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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Since I last posted an entry in this column, a lot has been going on, both on the national scene, in the international sphere, and (for that matter) a certain amount in the world of art. But I too have also been awfully busy with a new job for the U.S.Census Bureau.

The job last summer was the national Decennial Census, where we tried to count every man, woman and child in the country, in order to determine how many Representatives each of the U.S. states would get to send to Congress in Washington. This new job is also being done by the U.S. Census Bureau, since it is the nation’s largest & (we like to think) best team of bean counters, but it is being done for the City of New York. Instead of short questionnaires for everybody, it is longer questionnaires for only a sampling of the population of New York. The study is being done to give the city a portrait of the quantity and quality of its housing supply, which it needs in order to formulate policy in a number of areas. I won’t bore my readers with any more details, just say that at the moment (and for the past 7 weeks) it has been consuming my time and energy, making it impossible for me to focus on "From the Mayor’s Doorstep." But here at least are a few reports on what’s been going on.


Until the earthquake, tsunami & nuclear meltdown in Japan swept everything else off front pages, the headlines for the past couple of months or so had dealt with the series of rebellions and revolutions in the Moslem world. Now, the focus has shifted again to Libya, where I am worried by the amount of involvement that the U.S. is getting itself into. We should remember that revolutions, like measles, can be contagious.

Western Europe learned this in 1848, when a revolution in France in February unseated the Orleans monarchy, and led to the founding of the Second Republic. In March, Hungary, led by Lajos Kossuth, rebelled against its Austrian rulers, the Hapsburg monarchy, and its conservative minister, Prince Klemens von Metternich. Their spirit sparked further uprisings in Prague and Vienna itself, forcing Metternich to flee. Meanwhile, a series of uprisings shook the German Confederation, whose 39 member states were largely ruled by equally conservative princelings, and rebellions also rose up against the Austrians who controlled the northern part of what is today Italy (not as yet united into one country, but like Germany composed of many separate states). Just in time for all this fervor, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto,” which called (among other things) for a graduated income tax, the end of child labor in the factories, and free education for all children in public schools. The more widely voiced slogans of other revolutionaries were nationalism, democracy, and liberalism, but the revolutionaries themselves were disorganized and unable to realize their goals at that moment.

Within three years, the rebellions had been crushed and/or superceded by governments as repressive as the ones that had been upended. Still, things were never quite the same again, and over the long run, many of the revolutionaries’ goals would be realized. Hungary almost immediately achieved a greater measure of self-government within the Hapsburg empire, and many distinguished German revolutionaries would emigrate to the U.S., most notably Carl Schurz, who would become the first U.S. senator from a German background and Secretary of the Interior, as well as having a New York City park named after him just across the street from where From the Mayor’s Doorstep was born.

Eastern Europe and most of Asia learned how contagious revolution can be toward the end of the 20th century. In the wake of the demise of communism in 1989, the Soviet Union broke up into a series of successor states, bloodless revolutions replaced communist governments with non-communist ones throughout Eastern Europe, East and West Germany united, and China speedily began abandoning Marxist dogma for a market economy.

Now it is the turn of the Moslem world, or at least a sizeable segment of it, where the wave of revolutionary unrest and the unseating of dictators makes one think (in somewhat rude and unfeeling terms) of one of those old-fashioned tourist trips through Europe–you know, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Tunisia. Wednesday, and we’re in Egypt. Thursday and Friday, we must be looking at Yemen and Bahrain, and over the weekend, we’re confronted by bloodshed in Libya.” It’s too early to tell how much farther this wave will go, and where it will all end, though economically the area may not be all that different from Europe in 1848, when students and workers led the revolutions there (as young people are currently leading them in the Middle East).

Lacking a sizeable enough & stable enough middle class, the European revolutionaries in 1848 were unable to establish workable democracies, and this may be the same story in Tunisia, Egypt, etc., though of course I hope not. My foremost thought, as I look at the headlines, and try to make sense of it all, is, “Why is it that the less vicious dictators, like Hosni Mubarak, are the ones who obey foreign injunctions not to treat the demonstrators too roughly and are therefore forced out, while the real stinkers, like Muammar el-Qaddafi, who play rough and murder the insurgents, are the ones who have (so far) managed to stay in power?” Quite aside from the fact that we are already spending far more for “defense” than we can afford, I don’t think it would solve any problems by sending U.S. forces in. On the contrary, it would merely make Qaddafi into a hero in other Moslem eyes, for withstanding Yankee imperialists, and might even prompt other Moslem governments to spring to his defense.


