Sunday, April 27, 2008

Who Owns New York?

That is the apt title of the Columbia University fight song. It's odd that I remember it, because I can't have heard it more than once or twice--my time there was the absolute nadir of school-spiritism, fraternities, attendance at sporting events. The old traditions were dying like bugs in a jar, and I did my best to help see them off. Still, the song's sentiment was implicit in the university's conduct, an arrogance barely dented by the events of a few years earlier--forty years ago this month.

Columbia University in the spring of 1968 was preparing to construct a gymnasium in Morningside Park, a park outside the school's property line and used mostly by the residents of Harlem. Very generously (in its own view) the university would allow Harlemites--who in those days were nearly one hundred percent African American--use of the gym, as long as they entered through the back door. To make a complicated story very simple, Rap Brown informed the citizens of Harlem of Columbia's plan and Students for a Democratic Society informed the students, and very soon the campus was enjoying an occupation and a strike. The gym, and the Jim-Crow and land-grab matters it entailed, remained at the center of the outrage, although Vietnam, corporate investment, institutional racism and elitism, the purpose and design of education, unthinking assent to social injustice, and dormitory visiting rules also entered the equation. Few people realize that Columbia's Spring '68 bacchanal preceded the one in Paris by several weeks.

A bacchanal it remained only briefly, though. The administration refused to negotiate with the striking students, the police came in with helmets and clubs and badge numbers blacked out, and they were abetted both by right-wing students and by the faculty, whose studied neutrality led them to block food deliveries to the strikers--their high-minded cowardice illustrates better than anything why "liberal" remained a vitriolic insult on the left for many years. Quite a lot of blood was shed. The police broke heads of people who were only standing up for principles. Nothing like it had been seen, at least not subsequent to the 1930s or north of Mississippi. If you want to read more, please see Hilton Obenzinger's extraordinary personal account, Busy Dying (Tucson: Chax, 2008).

I entered Columbia in the fall of 1972. The last real flare-up had occurred the previous May, when an antiwar demonstration led to a Days of Rage-style smashing of Fifth Avenue shop windows. I enthusiastically attended the semester's first meeting of SDS, only to have it turn out to be the meeting at which the local chapter dissolved itself. After that came political fatigue. I first heard the term "political correctness" then, but what it meant was that some campus politico would confront you on the Walk and ask where you stood on, say, the Polisario Front, and you knew it was a trick question--were they the true Spearhead of the People, or merely running-dog roaders for the CIA? Political involvement meant endless factional disputes, paranoia, poison. Lyndon LaRouche was prominent, as well as several competing varieties of Maoists. You can tell by looking at the eyes of the figure above what replaced political passion for the rest of us.

Despite the prop robes, I never bothered graduating, although to be fair I had a number of great teachers and happily lost myself in the vastness of the library, as well as making seven or eight friends who are still my friends. Not having graduated (nine incompletes; hundreds of dollars in library fines) did not prevent me from returning to teach there, in the MFA program, a couple of decades later. The place was no friendlier then than when I had been a student, maybe even less, since the Reagan years had infused a renewed spirit of entitlement, and the radical shift in the value of Manhattan real estate had considerably increased the institution's wealth. Right now Columbia is engaged in a wholesale annexation of West Harlem, proving that some things never change, although today there is little organized resistance and no publicity given to what there is. Anyway, the university is now only one of a hundred entities that could adopt the fight song as its own.

Photo by Matt Kennedy. And where is he now?

Saturday, April 26, 2008


"I have painted thought." --Nicolas Poussin

"The magnificent light in Courbet's paintings is for me the same as that of the Place Vendôme, at the time the Column fell." --André Breton, Nadja

It's just occurred to me that I have less than a month to see shows at the Met by two of my favorite painters. For someone who runs a blog carrying a name that means "picture gallery," I've gotten very much out of the habit of visiting museums and galleries. And yet they were crucial to me once. If I had a single Damascus-road experience in my life, it was seeing Géricault’s "Raft of the Medusa" and Delacroix's "Massacre at Chios" at the Louvre when I was not quite nine years old. I went to high school a few blocks from the Met, when it was still free, and used to wander through at random, haunting it as if I were its ghost. When I was 20 and very earnest it seemed to me the whole point of traveling, to go see pictures in remote churches and unlikely state-run cultural complexes out in the middle of fuck-all.

