a perv because he seemed to repeatedly go for ballerinas and washerwomen? Perhaps, but again, agreeing with Barnes, there is nothing particularly pervy about the paintings. The dancers, while healthy enough, also look lean and taught – he catches their athleticism and grace, without leaning much at all towards the erotic.
The fact that both authors, Barnes and Schjeldahl, publish these pieces now is in itself a scream for attention, a mea culpa for past crimes. The #MeToo campaign has gotten under their skin, and they both obviously feel a need to speak out, inasmuch, as it affects their careers. But Barnes proceeds to demonstrate that no crime was committed: the jury of public opinion was to blame, a jury which misunderstood Degas. As for Schjeldahl, his review, much shorter, is pretty much a straightforward apology for past support of the artist, but still supports the painting being exhibited. Balthus committed no crimes that we know of, or that he was ever convicted of, so why you would pull his paintings is beyond me. Was he a creep? Looks very possible. Can we prove it? No. He’s dead. His paintings live on, whatever you think of them. Let’s concentrate on the living: they are the only ones whose behavior towards others that we can change. Men need to support changing the behavior of other men who think it is okay to harass women, and to sexually abuse them. Its not. But outing dead artists and their paintings? There’s more than enough living Weinsteins and Spaceys to occupy ourselves with.
In other of my writings, I have commented on a film with a the dual burden of critical claim and condemnation, Last Tango in Paris. Maria Schneider's character Jeanne undergoes sexual humiliation at the hands of her sometimes lover Paul (Marlon Brando) while being treated as a object to be toyed with my her would-be fiancee Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud). She emerges as a scarred survivor in the end, a metaphorical triumph over a failed patriarchal agenda. Schneider, after the film alleged abuse by Bertolucci and Brando, but given her aberrant behavior in public in the following decade or so, people we unsure as whether to believe her or not. Since her death, Bertolucci has acknowledged that he was responsible for setting up a situation on the set that pivoted upon fictionalized sexual abuse that also included elements of it on the set. Brando said nothing during his lifetime. Should we boycott the film? It has enduring historical and cultural significance, not just as a daring and controversial film, but one that also is based on misogyny. Having seen the film many times, the singular aspect that sticks with me now in the film is Schneider as a survivor, standing out despite all, while Brando now just appears as a worn-out cipher in a trench coat.
[i] Barnes 12.
[iii] Schjeldahl 72.
[i] [i] Julian Barnes, “Humph, He, Ha,” The London Review of Books, 4 January 2018, pp. 11-13. Peter Schjeldalh, “Points of View: The Balthus Conundrum and the passions of Käthe Kollwitz and Sue Coe,” The New Yorker, January 1, 2018, pp, 72-73.
On the burgeoning New York skyline in 1910, Ezra Pound wrote "Here is our poetry, for we have pulled the stars down to our will." Echoes of both Futurism, and the coming of Fascism, can be heard here, but that's not the point here. Buildings are, however. Skyscrapers represented the new dynamism of New York as the new Rome. Something similar could be said about the San Francisco skyline now, with mighty tech competing with Wall Street for international recognition as the "real" center of power in the US, and worldwide. On the NY skyline Henry James wrote: "Skyscrapers are the last word of economic ingenuity only till another word is written. The consciousness of the finite, the menaced, the essentially invented state twinkles in the thousand glassy eyes of the giants of the mere market." Giants of the mere market that have now overtaken SF. But for now the market is more than mere as the stock markets climb ever upwards. It would seem that Pound has triumphed, and that James' fears are fangless. The Salesforce Tower is an example - the gleaming phallic master of the downtown, a symbol of the magic marriage of big data, consumerism and sales. No longer the death of a salesman, rather his rebirth with glasses, pipedrain trousers, coding, posing as a nerd.
