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.

twenty-five years of it

Now 50, I can see that my scholarly or intellectual life has turned out differently from what I had imagined at age 25. Then I had a 9-5 job in politics–for the “citizens’ lobby,” Common Cause. I had written a dissertation that became an obscure book, and I was working on a novel that was later published, albeit without much notice. My job left me time to work on other research. I had no idea what I’d achieve, but I thought I knew what the goal looked like. I’d produce writing. It would be helpful (I hoped), but also distinctive, original, and influential. Most of my intellectual work would be done alone. I would stand somewhat aside from society and its institutions, offering critical perspectives. I would find new things to say to readers about perennial authors and issues.

Today, my actual work consists of meeting with people, reading and writing, preparing talks, reading others’ draft papers, grant proposals, budgets, and planning documents, proposing projects, sending emails to groups of colleagues on timely matters, starting and editing Google docs, and facilitating discussions, whether in classrooms or elsewhere. When I ask myself why I do any of these particular tasks, the answer is almost always that someone has asked me to. (My blog posts are exceptions, and misleading ones if they’re all you know about me.) I care about the person who has asked me for each task–usually at a personal level, but often also because of our respective roles in organizations. When things go well, I feel that my work contributes to a network. Even when I’m the sole author of a document, it is usually destined for a publication that has been jointly planned by a group.

My work is much less original than I might have hoped or planned for it to be. Not only are my thoughts typically in the same vein as what others have already said, but often I have said the same things before. For example, I have already argued for civic education in k-12 schools many times. But perhaps I have not made yet that case to school superintendents, or historians, or people in Ukraine. If the cause seems valuable, I’ll find a new way to make the same points.

I’ve focused much more intensively and narrowly than my natural inclinations would predict. Starting all the way back in grade school, I had a tendency to grasp concepts superficially: just well enough to be able to say something that worked for the situation. Then I would get bored and want to learn something new. This is mostly a vice. But as things have turned out, I’ve worked on certain topics (civic education in US schools, youth voting, public deliberative forums, measuring civic life, aspects of political reform) for decades. My views may be wrong–they are certainly fallible–but they are not superficial. I’ve heard cogent critiques from all sorts of angles and have made appropriate changes. I’ve pursued some questions like a bloodhound with his nose to the ground.

My work is much more empirical than I’d expected: I deal more with statistics than with classic texts. It’s more collaborative. It’s less glamorous. Of course, glamour is in the eye of the beholder, but writing about famous authors has a certain cachet that seems missing in a grant proposal or a budget report.

I’m motivated much more by demand than supply, to use economists’ language; or by relationships rather than self-expression. Sometimes I chafe at that, wanting to say something more ambitiously distinctive. But working for and with other people increases the odds of making a difference. So does focus, and especially focus on relatively narrow and overlooked topics.

I also work much harder than I did at 25. I think that’s driven by demand. When you’re a young scholar, you do what you must to be employed. Beyond that, you’re motivated mostly by factors internal to you: curiosity, ambition or sheer love of the material. Once you’re securely embedded in a network, the importance of all those motivations diminishes. Often I find myself hard at work late at night because someone who’s doing something valuable needs my contribution (no matter how modest it may be) by the next morning. The net result is a lot more work per week than I thought I could do half a lifetime ago.

I think that if I could beam a message back to myself at age 25 that described my current life, the youthful me would probably be disappointed. But that’s just because this 50-year-old wouldn’t be able to convey the satisfactions of a life focused on participation in organizations and networks.

my father’s books are going to James Madison’s desk at Montpelier

(Syracuse, NY) My father, Joseph M. Levine, collected more than 20,000 books as a working library of a professional historian. Many were published before 1800. I am a sort of trustee for this collection, happily responsible for its long-term future.

James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, collected a library of books that informed his thoughts about the Constitution. In his case, the next generation meant his ne’er-do-well son-in-law, John Payne Todd, whose gambling debts cost the family all their property, including the books.

Now the Madison home at Montpelier has been restored to look as it did in James Madison’s day. But Montpelier needs appropriate books to display beside the president’s desk. By mutual arrangement, ten feet of my father’s collection are going there on permanent loan. I am in Syracuse to pick out books that might have belonged in Madison’s personal collection ca. 1820.