Then, a few years later, I stopped. Why? Maybe it was the Met's Book of Kells show circa 1976, which as far as I'm aware began the era of massively hyped traveling exhibits with their advance ticketing and crowd control. Maybe it was the awkwardness of accompanying nice young ladies to museums on Sundays and shifting my weight from one foot to the other as they drank in the Monets. Maybe it was the increasing authority of the must-see dictates issued by the cultural commissars of the media in New York City. Maybe it was the time ten years ago when I visited the museum of fine arts in Lille, France, a vast train station of a museum laid out in an ellipse and stuffed with mediocrities, and I realized the best way to take in its holdings would be by bicycle or possibly roller skates. Maybe it was when I discovered that I derived more enjoyment and illumination from sifting through big piles of trash. But I figure I owe some discomfiture, at least, to Poussin and Courbet.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Case Study

The subject, a recent immigrant approximately nine years of age, was asked to depict his mother. It was specified that he should present her in a particular context of his choosing: a setting or activity. The resulting picture is of considerable interest. The woman is only marginably noticeable, and then only because her coat presents the largest single expanse of white space in the composition. Clearly, the subject entirely subordinates maternal affection to the far greater stimulus of commercial consumption. For that matter, the nature of the consumer products themselves is of secondary interest; the subject is enthralled by packaging, and above all by names.

Because the composition is so crowded and frenetic, it is worthwhile to break down its constituent parts. The woman is pushing a shopping cart overloaded with products down a supermarket aisle. It would seem to be aisle six: coffee, tea, juice, soda. The items heaped in the cart seem at least partly stereotypical: the protruding head of celery in particular is a trope familiar from myriad cartoons and illustrations. It might likewise be doubted whether she purchases toothbrushes on a regular basis, and ditto for "wax"--presumably floor wax. Other items seem more likely to be true to his actual experience of grocery shopping: that the sack of potatoes has been placed in the cart's bottom tray, for instance, or the exact replication of the Fritos logo, or the prominence of the detergent Beads O' Bleach.

But even the groceries in the cart are overwhelmed by the serried ranks of products on the shelves, which are depicted in disproportionate scale. The boxes of Lipton tea bags are nearly the size of the cart itself. (The curious symbol on the boxes represents the subject's attempt to come to terms with the concept of the tea bag. Coming from a coffee-drinking culture, he had only ever experienced tea bags as pictures on boxes, and averred he thought they looked like "pants on a hanger.") It is fascinating to observe the rigor with which the subject records brand names, even the ones that make no sense to him, resulting in solecisms: "Early' Morn" for "Early Morn'" and "Chock O' Full Nuts" for "Chock Full O' Nuts."

A strong reaction to American consumer abundance is typical of recent immigrants. It can take various forms: hysterical blindness, catatonic undifferentiation, at least eighteen catalogued types of aphasia. The delirium on view here, in conjunction with the subject's powers of observation, leads us to predict that he will become a highly achieving adult, one who will subordinate all other drives and desires to the acquisition of brand-name goods. He will work three jobs, if necessary, to purchase the latest model automobile, equipped with all the premium features--such a goal, in any event, will encouragingly overshadow romance or idealism. If the subject is properly steered, he will actually work three jobs to achieve his goals. The danger remains that he may choose to rob service stations instead. The subject should therefore be closely and carefully tracked, but for now we do not recommend deportation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rod and Custom

After I wrecked the gull-wing Porsche I acquired an Aston Martin--James Bond model, of course--then a Lotus when my Jim Clark fixation got into full gear. I never could afford the Isotta-Fraschini I truly coveted, but for daily use I could choose among a dandy Rover (right-hand steering, which could get a little tricky), a venturesome little Karmann Ghia, and a Citroen DS diverted from the French government fleet. Then, abruptly, I deaccessioned all my European automobiles and poured every cent and every ounce of energy into hot rods. I had the bucket "T", the chopped and channeled 1940 Plymouth, the fully blown 426 Barracuda. I had been content to let professionals maintain the factory specifications on my continental cars, but with these American babies I really worked. I spent all night cutting, sanding, drilling, welding, mounting, painting, waxing. My cars--and my planes, too, for that matter, but that's another subject--were the envy of the neighborhood. I traded one to a neighbor for a nearly complete set of Hardy Boys books, and another for the collection of arrowheads some kid was left by his grandfather. I still have those.