Russia-gate, the Paradise Papers, Google, Twitter and Facebook lawyers appearing before Congress, Experian’s and now Uber’s security breaches; is not exactly news that not only are our lives not our own, but that our virtual selves are more “real” than we are, and more easily compromised. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that what we regard as the real individual is now a corollary, an adjunct to the virtual you. And who shapes this virtual you? All players on the internet, from the big companies to snarky, insidious and often quite damaging trolls. But the main point is that the virtual now dominates the material you (I hesitate to use the word “real,” as it in itself is fraught with multiple meanings). But what do we know about these big tech companies that seem, now, to run everything? Who controls them, or are they, as these companies like Facebook and Google would like you to believe, a collective of like-minded hackers, with no ideology except creating a new economy and world based on sharing and disruption? Who are they? Can they be compromised? Looks like it, judging from the recent events mentioned above. That we the public bought the idea that big tech was in perfect command of their domain is perhaps more galling, but most of us suspected all along that they were entirely fallible.
They are potentially more compromising (and compromise-able) than we are, despite the apparent fact that those who run the virtual economy are not entirely in control of their domain. Yet at the same time, virtual and “real” businesses, corporations and individuals conceal earnings and wealth offshore to evade taxation, set up phony online personas in order to execute political agendas on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (for Russia as well as other countries), identity theft is rampant as we, or I should say each of us, becomes just a collection of data points, gathered solely for marketing or surveillance reasons, or simply the dangerously vanilla-sounding “data collecting.”
My own thoughts and observations merely second more in-depth analysis offered by Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times on “the Frightful Five,” Sean Parker, Tristan Harris and others, who are all deeply concerned about the imperious power Google (now Alphabet), Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Apple now wield, often largely unregulated, remaking business, social systems and economies in a way perhaps not seen since the heyday of the corporate barons of the late 19th-century, often disregarding workers’ rights while heralding their own progressivism, making huge profits while often hiding billions offshore (re: Apple and Ireland). And god forbid you are a woman or over 35, for you will not find much interest in Silicon Valley, no matter your qualifications.
The image up to this point for the Fearsome Five and their legion of acolytes, would-be’s and pretenders, is of a new age of fearless creativity, made possible by collaboration, open-sources and sharing, all over seen, oddly enough, by a coterie of autocratic white men. This is the apogee of the Age of Apollo, where those who bought the ruse that big tech was comprised of free-spirited hackers who wanted to subvert and disrupt in order to create a free and open society based on sharing and equality, of a world without borders of governments. So what do you get when the “subverters” become the chiefs of industry, when they created business models centered upon evading regulation whenever possible, when they have harvested data on their users, when they park profits in offshore banks, when they have espoused an agenda of equality and sharing, but amass billions for themselves while often paying workers mediocre salaries and working them so hard that most only last two or three years? It’s the emperor’s new clothes: that content you are endlessly funneled toward by Facebook, Google, Amazon Twitter et all, may ultimately be the seed of your discontent.
I receive every day, as most of us do, more email messages from those looking for contributions for political campaigns or organizations than I care for. Give once and you're on the list. In my case, a left-leaning group, whose identity I won't reveal, as anonymity would be more flattering. In listing the crimes of the Trump administration, the writer asked "how many more shoes will drop?" Good question. Traditionally the options are limited. So the answer to the rhetorical question, in this case, would be just one. Which would be fitting, as I believe the original metaphor is "waiting for the other shoe to drop," Meaning that one, telling, damning incident has happened, and it is apparent that a subsequent, equally if not more incriminating event is more than likely to transpire. But through everyday use, as happens in language, but it would seem particularly through the internet, words and metaphors, catchphrases and jargon proliferate spread, more rapidly than ever. Hardly a novel observation, but when it comes to how many shoes we allegedly now have, perhaps we should remember that shoes fall from feet, and I don't know about you, but I still have just two.
Two different radio talks caught my attention recently, and both, in their ways, to my way of thinking, summarize the somewhat retrograde times we live in. Or perhaps they reflect a natural cycling through of thought, one indicative of the multi-tasking immediate gratification culture common to our IT dominated times, and another which displays perhaps the desperation of academics to find new material, or new spins on old material.
