Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Who are we?

Thinking back about the last post, about how a society/culture/tribe identifies with its art, I began to consider what this meant for America.

Most of our cultural landmarks have not been in the visual arts, for one thing. When I think of American contributions to world culture, I think musically: jazz, blues, gospel, rock, Broadway show tunes. Then there are the cultural identifiers which perhaps the rest of the world might not celebrate: baseball, rodeo, the more fanciful forms of American roadside architecture, Las Vegas.

There is a lot of great American art: the paintings of Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Homer Winslow. The photographs of Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. The architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. All to name just a tiny fraction of America's visual cultural riches. But what is America's Mona Lisa*? Our Parthenon?

There are a few paintings, several sculptures, a feat of engineering, and a temple that I think fit the bill.

The paintings would be Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington (which we have because Dolley Madison recognized iconic art when she saw it and saved it from the marauding British),
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware, and perhaps, Grant Wood's American Gothic.**

The sculpture would be Mount Rushmore, the Gateway Arch (is it sculpture? is it architecture?), and most importantly, the Statue of Liberty. How lovely that, in a nation of immigrants, the most significant piece of public art in the country should herself be an immigrant.

The engineering feat? That would be the Golden Gate Bridge, which holds a place in American imagination far beyond its utility as a means of getting from the City by the Bay to Sausalito. (Okay, I'm a Northern Californian. I'm biased.)

And the temple would be the Lincoln Memorial.***

What am I missing? What other pieces of visual art are quintessentially American?

* In 1911, Vincent Perugia stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and brought it back with him to Florence. In France the crime was seen as a national calamity; in Italy, the thief was viewed as a popular hero.

** No, I'm not entirely serious with that last one.

***I'm not including the White House or Capitol: they are primarily interesting for political reasons.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Stupid people tricks, art division

In 1687, the Venetians besieged Athens, which was controlled by the Ottoman Turks. They shelled the city, including the Parthenon, which took a direct hit, blowing out the center of the building in the process.

Odd that a single shell should inflict such damage on a structure sturdy enough to stand pretty much intact for eighteen hundred years. It might have not had such damage had the Turks not decided to use the building as a gunpowder magazine. Funny how that works.

One of the great works of classical architecture, lost to the shortsightedness of war. Not that recent wars have done all that much better: during World War II the world saw the destruction of Coventry Cathedral, not to mention numerous artworks that simply vanished or were destroyed. The Vietnam War and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia resulted in the vandalism and neglect of the temple complexes at Ankgor Wat and Akgor Thom. (Fortunately, there is some hope there: preservation efforts are underway, as the sites at Ankgor have been listed as World Heritage Sites.) Early on in the war in Iraq, museums in Baghdad were looted, with priceless artifacts stolen and destroyed. Part of the reason may have been the failure of American forces to secure the National Museum.

War always carries with it a terrible cost in human lives. As a society, in America, we have done a bad job at estimating what those costs will be; so do most nations embarking on a course of war. And the human costs always eclipse the cultural costs: whatever the damage to the temple complexes at Ankgor, as heartbreaking as that may be, it pales in comparison to the horrors inflicted upon the Cambodian people. The looting of the antiquities in Baghdad cannot trump the massacre at Haditha.

But maybe they are of a piece. Art says who we are as a people, gives us our identity. There is a reason beyond simple prestige that the Greek government has been fighting for years to recover the statues from marble friezes of the Parthenon, which currently reside in the British Museum in London. If you see people of a country as not worth protecting, why would you care about protecting their cultural treasures?

Except that that legacy, in some sense belongs to the world as well as to each country. When cultural treasures are destroyed, we are all the poorer: witness the international outcry at the destruction of the colossal Buddhas by the Taliban.

I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this, other than I keep thinking that when all is said and done, there needs to be a reckoning of the cultural destruction wreaked upon Iraq -- or any other war-torn country -- and that needs to be mourned by others than those who suffered the immediate loss, and even by their enemies.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Barry and Babe.... and Hank.

So, it looks like Barry Bonds will pass Babe Ruth on the all time home run list. To which I say...

Big fat hairy deal.

One would think, from the way everyone is going on about this, that Ruth still held the home-run record. Even some journalists still think Ruth holds the record: in an article in the Peninsula (local) section of the San Jose Mercury News, Dan Reed wrote "[Bonds] failed to do what everyone wanted him to do -- tie the all-time home run record of Babe Ruth." Clearly, Mr. Reed needs to walk across the office and talk to the sportswriters occasionally. I can only imagine what they might have said about the article.