Then, when I was 14, I went off to New York City, and rarely thought about cars again. For a decade and a half I hardly so much as rode in an automobile. I didn't get my license until I was 30, and was well over 40 by the time I did any sort of regular driving. Now I drive all the time--I have no choice--but it's been all Toyotas and Subarus, the sexless shelf models, reliable as canned sardines. I don't have so much as a single battered Camaro on my résumé. I'm bitterly disappointed in my adult self. Yet at the same time I wouldn't be at all unhappy if cars disappeared from the face of the earth, as long as there were trains and trolleys to replace them. Cars were fun when there weren't so many of them on the road (and, it must be said, when gas cost 50 cents a gallon or thereabouts). Nowadays I think my car is useful and unobtrusive, and consider that I'm a fine driver--it's all those other cars that are the plague. But then I realize that every one of those other drivers is having the same thought.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Aside from brandy and cigars, no product on the market is packaged quite as traditionally as cigarette papers. Nearly every item on your grocer's shelf gets an image update every few years to make sure it passes the nowness scan the shopper's eye performs as it scrolls down the aisle. The rolling-paper package, however, like its fellows, presumably appeals to aged gentlemen who consume those items at their club while leafing through bound volumes of Punch, and remain faithful to the brands favored by their grandfathers; they care that their brand won the gold medal at Saragossa in 1908. Okay, but really--haven't those old gentlemen already gone to the glue factory, and aren't rolling papers mostly consumed by stoners, backpackers, squatters, Deadheads? I guess we can assume that a polite fiction is at play, the manufacturers of cigarette papers pretending that their product isn't really employed as accessory to what some people might consider a crime. Meanwhile, potheads can spend hours in happy contemplation of the complex patterns and inscrutable imagery on the packages.

I had never seen the Ottoman package until I spotted it recently at a Turkish import store in Berlin; it became an instant favorite. More than any other design I can think of at the moment, it succeeds in activating the wayback machine: looking simultaneously venerable and startlingly new, it manages to replicate permanently the effect that its modernism must have had a century ago, its modern-style curlicues blending in with Victoriana to a degree, but in their asymmetry preparing the eye for the shouting Broadwayism of the logo. More than any other brand, Ottoman has suffered no updating of any sort. Its boast of excellence, within, is printed in four languages: Arabic, French, Greek, and what appears to be Amharic. The only change is that, although "Constantinople" is printed in Roman and Greek characters along the edge and "Stamboul" appears in the inside flap, the papers are now made in Italy.

Abadies, with their imperial arms and fly device, were so much the most elegant of the brands that I, for one, manfully struggled with them for years even though their adhesiveness left something to be desired. Like the famous Zouave on the Zig-Zag package, the trappings of the Abadie pack seem to hark back to the reign of Napoleon III. Today, as shown, the import version is marred by a textual addition in a drastically ill-judged typeface and size. Most American vipers had no idea what that central word meant; as a result it became a kind of stoner invocation: "Riz, man..."

Riz La Croix, on the other hand, just became "Rizlas" in America. If you tried to buy them in France, though, you'd have to respect the quasi-rebus and ask for "ree lah crwah." The ravages of globalism are demonstrated in this pack, made for sale in France: the gap between the "z" and the "l," formerly distinct in the European version, has been closed up. The packaging has been updated in other ways, too. Those fine white lines, not unpleasant although they nearly obscure the escutcheon, weren't there before. On the back, the phrase "Rolling Since 1796" appears, in English, a nod to the international confraternity of hacky-sack players.

Finally, from the archives come the Spanish-made Blanco y Negros, a package from circa 1980 that may or may not have changed since, although I would suspect some more racially sensitive adaptation must have taken place. These fall into a different category, since they proclaim not long and immovable tradition but modernity, circa 1923. They perhaps meant to encourage subsistence farmers in Extremadura to imagine themselves reveling in the sensual delights of Harlem skyscraper speakeasies every time they rolled up a gasper. They didn't change for at least sixty years for the same reason that innocent but eager Euros perpetuated the misconceived idea of Dixieland jazz well within living memory, in thrall to a confusion of exotica and modernismo as firmly rooted in the European mythosphere as Karl May's idea of the American West. As with all these papers, whatever was being smoked in them, the packaging itself sold the consumer a viper's dream of otherness and elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Horror Vacui

In this picture you see me, fleeing from my home of seven years. It was in fact a farmhouse, although its grounds had long ceased being a farm. It was a nice house, and beautifully situated. The view from the back--meadows tumbling toward a pond with a ridge behind, the valley angled to the right giving an impression of sumptuous depth--made visitors exclaim. An allee of ancient maples guarded the long driveway. The house had been built in 1904 as a folk-art approximation of the Second Empire style. The barn--rescued from collapse at no small cost--had been made in the nineteenth century from parts of even older structures. There was a peach tree, and the remains of an orchard, and a chicken coop, and a shed that was being slowly squeezed to death between two trees. Every spring the farm dump would cough up a few more things--glass pill bottles, pot lids, patterned china fragments--that weather had made to rise from their graves.