A TED talk late one night a few weeks ago while driving across the Dumbarton Bridge, the moon burning orange through Wine Country smoke, caught my attention and irked me more than a little. The speaker – male, and I never quite caught his name – asserted that collective research, I guess like agile development, fast, shared, done in weeks or months rather than years, had demonstrated that individual, years-long research had been relegated to the dustbin of history. I have tried to track him down on the TED website, to verify what I heard, but have failed. He was adamant, assured that collective intelligence had outstripped the ability of the individual. I refer to it as “agile thinking,” cribbed from the idea of agile development in IT, which stresses collectivity, chunking projects into small segments, adaptability, and above all else, speed. No multi-year projects here: think weeks or days, not months. And no DIY: that is hopelessly retro, the sign of an out of touch mind. Google, which by its own admission has all knowledge in its domain, is the new research platform – fun, collaborative, pompous, and more than a little impressed with its own importance
Then, probably a little over a week later, I listened to Neal Conan, in a Sunday night rebroadcast of “Talk of the Nation.” He hosted Yale Professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro, discussing their new book The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (Simon & Schuster), in which the co-authors posited the early Enlightenment Dutch political theorist Hugo Grotius as guiding light of liberal politics, stemming from his thoughts on natural law, and international law. The authors contend that it was Grotius, not later Enlightenment or 18th-century thinkers, who laid the ground for outlawing war, and recognizing states’ right for existence, and self-determination. No mention made of Rousseau’s denigration of Grotius as little more than an apologist for monarchy, and a then-recent champion of the concept of might-is-right. Conan offered no challenge to this neo-con revisionist spin on the Enlightenment. Perhaps he didn’t know much about Rousseau or the Enlightenment. But the idea that a states’ might validates its right to rule would mean that most of the 20th- and 21st-century independence movements of colonial countries were invalid, and that imperialist Europe of the late 19th and early 20th centuries formed the most natural state of government. Or that Tibet and Catalunya, for example, have no right to independence. Or that Thoreau’s arguments against the Mexican American War, or against the imperious power of the majority, should be ignored, as they run counter to a states right to power.
Just some random thoughts I wanted to finish jotting down ….
Reading various media reactions and opinions on the passing of Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner, reactions vary between lauding the man as a pioneer of liberating sexuality in America, to condemning him as the paradigmatic sexist pig. I would judge him as more of the latter, because he succeeded in mediatizing an image of himself as the former, while monetizing a rigidly male-heterosexual sexuality into a minor empire.
Did his magazine offer substance along with the primarily white, very middle-class vision of male heterosexuality? Just enough to validate the magazine. Did this intellectual substance bleed over into other Hefner enterprises? Aside from charities, no. Did Hefner himself generate any of this intellectual material? No, like any media mogul, he just knew how to use other people, and their ideas, to his advantage.
And what about his, and Playboy’s role, in liberating American sexuality? Playboy, seen in other countries like France, was still a fairly prudish and conventional magazine. If Hefner hadn’t done it, someone else would have – he just beat everyone else to the punch. When the real sexual liberation movement of the 60s came around, Playboy quickly looked like a straight-laced relic, a phallocentric empire serving to publicize a very limited view on human sexuality. And Playboy, and Hef pretty much stayed frozen in that limited public space since then, with Hef becoming a parody of himself. And that’s how we should remember him and Playboy. Much like any media mogul, he found a niche and exploited it for as long as he could, and stayed with it far past any point of relevance, and surrounded himself with young, beautiful women, some of who had successful lives thanks to the leg up he had provided them (pun intended), and some who died. Like Dorothy Stratton. Other, more adventurous explorations of human sexuality, in media, happened throughout the 20th century, and before. Hef was just the first who figured out how to make a media empire out of sex, a Marquis de Sade minus the BDSM and any philosophical trappings, and a Marquis made for timid, puritan, WASPish 1950s American middle-class sexuality.
The Washington Post - thank god for the WaPo and the Times - ran an article this morning on the Mnuchins, Steve and his wife Louise Linton. For those not following the continued foibles and attempted larceny by various Trump administration stooges, Steve-o is the Secretary of the Treasury, worth 300 million thanks to his hedge fund and Hollywood producer background. His wife, Louise, a trophy-blonde and roughly 30 years his junior, makes Marie Antoinette look nuanced with her tone-deaf, ultra-elitist faux pas. She mocked the less fortunate than her (which would be around 99.9% of the population) on social media, topping it off by commenting sarcastically on criticism of her using government funds for personal use, "Adorable! Do you think the U.S. govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol.” Turns out she wasn't joking - according to the Post, the couple did request use of a private US government jet for a honeymoon trip to Scotland, France and Italy at $25,000 an hour.
