Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and memories of Rust Belt adolescence

Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw (pictured below) were born in urban Michigan during the 1950s. By the time they were art students in the early 1970s, they’d seen all the stuff you don’t study in a University of Michigan classroom: doodles drawn in ball-point pen on lined paper while the teacher isn’t looking, fundamentalist tracts, album covers, semi-professional local ads, cable-access shows, comics, sci-fi paperbacks, D&D manuals, second-hand children’s book covers, toy packages from the dime store, pinups, and posters for high school plays. They collected that material, imitated it, and mashed it together in their gallery art and for the stage performances of their punk band Destroy All Monsters.


Their two-man gallery show, “Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw” (MSU Broad Museum), evokes the claustrophobia of adolescence, when you realize that you’re being raised to play a role in a society that you don’t much like. All those adults coming at you to tell you what to believe and do feel like monsters from a late-night horror film. Kelley, who died in 2012, was explicit that his adolescence was miserable.

That wasn’t my life. I was raised in a protective family, encouraged to explore a wide range of paths, and basically in love with the world. Yet I can summon memories of, say, junior high school in Syracuse, NY circa 1980 that powerfully evoke Kelley and Shaw. I was a half-generation younger, so when they were blasting their “noise rock,” I was afraid of big kids like them. But the graphic art and music of their cohort formed the backdrop for us early Gen-Xers.

For me, these guys evoke something more specific than perennial adolescent claustrophobia. They witnessed the particular disappointment of Rust Belt America when manufacturing crashed and the postwar promise turned out to be hollow. Black people and women captured some power in cities like Detroit and Syracuse, and everyone got permission to be a bit more free–just as capital and opportunity drained away. Kelley and Shaw were white boys watching a society that seemed unfair or cruel to others and pretty hollow for people like them. Out of that experience, they made some powerful visual art.

See also: Detroit and the temptation of ruin.

Anachronist review

The Anachronist is my interactive novel. Several readers have posted reviews of it on the Interactive Fiction Database. (If I may say so, the one person who gave it a low quantitative rating had a complaint about a technical issue that I’ve fixed since then.) A reviewer called CMG makes some helpful and valid critical points, but in the interest of blatant self-promotion, I’ll quote from the good parts of the review, which nicely summarize my intent:

You play as a woman about to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. She is lashed to it when the story starts. It is being lit. But she doesn’t burn just yet. She has been apprenticed to an alchemist, and has gleaned the art of memory. This allows her to retreat into her own mind and escape the fire — temporarily.

A single moment expands to encompass days, weeks, years, lifetimes as she plunges deeper and deeper into her memories. …

Time obviously goes out the window. Anachronism isn’t a mistake: it is the truth. The more time decomposes, the more we understand as we come to learn the circumstances surrounding the present moment. It’s a complex little plot, with conspiracies and double-crosses. Bit players enlarge to take central roles as our protagonist’s focus sharpens. Structurally, this means that the story is based around increasingly dense telescopic descriptions. We have a scene, we concentrate on a detail, that detail becomes another scene, we concentrate on another detail in that scene…

More than any other interactive fiction I’ve played, this feels like a novel. …

I faced the hardest decision I’ve had to make in a choice-based game in this story. At multiple points, you can break your concentration and return to focusing on the stake, the rising fire. I didn’t do that. I stayed in the protagonist’s head (or maybe the protagonists’ heads). And finally I reached a point where I had been reading for hours, for days, while the stake was still burning, and the game confronted me: what was I accomplishing by living in my memories? Shouldn’t I focus on the fire, what’s actually happening?

I didn’t know what to do. After playing for so long, I really felt as though I was avoiding the story’s reality. I had stretched out my time on the stake in real time by reading the text. It was absurd. I should’ve been burnt to a crisp. Here was the story’s most glaring anachronism, and I was the anachronist enabling it.

What I chose to do next doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the game created this situation in the first place. This isn’t a story whose strength rests on making the “right” choices. Its strength comes from how its themes are reflected in the reader’s own experience, which can only happen because it’s interactive.

In this sense, it’s some of the strongest interactive work I’ve seen.

Mozart illustrates the importance of “bids” in romantic relationships

The psychologist John Gottman discovered a fundamental condition of successful romantic relationships (which is consistent with my experience of 21 happy years of marriage). Partners frequently make “bids” for positive attention. Emily Esfahani Smith illustrates with an example: “the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, ‘Look at that beautiful bird outside!’ He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.” Couples who stay together respond positively to each others’ bids an average of 86% of the time. Couples who end up divorcing respond only 33% of the time.