America is obsessed with Ruth. No one is ever good enough to match the Great One. Roger Maris played in a season that was too long: Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball (and the man responsible for the 162 game season to begin with) decreed that Ruth's record had to be broken in 154 games or it wouldn't count. (He either ignored or conveniently forgot that the season Ruth set the single-season record, the Yankees played 155 games, because they had tied one earlier in the season.) Frick set this condition for no other season record. Bonds and before him McGwire and Sosa have all been tainted by the steroids scandals. There are those who argue that the record 73 home runs in a single season set by Bonds in 2001 is illegitimate.

Ruth played in smaller stadiums, without grueling travel schedules, during an era when a ball that bounced over the fence could be counted as a home run. More importantly, he played before the color line was broken: Ruth never had to face Negro League pitchers like Satchel Paige. Nothwithstanding, Ruth has always been seen as "America's home run king."

Except he's not.

Hank Aaron is.

Ruth is an "American"-type hero: brash, mythic, larger-than-life. Many of us with more than a passing acquaintance with baseball history are familiar with story of Ruth's "called home run" and his legendary carousing.

Hank Aaron, on the other hand, carries himself with quiet dignity. He is one of baseball's class acts. He pursued Ruth's record in the face of death threats from racists furious that a black man would dare sully the Bambino's legacy. He earned his record not in a blaze of glory but by remarkable consistency: while he never hit more than 47 home runs in one season, there were only three years, his first and his last two in the league, that he did not hit at least twenty. Furthermore, he not only exceeded Ruth's record, he obliterated it. He didn't pass Ruth's total by 5 homers, but by 5%.

There has never been a whiff of scandal or a hint of impropriety about Aaron. His record can't be dismissed as being the product of some pharmaceutical lab, or disparaged as being the result of simply a matter of more games per season.

Instead, he's simply ignored. It's surprising how many people still say "Babe Ruth's record..." even though the record hasn't been Ruth's for 32 years now. This entire circus surrounding Barry Bonds pursuit of second place is testament to how much Ruth still holds sway over the American imagination. It's a shame: if I would pick a ballplayer to represent me or my country, I would much prefer it be a man of courage and dignity like Aaron.

Let Barry Bonds pass Ruth on the home run list. It doesn't matter.

Let him reach, oh, 745 or 750, and then it will matter. Because then the issue of whether Bonds's home runs are tainted, the product of chemistry not talent, reflects on whether he should take the title from the true champion.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Last Christmas, I got one of my favorite gifts ever: the complete Broadway soundtrack to Rent. I have listened to the soundtrack an estimated 475 times. At one point, the CDs disappeared -- I think my family hid them. No worries: I had already ripped them to my computer.

One of the things I love about the Broadway version, as opposed to the movie, is that it really is an opera. Unlike, say, The Sound of Music, or Into the Woods, you can follow almost the entire plot of the musical simply from the recording.

It has turned into a great -- if unlikely -- teaching tool.

I have preteens, late elementary and middle school kids. They are getting the standard "Just Say No" drugs and alcohol education, and the older is beginning to get AIDS and sex-ed talks. (Even in California, abstinence only education has hit.) I have a great problem with the way these are taught. First of all is the simple excessiveness: one child told me I shouldn't use ammonia-based cleaning solution because a D.A.R.E. officer told him it was a bad idea. But more importantly, I think they teach kids to view others with a lack of compassion.

It starts out "Using drugs and alcohol is bad, using drugs and alcohol is stupid." It turns into "Stupid people use drugs, bad people use drugs." What happens then when a kid is confronted with someone who uses drugs or alcohol? Either they demonize the user as being bad or stupid, or they discard what they are taught about drugs or alcohol, not all of which is bad.

Which is where Rent comes in. While I don't play all of the soundtrack for them (among other things, I skip "La Vie Boheme" because I really don't want to have a discussion about what S&M is), and I'm not keen on the bad language, I do play enough to get a sense of the characters.

Enough to get a sense that Mimi is not a bad person. Roger is not a bad person. They are experiencing consequences of their choices -- and some of those choices were and are bad. Mimi's continued use of heroin, in particular, is a bad choice, to the extent it is a choice, given the nature of addiction. Which led me and my youngest to have a discussion of addiction, and why someone would make such choices, and how that doesn't mean they are beyond help.

It has also proven useful in talking about HIV/AIDS. About what HIV is and does. How about how you cannot get AIDS from casual contact (misinformation they picked up from their peers). About how AIDS is a disease, not a moral judgment, regardless of how you contracted it.

The question of homosexuality has been very easy to deal with: when asked if Angel was Collins's boyfriend, I simply said yes. And whether Maureen and Joanne were girlfriends, likewise. (Both of which led to my happiest parenting moment recently: when my youngest son heard on the radio of a school group arguing for the right to have materials for their afterschool club about how homosexuality is a sin, he responded, "Why do they care if people are gay? It's not like it hurts them any. Why can't they mind their own business?")

I wish I could write to Jonathan Larson and tell him how important his work is. Wherever he is in the afterlife, I hope he knows.