That's entitlement for you, and the Trump regime to a T. The Mooch, Mnuchin, gold plated toilets, weekend golf, grab-'em by the you-know-what: has there ever been a more reprehensible collection of con-men, grifters, sycophants and capitalist pigs in charge of a country? This collection of thieves makes the court of Louis XIV look like a worker's collective (I know Marie Antoinette was Louis XVI's wife, but by that time the Bourbon court was actually more sympathetic to the commoner that was the Sun King and his entourage). Here's her original Instagram post flouting her lifestyle of the rich and famous, payed for by the citizens of the US:
Turns out we've been paying for all of this, while her husband hides millions in off-shore accounts and is in charge of the administration's efforts to re-write the tax code. You better believe that all corporate America, and the uber-wealthy, will get off like thieves under his plans. No way - we need to make sure that the wealthy pay more than they have been, with fewer loopholes and keeping the estate tax in place.
The photo below shows hurricanes Irma, Jose and Katia all fully formed in the Caribbean and the Atlantic. Hurricane experts say that they have never seen three such large and powerful hurricanes all at the same time. The sheer forces of nature and energy needed to form three such large and powerful weather systems at the same time, all in one area of the world's seas, points to larger fores at work, as many experts have noted, and warned of.Climate change is making hurricanes more powerful for longer periods of time. They need the energy from the warm, humid air above tropical oceans to keep up their strength. A hurricane begins as a tropical storm, when winds coming from different directions converge. Warm air rises around the storm’s center and cools, and the moisture condenses to form clouds and rain. Condensation releases latent heat, which powers hurricanes. If the layer of warm water isn’t at least 200 feet deep, a tropical storm could die before gaining hurricane strength.
The potential for destruction is also greater because warmer temperatures mean the air can hold more moisture, so hurricanes produce more rain, causing more floods. Rising sea levels also lead to greater and greater surges after a storm.
Now it looks like Tampa, a city that many have warned is a hurricane disaster waiting to happen, will bear the main brunt of Irma, after she slams first into the Keys, which will be completely submerged. God speed Florida.
Never before in our history has the occupant of the White House cared so little for the well-being of the country, and its citizens. The incidents at Charlottesville, and Trump’s initial reactions, then his follow-up to his feeble attempt at salving these new wounds caused by alt-right American fascist violence, left no doubt about his moral compass. He has none. He sees the world as a reflection of his ego, his entitlement, his small world of white businessmen who only accept women and minorities when they conform to his narrow world view, and stay in line. Trump’s ridiculous attempts to smear the protestors who came out to denounce American Nazis, his line that they were also guilty of violence, show that his small mind cannot fathom ideas like tolerance, peace, fraternity and equality. That he would attempt to justify a march by torch and weapon-wielding fascists, and claim that some of them were “nice” or “good” people, is repugnant, and ignorant. Ignorant of our history, of the Civil War, of slavery, of what our parents and grandparents, and great-grandparents fought against in the past century. And that he would lump Jefferson and Washington together with Lee, Davis and Stonewall Jackson because the two founding fathers also owned slaves, is not just ignorant of the differences between late 18-century America, and the Confederacy, but of the great attempts, however imperfect they might have been, by the US to eradicate racism, and bigotry. Yet here is Trump, indignant, angry, that he feels he is being forced to denounce white privilege, anti-Semitism, the US’s long and sad history of slavery and oppression of blacks, and other acts of intolerance and hatred – many of these acts which have flourished under his administration.
Some Republican leaders denounced any attempts by Trump, or others, to assimilate white supremacist views into the mainstream. The Chief Commander of the Marine Corps issued a statement that in that branch of the Armed Forces, there is no room for bigotry, hatred, racism or prejudice. The 82nd Airborne Division of the Army, upon viewing on of the Nazis in the rally at Charlottesville stated that individual might be able to buy the cap, but he had nothing in common with their values. And, just as damning of Trump’s tone-deaf embracing of the alt-right, General John Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff, could be seen on videos and photos shared on the internet, hanging his head in disbelief as Trump went off the rails at the press conference today. The military, usually any President’s staunchest supporters, are showing signs of disaffection, at the least.