The opening scene of the Marriage of Figaro is set in the room that Figaro and Susanna expect to occupy after their wedding the next day. They are alone together. Figaro is busy measuring the space for the bed that they will share. He sings a foursquare, masculine theme that has been identified as a march. Simultaneously but separately, Susanna is admiring herself in a new hat and telling herself how happy it makes her. Singing in her own ornamented and undulating gavotte, she asks Figaro to pay attention for a moment: “look a little, my dear Figaro.” He keeps on counting, and she keeps on asking: their two themes now playing in counterpoint. She gets more insistent as her light gavotte turns forceful: “look a little / will you look already at my hat!” At that point, Figaro notices her bid. He switches to her melody and meter to reply, “Yes, my heart, it is very pretty. It really seems  to have been made for me. Ah, next morning at our wedding …” Susanna answers in counterpoint, “How sweet is my tender groom,” as Figaro keeps singing about the “beautiful little hat.” Their melodic lines join as they sing the same lyrics about their wedding.

If you interpret the duet as a competition or struggle of wills, then Susanna wins. Daniel Heartz (1987) writes:

Susanna makes Figaro sing her tune to her rhythm, while complimenting her on her hat. With this little drama in music, which almost needs no text, Mozart has succeeded in foreshadowing the entire opera in the first number. By the end of Act 4 Figaro will have been taught a lesson by Susanna, and learnt to sing her tune for good, we hope, with regard to matters of trust and mutual respect between them. The conflict of march and gavotte, of military masculinity with the feminine grace of one of the most gallant court dances, will [recur in later scenes as well].”

But I’d prefer to see the scene as win/win. Each partner makes a bid and each replies. As soon as the duet concludes, Susanna asks in recitative, “What are you so busy measuring, little Figaro?” Statistics predict that these two will have a happy marriage.

source: Heartz, Daniel (1987). “Constructing Le nozze di Figaro.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 112.1, 77-98. For a more detailed analysis of the duettino, see Stephen Rumph, Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics, University of California Press 2011. And see why romantic relationships do not function like markets.

Derek Walcott becomes the volcano

(Orlando, FL) I’ve settled on a poem with which to express homage to the late Derek Walcott: his “Volcano” (1976)

Joyce was afraid of thunder
but lions roared at his funeral
from the Zurich zoo.
Was it Trieste or Zurich?
No matter. These are legends, as much
as the death of Joyce is a legend,
or the strong rumour that Conrad
is dead, and that Victory is ironic.
On the edge of the night-horizon
from this beach house on the cliffs
there are now, till dawn,
two glares from the miles-out-
at-sea derricks; they are like
the glow of the cigar
and the glow of the volcano
at Victory‘s end.
One could abandon writing
for the slow-burning signals
of the great, to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
At least it requires awe,
which has been lost to our time;
so many people have seen everything,
so many people can predict,
so many refuse to enter the silence
of victory, the indolence
that burns at the core,
so many are no more than
erect ash, like the cigar,
so many take thunder for granted.
How common is the lightning,
how lost the leviathans
we no longer look for!
There were giants in those days.
In those days they made good cigars.
I must read more carefully.

Two of “the great” are named in this poem: Joyce and Conrad. Joyce is a foil for Walcott: an exiled former subject of the British Empire who wrote Ulysses, to which Walcott, from a different Atlantic island, replied with Omeros. It turns out that lions did roar at Joyce’s funeral, and one can risk the pathetic fallacy that they roared for the master’s passing.

I don’t know Conrad’s novel Victoria, but Wikipedia suggests why Walcott might like it (as long as it can be read as “ironic”). Apparently, it describes yet another colonial island-outpost, this one in the Pacific, from European and subaltern perspectives–offering that double vision that fascinates Walcott. And according to Walcott, it ends with two lights shining on the ocean horizon, one a cigar and one a volcano. Seeing a similar pair of lights on the sea off his Caribbean home, Walcott imagines them as messages from Conrad, who is only “rumored” to be dead because his words still speak.

Walcott, the future Nobelist, has every right to place himself in these men’s company. He strives to write great works, to make his own mark. The poem relates a moment, however, when he considers whether it might be better to devote himself to reading: in fact, to become the “ideal reader.” That is a ruminative life, more modest, quieter, although Walcott’s character still compels him to be the “greatest reader in the world.”

“Volcano” adopts a rhetoric of decline. “Awe … has been lost in our time”; “so many take thunder for granted.” But I think the narrator pokes a little fun at himself for that mood when he says, “In those days they made good cigars.” It’s not really that culture has declined and all the great ones have passed. That’s simply what a person feels when he or she pledges, “I must read more carefully.”