I lived there, as I said, for seven years, and before that I lived in another rural setting for halves of five years. But eventually I couldn't go on. Other circumstances played their part, of course, but to some degree I was fleeing country living itself. I've always been a city-dweller. I was born in a city, fled the suburbs for the city as early in life as was feasible, lived in New York City for 28 years. I never had any intentions of living anywhere but a city, but I was lured to the country by promises of interior space--an effective draw after so many decades of constriction. Summers in the country were pleasant, and with the city to go back to when the weather turned rotten, the country was enticing. I was living in a pretty wild area then, and could walk for hours in a straight line and not see anything manmade but stone walls and deer platforms. Or I could drive and try to get myself lost, winding down roads that you could easily pretend had not been visited by the twentieth century.

When circumstances dictated moving to the country full-time, however, that specific country had a suburban aspect--the previous location necessitated a full hour drive to get to a decent supermarket. In this version of country, everything was a memorial to its former identity--former farms, former haylofts, former roadhouses, former depots, all engaged in more self-conscious, college-graduate sorts of activities. I could still have managed, if I had possessed much of a feeling for nature. Because nature hung around, magnificently sometimes: coyotes, bald eagles, owls, foxes, bears, the occasional unverifiable mountain lion. And nature asserted itself as weather on a very regular basis. And that is where I failed, ultimately. Every winter was the end of the world. It was the end of life, everything skeletal and drained of color. Yes, I did know better. That's why I say that I failed it, not the other way around. Now I'm in a town, which is a sort of halfway house, a sort of airlock on the way back to urban life. I've got a tree--two trees, actually--but I'm steps away from neon, and things that are open 24 hours, and people having arguments on the street. I couldn't live in Eden. I'm a citizen of the fallen world.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Appeal to Reason

What caused me to pick this item out of the trash heap was not its title--there are better editions of DeQuincey's book out there (if none so pocket-sized)--but its publisher. Appeal to Reason was America's leading Socialist weekly between its founding in 1897 and its demise in 1922. Yes, its offices were in Kansas. At its height it had a circulation of 760,000. Its contributors included Jack London, Mother Jones, Upton Sinclair, Joe Hill, Helen Keller, and Eugene Debs. Its editor commissioned Sinclair to write The Jungle. At the same time, its offices were regularly broken into and its editors subject to smear campaigns and arrests on trumped-up charges. Its founding editor committed suicide under the strain. His son, who inherited the paper, diluted its radical spirit considerably--he caved in to the government and endorsed the nation's entry into World War I, for example. The Red Scare eventually put the paper out of its misery.
One of the Appeal to Reason's most striking sidelines was its People's Pocket Series, a series of 3 1/2" x 5" paperbacks that sold for 25 cents apiece--five for a dollar. The back and inside covers of this one list 131 different titles (you can tell it dates from near the end, since the list includes both Adult Education in Russia by Mme. Lenine [sic] and War Speeches and Messages of Woodrow Wilson). The series included books on evolution and birth control, on hypnotism and home nursing; Marx, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Thomas Paine, Boccaccio, Tolstoy, Whitman, Lincoln, Kropotkin, Zola. It was large-spirited enough to contain titles by both Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, both Robert Ingersoll and Pope Leo XIII. A banker brought in as an investor during the paper's last years continued the series after its demise, as Haldeman-Julius's Little Blue Books. These were massively influential, to judge by how often they are invoked in the early chapters of at least two generations of autobiographies.

We all know what happened to Socialism, unfortunately. What I'd like to know is: What happened to continuing self-education? These books were read by teamsters and machinists and stevedores and farmhands and miners. They read them not because they thought the books could help them get a better job but because they were curious. They were hungry--they wanted to consume the world. This isn't to say that every hod-carrier in Michigan in 1910 was reading them, but enough were to make the series continually expand. And none of it was fluff, or merely mercenary, or simple-minded propaganda. How many people--with considerably longer formal educations and a larger fund of leisure time--read anything like that sort of thing today, for fun? How many people assume without thinking about it that reading is and has always been a pursuit strictly for the privileged? Would it be too much to consider a connection between the rightward shift in politics and the decline of self-motivated learning?