And that’s just the latest iteration of his utter incapacity as leader of our Union. Russia-gate, nepotism, the attempted deregulation of environmental protections, the appointment of Betsy De Vos, an utter fraud and shill for the privatization of all education (and a loan shark for student debt), his appointment of lifetime racist Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Trump’s willingness to take North Korea to the brink, his war of words with European allies, his utter lack of knowledge about the world, about politics, about history, and on and on …. I could go on, but I will cut it short with one last plea.
Please, Robert Mueller, make it quick, and decisive. We can’t wait too long, and we all know that the crimes committed by Trump, his family, members of his campaign and administration, and perhaps even GOP leaders will warrant prosecution, and perhaps also warrant removing Trump and others from their held offices. Let it begin. Soon. The life-line of our democracy suddenly looks very tenuous.
Sometimes you take people for granted. Those around you, and those who have served as inspirations, as guiding lights, and voices for a generation, or generations. For me, and I suspect many Americans, Sam Shepard filled these descriptions, and more, often by just his appearance, that rough-hewn, generous but taciturn face, with probing wary eyes and jutting brow, not unlike one of his (and my) favorite writers, Samuel Beckett. Sam, iconic yet familiar, humble yet always a little distant, the shaman/poet of theatre who eventually transmogrified into one of Hollywood’s most dependable actors. A certain gravitas, maybe that’s part of it too. As I waded into theatre as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, worked as a professional in NY, SF, LA and elsewhere, continued my grad studies at UW-Madison and at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television, Sam—I can only call him Sam as I felt almost like I knew him—formed part of the bedrock of my existence as an artist, a givens, essential, in some sense almost primordial, part of the very terra firma of American theatre, and later, film.
But his plays, and prose…I can’t imagine my life without them, and thank god they’ll always be there. By serendipity, or more probably by probability, I lived and went through many of the places he described. The suburban LA home of True West could just as easily have been my home: from the description, basically the same area, setting, even the same familial tension, rational brother versus less rational brother (me being the latter). Sam lived for a while in Star
News Country (if you don’t know what that means then you’ll just have to Google it) as a child and adolescent. I grew up there. In the Motel Chronicles, Sam described the childhood adventures of riding bikes and climbing Camel’s Hump in the Arroyo Seco of Pasadena, and hunting for crayfish in “the Wash”, which was the concrete channel of the Arroyo which sluiced down from Pasadena, through South Pasadena, down towards the concrete towers of downtown LA. I lived the same adventures, so with Sam, I felt a real bond. Fool for Love, set in a seedy highway motel in the high Mojave Desert? God knows how many times I drove through there, on my way to and from adventures in the High Sierra, that rolling asphalt ribbon of Highway 14, baked by daylight, cool and mysterious at night, the endless desert and clear air a shout of freedom, liberty from the oppressive sprawl of LA and the endless arm of urban America. Like his mind, a space for exploration, he echoed and refracted the space of the American West, a personal rebellion against the mindless materialism the characterizes so much of the recent past: the individual rebelling. Often against themselves. He caught the zeitgeist of the sixties and seventies, and his plays sang, riffed, improvised, rolled through the psyche and expanded the possibilities of theatre. Buried Child might well be the best American play of the latter part of the 20th century in American theatre.
He's gone now. Patti Smith wrote a lovely essay, or reminiscence really, in The New Yorker on some of her last moments, days, with Sam. On his farm in Kentucky, the familiar silence of two old friends, icons of American culture. One of my favorite pictures of Sam is the one of him and Patti, early seventies, both with long hair of the non-gray variety, outside the Chelsea Hotel (stayed there once as well), comrades in rebellion. Young, beautiful, wildly talented, committed, unorthodox badasses totally outside the system, fashioning and tearing them down as soon as they became a form, before they could die. He’s gone now, hopefully to a place with horses, theatres, and maybe a little bourbon as well. Or tequila. The horse dreamer now lives with his dreams.