With Walcott gone now, I’d like to think of him as a light from far offshore, sending his slow-burning signals for a long time to come. Best to enjoy them, not try to outdo them, because they really don’t make writers like Derek Walcott any more.

on inhabiting earth with inaccessibly beautiful things

I unfortunately know no Chinese. The sounds, resonances, allusions, and calligraphy of traditional Chinese poetry can reach me only through paraphrase or as abstract patterns, each character looking not much different from the next. However, Perry Link writes,

Should we compare poetry across civilizations? If we do, classical Chinese poetry wins easily. The contest is almost unfair, because, as my students of Chinese language eventually come to see, the fundaments of language are different.

Indo-European languages, with their requirements that tense, number, gender, and part of speech be specified, and with the mandatory word inflections that the specifications entail, and with the extra syllables that the inflections add, just can’t achieve the same purity—a sense of terseness and expanse at the same time—that tenseless, numberless, voiceless, uninflected, and uninflectible Chinese characters can achieve. In a contest, one person has a butterfly net and the other a window screen.

I thought of this passage during a recent, brief visit to the Sackler Gallery in Washington, which is showing “Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty.” The highlights are vast, wall-sized hanging scrolls that display poems in the original authors’ calligraphy. The setting is abstract, modern, respectfully dark. In the background, a recording of a classical Chinese zither plays. The English translations by a Sackler curator, Stephen D. Allee, produce what I would call good poetry. The language is moving and sometimes surprising. For instance:

My friends are scattered few and far apart and the rain just drizzles on.
Fragrance fades from the incense burner and the teacups have toppled over;
I composed a poem on plum blossoms, but I’m sorry it is not well done.

I trust that these English lines convey the sense of the end of a poem by Wen Zhengming (composed ca. 1500), but they bear only a distant relationship to the scroll he painted and the sounds that his intended audience would hear as they read it. It’s strange to think that I will never be able to experience a deeply valuable art form–in Link’s estimation, the best tradition of poetry in the world–even though I can stand in the same room with it.

(See also: nostalgia for now and Ito Jakuchu at the National Gallery)

cultural mixing and power

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These two objects were juxtaposed during a wonderful Tisch Talk in the Humanities yesterday, with Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Lisa Lowe from Tufts’ Department of English.

On the left, an 18th century desk made in colonial Mexico that’s now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Lowe noted that the shape derives from the Northern European Renaissance. The geometric patterns on the outside are reminiscent of Moorish Spain. But, as Lee Lawrence writes, “With the desk flap lowered and the bookcase doors open, … the gold-on-red interior screams China—until, that is, you take a closer look. The artist has depicted a hacienda with palm trees and deer, not a landscape with willows and oxen, and the figures wear sombreros, not conical hats.” Some of the figures appear to be Africans, slaves or freemen.

On the right is a photo of Campos-Pons in the Piazza San Marco, Venice. She is an Afro-Cuban artist with some Chinese-Cuban ancestry. She was responsible for the Cuban Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, a remarkable installation built partly of bird cages. Here she is dressed in an elaborate costume that has Cuban, Chinese, and Yoruba elements, claiming the piazza as a kind of town crier.

Both objects mix Chinese, New World, European, and African content. Both are made by Hispanic artists of color.

It might seem that power and agency is different in these two cases. Campos-Pons is an internationally recognized and successful artist. She makes images that mix specific cultural elements of her choice, and she is honored for the results. The anonymous (to us) artisans who made the desk combined a specific set of cultural elements because Spain had occupied Mexico and turned its indigenous people into subjects. The Empire also forcibly combined the decorative art of the conquered Mudéjars, Chinese porcelain (via the Manila-Acapulco galleon route), and the cultures of Africans who’d been transported as slaves.

But that contrast negates the creativity and agency behind the beautiful desk. Some person or group chose to make it look as it does. If a Spanish-descended patrón had a lot of say in the matter, he or she had vision and talent. And if a native artisan conceived the object, that person was highly creative and–for all I know–well rewarded. As for Campos-Pons, her ethnic and cultural heritage is due to the same Empire. And now she produces goods prized by powerful patrons: museums, collectors, and foundations. Her clients seek a cultural mix or synthesis, as did the original owner of the desk.

One can push the analogy too far, until it seems to make no difference whether an artist has political and economic rights. Campos-Pons faces different objective circumstances from the maker(s) of the desk, and it’s important to improve all people’s circumstances. Still, we can find agency and artistry everywhere, and often it’s by mixing disparate inheritances that we create the objects that represent us best.