This, for example, is the same edition of Montaigne on which James Madison took notes when he was a student. Those notes were the very first substantive writings Madison produced in his life.

CAM00067My father was a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, New York; a Dodgers fan; an FDR liberal. James Madison was a slave-holding Tidewater planter. My Dad studied English intellectual history and was something of an Anglophile. James Madison led the US in a war against Great Britain, yet he was very far from an immigrant New Yorker. How do all these pieces fit together?

The answer is a certain version of liberalism. Dad grew up in a liberal family and neighborhood, but an additional formative experience was studying at Cornell during the McCarthy period. Cornell was stocked with great thinkers, including refugees from totalitarianism and veterans of struggles at home. During Dad’s undergraduate years, Vladimir Nabokov, Frances Perkins, Edwin Arthur Burtt, Buckminster Fuller, Clinton Rossiter, and Richard Neustadt all served on the faculty. They pursued rich cultural ideas, developed the inner life, and fought for social reform. Cornell broadened and liberated minds. The Constitution and the fundamental principles of the American Republic stood with the university and against its enemies.

Dad became an historian to join this community of free inquiry, and also to understand the origins of the modern liberal world. He began his graduate studies interested in the founding period of the US Republic, but he soon moved backwards to explore its origins in Tudor and Stuart England. That period became his lifelong interest and caused him to spend many years in England and to ship literally tons of books and other artifacts back from there.

English history is morally complex, as is the legacy of James Madison. England was a monarchy and a colonial power. But England was also the birthplace of individual rights, representative government, and rule-of-law–at least as those institutions have come to the US. It not only gave us our liberal traditions but also our more radical currents. From the Agitators and Levellers of 1647 to the Commonwealthmen and Whigs of 1750 to the Chartists of 1838, English thinkers developed the idea that political liberty and equality should come first, with cultural equality and economic reform to follow. As the MP Thomas Rainsborough argued in the mid-1600s:

For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.

Madison would certainly have qualified that populism in many ways. The poorest in Virginia were slaves, and Madison wanted to send them back to Africa rather than admit them as equals to the commonwealth. Federalist 10 presents Madison’s objections to “a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” He feared that “a common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole ….” But Madison constructed a political order that–when we honor its design–preserves individual liberties, defends minorities, promotes the “mild voice of reason,” and creates an important place for the “republican principle” of political equality.

It seems perfectly fitting that my father’s books should sit by the desk of the man who introduced the Bill of Rights and served as the second Rector of the University of Virginia.

[PS: I shouldn't have written "desk," as I believe the books are destined for a small room outside Madison's study that he used as a library.]

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having one conversation for 26 years

(Salem, MA) I am here for a retreat of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, where I work. In the summer of 1987, I came here for a retreat of the Charles M. Kettering Foundation, where I served as an intern between my sophomore and junior years in college. I’ve been back to Salem since then–we don’t live very far away now–but I recollect the first retreat forcefully. Early impressions bite deeply; later experiences just leave surface scratches.

The 1987 retreat was my first business trip: we could charge meals and get reimbursed for them. It was one of my first times sitting around open tables with water pitchers and notepads, talking about what an organization should do. (How many hundreds of such meetings have I attended since?) It was not my first time in an old city, because I had been privileged to spend years of my childhood in Europe, but it was my first time in an old American town. I remember thinking that Salem’s crooked, narrow streets and houses with historic placards were exotic. And it was one of my first discussions about civic engagement: why do Americans not participate as much as we would like in civil society and politics, and what should we do about that?

Now I am grey and “experienced,” a board member of the Kettering Foundation instead of an intern. We’ve seen Prague Spring, Bowling Alone, Points of Light and AmeriCorps, the Tea Party, Occupy. I can’t remember the conversation in 1987 well enough to be sure, but I would bet our analysis is more sophisticated now. People at the 1987 retreat–and many of their colleagues–have done important and valuable things in the past quarter-century. The large-scale trends, however, have mostly been for the worse.

indicators of civic engagement (DDB = DDB Needham Life Styles Survey. GSS = General Social Survey)

If I’m fortunate still to be having these conversations in 2039, I hope we will be able to point to upward trends, not necessarily in the measures depicted above (for instance, newspapers will probably be defunct), but in their functional equivalents.

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