...we are confronted by state and national governments that were lawfully elected in November, and now want to deliver on their campaign promises to cut government spending and create jobs. So far, all they are succeeding in doing is trying to cut government spending by laying off workers, which is not exactly creating jobs. Their defense seems to be that without all this government spending, the private sector will spring into action and create jobs, but actually this is already beginning to happen, even though few of the proposed job-slashing programs have gone into effect.

On March 5, the New York Times (and I would imagine many other papers throughout the country) headlined the fact that in February, the nation added 192,000 jobs, a big jump from the 63,000 added in January. The unemployment rate ticked down to 8.9 percent. This is the first time it’s been below 9 percent in nearly two years, though it could go up in the spring again, as it only counts workers who are unemployed & actively looking for jobs, and as the overall market for jobs improves, more unemployed people who have been too discouraged to look for jobs may get out & start job-hunting again. The number of jobs added is based upon a survey of employers, while the unemployment rate comes from surveying workers, so they don’t necessarily jibe with each other, but this time around, they seem to agree.

I find some of the ways in which our fiscal wolf-hounds are trying to cut government spending deeply depressing. In many states, such as Wisconsin, they are trying to break the unions representing government employees, and, although it may be that these unions have managed to keep their members from suffering the same financial cutbacks that employees in the private sector have been suffering, the legislatures attacking them want to go further than limiting their members’ pay. They are also seeking to destroy the unions’ power to negotiate any other non-monetary benefits for their members, such as clauses protecting union workers from dangerous working conditions.
In other words, this is about a lot more than fiscal responsibility; it is about emasculating the unions entirely.

Back in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and even 70s, the bulk of union membership was in manufacturing, but with the outsourcing to foreign workers & the rise of automation, the manufacturing segment declined in membership. The AFL-CIO thereupon turned their recruitment efforts towards the government sector, and has been so successful that today a huge proportion of its membership is in that sector. These anti-union policies in the state legislatures are therefore directed at destroying organized labor entirely, and for good reason: unions get out the vote, which is largely Democratic, and, since these are also the less affluent & educated classes in society, it is a class that on the whole is less likely to vote without being prompted. The percentage of people who vote – especially in off-years — is always highest among the most-educated & best-paid members of the electorate, and of course the people who want to cut government spending are in general the ones who don’t need the services government has to offer.

The programs that the right-wing leadership in Washington is seeking to cut in the Federal budget are similar in their orientation. There is, for example, a campaign to cut back funding for Head Start, an educational program for children from disadvantaged backgrounds created in the Lyndon Johnson era, with its "Great Society." Head Start was (and is) intended as a leveler, so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds could (and can) enter school with the same chance of succeeding that children from advantaged backgrounds have—which is to say, the advantage that any child who comes from an educated background already has, of having heard the English language spoken (and written) correctly from the moment s/he was old enough to begin to learn it.

Another program that the fiscal conservatives want to cut out entirely is funding to Title X, which, as described in a New York Times editorial for February 26, is a federal “family planning program for low-income women that promotes birth control, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and testing for H. I V. and other sexually transmitted diseases. In the absence of Title X’s preventive care, some women would die. The Guttmacher Institute, a leading authority on reproductive health, says a rise in unintended pregnancies would result in some 400,000 more abortions a year.” Among other proposed cuts, cited in a Times editorial for February 27, that would impact upon the less fortunate are cuts in the Pell Grants for college education (to be cut by $6 billion). Home owners facing foreclosures and other Americans facing legal problems would be hurt by a $70 million cut to legal aid. (Rich people can afford lawyers, of course)

Speaking as an elderly person with limited funds available for entertainment & sick to death of TV commercials, I am also irked by the fact that the fiscal conservatives want to kill off funding to PBS and NPR, both of which cost the government only pittances, although they do make information available that you will never find on Fox News. Other targets include the NEA and the NEH. Speaking as an art person & a scholar, I think it would be too bad to put these bodies out of of business, even if most of the art & scholarship funded is too politically correct to be genuinely creative.