See also: when is cultural appropriation good or bad? and upside-down Foucault

Maoist chic as Orientalism

tseng kwong chiWhile visiting the excellent Tufts University Art Gallery exhibition, “Tseng Kwong-Chi: Performing for the Camera,” my colleagues and I heard the following story. Tseng was the child of Chinese anticommunist refugees. He moved to the East Village in the 1970s, where he worked and played with people like Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. When his parents visited from their home in Vancouver, they wanted to take him to Windows on the World, the fancy restaurant that used to be at the top of the World Trade Center. It required a jacket, and the only jacket Tseng owned was a Chinese Communist uniform that he had bought in a second-hand store in Montreal. The restaurant not only let him in but fawned over him, assuming that he was a Chinese dignitary. This reception gave Tseng the idea of posing in front of iconic monuments all over the North America and Western Europe, dressed in his Mao jacket, Ray-Bans, and an ID badge that reminds me of the X-Files. He always donned the serious, distant look of the Chairman inspecting the Red Army’s triumphs.

Tseng had studied art in Paris, so Richard Wolin’s book, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s provides some helpful background. Wolin writes that Communist China was all the rage in Paris in 1967. That year,

Mao-collared suits–“les cols de Mao“–had become immensely fashionable. Try as they might, the clothing boutiques in Paris’ tony sixteenth arrondissement could not keep them in stock. … Lui, the French equivalent of Playboy, decided to jump on the pro-Chinese bandwagon by featuring an eight-page spread of scantily clad models in straw hats, red stars, and Red Guard attire. The accompanying captions were culled from The Little Red Book. One striking image portrayed a young woman, unclad and equipped with an automatic rifle, emerging from an enormous white cake. “The revolution is not a dinner party,” read the legend.

Tseng might not have seen this Lui issue, but he lived in Paris soon after Chinese communism had inspired everything from softcore porn to an insurrection. Meanwhile, in the actual China, during the year 1967 alone, some 237,000 citizens were killed and 730,ooo permanently disabled as a result of the Cultural Revolution.

Tseng was a Canadian citizen, a gay man, an East Village artist, and an Asian immigrant to North America. In these pictures, he is role-playing the most powerful Asian man of the time, one whose victims–almost all Asians–may number 65 million. By passing as a Communist official instead of an East Village immigrant artist, he was able to experience social recognition in his adopted land. He also parodied the appropriation of serious matters for profitable pop culture and made serious art out of the parody.

See also:  French post-War intellectuals: some generalizations and when is cultural appropriation good or bad?

remembering Melisto

MellistoThis is Melisto, a daughter of Ktesikrates from Sounion, which is now a day-trip from Athens. I think her name means “Melody,” unless it’s related to the word for “honey.”* Melisto lived for a few years (six, perhaps?) around 340 BCE. The Macedonian King Phillip II was dominating Greece at the time, and his son Alexander was soon to conquer a vast empire. Ktesikrates and perhaps other members of the family were sad enough to lose Melisto that they had a very handsome marble stele carved for her, with her name at the top. She is showing a live bird to her fluffy lapdog and smiling at the results. The figure in her other hand may be a votive object rather than a doll, according to the museum label. A nice little classical building shelters her and announces her name to us, 2,350 years later, in Cambridge, MA.

*Is it from melisma (song) or melisseios (honey)?

on the proper use of moral clichés

In Joseph Roth’s finely wrought novel The Redetsky March (1932), a simple and good-hearted peasant orderly tries to make a huge financial sacrifice to help his boss, Lieutenant Trotta. The feckless Trotta is badly in debt, and the orderly, Onufrij, has buried some savings under a willow tree. Onufrij has already appeared in the novel many times by this point, but always as a cipher. Now suddenly we see things from his perspective as he walks home (fearfully and yet excitedly), tried to remember which one is his left hand so that he can identify the location where he buried his money, digs it up, and uses it as collateral to obtain a loan from the local Jewish lender.

Apparently, cheap novels that were popular among Austro-Hungarian officers in Trotta’s day “teamed with poignant orderlies, peasant boys with hearts of gold.” Because his actual servant is acting like a literary cliché, Trotta disbelieves and callously rejects the help. He tells Onufrij that it is forbidden to accept a loan from a subordinate and dismisses him curtly. Trotta “had no literary taste, and whenever he heard the word literature he could think of nothing but Theodor Körner’s drama Zriny and that was all, but he had always felt a dull resentment toward the melancholy gentleness of those booklets and their golden characters.” Thus he understands the offer from Onufrij as a fake episode from an unbelievable book. Trotta “wasn’t experienced enough to know that uncouth peasant boys with noble hearts exist in real life and that a lot of truths about the living world are recorded in bad books; they are just badly written.”