We are hearing little if indeed anything about cutting funding from the really massive programs that are eating up most government dollars: Medicare, Social Security and defense. That is because the first two have massive voter support, and the third, massive lobbyist support. I myself am an interested party in Medicare & Social Security expenditures, and I need every penny that I get or save from both, but I think it wouldn’t kill anybody to raise the age at which people were entitled to these programs by a year or so, and I think the F. I. C..A. tax could raise more money from people still in the work force, by increasing the maximum beyond which income is not taxable (though of course this would mean that the extremely rich had to pay more, and Republican don't like to consider that possibility). Somebody (I forget who) once told me that Social Security begins at 65 because this was the age used in the first social security program, which is to say the one introduced by Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Germany, in 1889, and that at that time practically nobody lived to the age of 65. Upon re-checking this in google, I find that Bismarck’s program originally specified that social security (and government-financed medical coverage) began at age 70, and that in Germany the age was reduced to 65 in 1916. Whatever the specifics, the point is still valid: that the U .S. based its Social Security program in the 1930s on the German model, and that even in the 1930s life expectancy was a lot shorter than it is now. There are plenty of people quitting work at 65 today who look and feel years younger than their mothers & fathers did at the same age, and could easily keep on working a few years more.

But the real big savesy could be in defense, if a) we could stop deluding ourselves that we are meant to be the world’s policeman and get the hell out of Afghanistan & wherever else we have troops, and b) if we could look very seriously at what our armaments are costing us & how necessary all of them are.


Not all the big shows are in the Big Apple. On February 12, I attended the opening of “Four Artists, Two Phases: Edward Avedisian, Randy Bloom, David Crum, Clark Murray” at the Tremaine Gallery at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT (closed March 4). This show was organized by Katherine B. Crum, president of the Art Museum Partnership, formerly director or curator at such museums as the Parrish in Southampton and the Mills College art museum, and not so incidentally Mrs. David Crum (though her husband fully justifies his inclusion in this exhibition by his talent).

The idea here was to juxtapose earlier & later work by four established painters from Dutchess & Columbia counties. Three (Avedisian, Crum & Murray) began their careers in the ‘60s, while the fourth (Bloom) began exhibiting in the late 70s. Both Murray and Avedisian were abstract in the ‘60s, then more recently turned figurative, while David Crum & Bloom have been abstract all the way. The gallery is a large, square space and each artist got a wall, to create a most harmonious and well-balanced show.

Bloom’s earlier painting, an untitled work from 1993, was an interesting crisscross of dots, short brush strokes & thickets of brush marks, but I liked most of her more recent work better, especially “In the Bedroom” (2010). Its configuration of four vertical rectangles on a provocatively textural tangerine field strongly resembled the painting that she exhibited at the Sideshow Gallery exhibition, and that I discussed in an earlier blog. Avedisian’s most delightful early painting was a small, untitled watercolor from 1965 with orange and yellow ball on a dusty rose field, though I also liked his semi-abstract “Berkshire Beaver Dam” (2000).

Clark Murray back in the ‘60s seems to have been a resolute minimalist, as was demonstrated by his powerful untitled, all-black shaped painting from 1967, made of lacquer on steel. Among his recent work, I was most taken by his small sculptures, especially “Burkha Lady III” (2010). Made of wood, cloth and microcrystal wax, it contrived to convey associations with both a lady and a toadstool, true multireferential work. David Crum showed one abstraction from 1991, “Sober Sides.” I found it engrossing, with its 3 large, oddly-shaped quadrangles & its palette of gray, soft red, purplish blue & off-white. His other three paintings (all 2010) were in his current mode of pourings radiating up and down from a central band of color, again resembling his work in the Sideshow exhibition (discussed very briefly earlier). The largest, “Oblong River,” was very impressive, but I somehow went for the smaller but more vigorously contrasted “Aubergine” (named for its dominant eggplant purple).


On March 1, I sallied forth to savor the myriad culinary delights promised by Bernard Jacobson, at the opening of his new gallery in Manhattan, at 17 East 71st Street (3rd Floor). I found it a most attractive, intimate space, ideal for showing kinds of art that would fit into almost any collection. A distinguished group of artists, scholars, friends and family had gathered to welcome this relative newcomer to our shores, who has staged so many memorable exhibitions of American art in his London headquarters. The exhibition promised at 71st Street was “Sixty Years of British Art,” with a list of 26 artists to be included, ranging from < b>Ivor Abrahams to Mark Vaux, but when I arrived, only a smattering of art by Brits was on view (work by William Tillyer and Jason Martin). Mr. Jacobson explained that the rest of the exhibition had gotten held up in customs and wouldn’t be on view until the morrow. Not to worry – he had managed to cover his walls with much other very beautiful work, in particular a small but entrancing ceramic tile by Helen Frankenthaler and a large, very impressive & simple charcoal on paper by Motherwell, in a big gold frame. With art by those two on display, I had no complaints, though of course I want to go back & see the Brits another day.
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