Trotta can be compared to two other characters who have problematic relationships with clichés. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Francesca da Rimini utters a speech that consists almost entirely of slightly garbled quotations from popular medieval romantic literature. She justifies her actions with these clichés and avoids any mention of her own sin. It becomes evident that she never really loved her lover, Paolo, but was only in love with the cliché of being a doomed adulteress. Like The Redetsky March, the Inferno is a beautiful and original construction in which clichés have a deliberate place.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (living more than five centuries after Francesca) also quotes incessantly from popular romantic literature and thereby avoids having to see things from the perspective of her victims, notably her husband and children. Flaubert italicizes her clichés to draw attention to them. He uses his own brilliant and acidly original prose to describe a person who can only think in clichés.

Even though Francesca and Emma Bovary quote statements that are literally true, they rely on stock phrases instead of seriously thinking for themselves. They love what they would call “literature,” but they reduce it to a string of clichés.

Trotta is in some ways their opposite and in some ways similar. He despises “literature” but knows some clichés that popular books contain and uses them to avoid reality. His method of avoidance is to doubt anything that is a literary cliché, whereas Emma Bovary and Francesca da Rimini believe them all.

Although Dante and Flaubert were making different points from Roth about clichés, I think both perspectives have some value. Certain cultural movements—notably, the Romanticism of ca. 1800 and the High Modernism of ca. 1900—have prized originality and have scorned cliché as one of the worst aesthetic failings. Indeed, they have defined “literature” as writing free of cliché at the level of style, plot and character, or theme. These movements have enriched our store of ideals, but they have been overly dismissive of the wisdom embodied in tradition. If you respect the accumulated experience of people who have come before you, you may reasonably assume that many truths are clichés and that many clichés are true. To scorn cliché can mean treating one’s own aesthetic originality as more important than the pursuit of moral truth.

Thus I would not try to delete statements from my list of moral beliefs because they have been made many times before or have been expressed in a simple and unoriginal fashion. I would even be inclined to consider our culture’s store of moral clichés as a set of likely truths. Roth was right: “a lot of truths about the living world are … just badly written.” Situations repeat, and what needs to be said has often been said many times before.

But the risk is that a stock phrase can prevent a person from grasping the concrete reality of the situation at hand. I’d propose two remedies for that problem. First, it is worth recognizing which of our moral commitments, even if they are fully persuasive and valid, are also clichés in the sense that they are standardized and prefabricated phrases. Those commitments deserve special scrutiny.

Second, it is worth attending to the ways that all of our various moral commitments fit together. Each cliché may be true, but when it is juxtaposed with other general statements, it always turns out to be only partly true. Life is full of tradeoffs and tensions. Even if the components of my overall worldview are mostly clichés, the whole structure of moral ideas that emerges from my best thinking about my own circumstances is original–just because I am my own person.

Sources: Joseph Roth, The Radetsky March, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Part II, chapter 17; my article “Why Dante Damned Francesca da Rimini,” Philosophy & Literature, vol. 23 (October, 1999), pp. 334-350. See also on the moral peril of cliché and what to do about it; and on the moral dangers of cliché.

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St. Margaret of Cortona and medieval populism

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This is highlight #3 from our recent vacation in Italy. St. Margaret of Cortona was a remarkable person–more on her in a moment. The picture is a narrative of her life painted around 1298, or just one year after she died. She wasn’t canonized until 1728. In her own community of southeastern Tuscany, she was treated from the moment of her death (and perhaps even while she was still alive) as a saint to be venerated and depicted on par with St. Clare or St. Agnes. A major local church was immediately renamed in her honor, and her mummified body was placed under its altar. Those actions offer insights into medieval Catholicism, which was much more populist and decentralized than we assume on the basis of recent centuries of Church history and governance.

Margaret’ story would work for a novel (and has inspired an opera and a film). A beautiful peasant girl, she quarreled with her stepmother and ran away to live in sin with a nobleman in his castle. One day, his most loyal hound returned alone from the hunt and led Margaret to the scene of his death at the hands of a murderer. Deeply shaken, Margaret became a Franciscan sister, thus joining the most radical and compelling  religious/political movement of the era. She swore personal poverty but may have used her ex-lover’s wealth for philanthropy; we know that she obtained the resources to found a hospital and a convent. No wallflower or passive penitent, she twice challenged the bishop of Arezzo for acting like a warlike lord instead of a man of God. Her example and the force of her thought and personality must have resounded powerfully.

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