Archive for the ‘Whither America?’ Category

2017 Photographs: At the Phillips Collection

Monday, January 1st, 2018

Over the days ahead I want to post a handful of photographs from 2017 I’m especially happy with.

This first one was taken on the afternoon of January 6, 2017, at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, during the exhibition, “People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series



The central painting on the wall, in front of which a trio of kids have stopped to look and discuss, is Panel no. 58 out of a total of 60 panels in the complete Migration Series. Lawrence’s caption to it is: “In the North the African American had more educational opportunities.”


Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series, Panel no. 58, 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy


Nature and Protest in America

Sunday, November 13th, 2016


Washington DC, Glover-Archbold Park, Friday, November 11, 2016 at 2:42 and 2:46 pm.

Washington, DC, Glover-Archbold Park, Friday, Nov. 11, 2016 at 2:42 p,.

Washington, DC, Glover-Archbold Park, 11/11/2016, 4:26 pm.

New York City, Fifth Ave. at 30th St., Saturday, November 12, 2016 at 2:16 pm.

NYC, Fifth Ave. at 30th St., 11/12/2016 at 2:16 pm,.

NYC, Fifth Ave. at 30th St., 11/12/2016 at 2:16 pm,.

NYC, Fifth Ave. at 30th St., 11/12/2016 at 2:16 pm,.


The tremendous strength of America

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

A personal essay by David Owen (“The Dime Store Floor”) graces the Jan. 25, 2010 edition of The New Yorker magazine. Throughout the piece Owen’s narrative is intermittently brilliant, as he riffs on a theme posed as a question: What did childhood smell like? I think Owen should try his hand at writing a novel. At one point he describes a recent bike ride near his home, as he came upon members of a girls’ high-school cross-country team running in tight formation:

“As I passed the girls I rode through the invisible trailing cloud of their mingled shampoo fragrances, and suddenly I felt a sort of dumbbell patriotism. My thought was something like this: This is the tremendous strength of America — our vigorous, optimistic young people and their clean, clean hair.”

Dumbbell patriotism. I like that formulation. As an expression of aw-shucks awe at this, our country, and what this country hosts, it captures what I feel each time I come across some vibrant display of the nation’s life-blood.

I’m especially moved to thanks-giving by instances of everyday, nonchalant tolerance. In concept America is defined by freedom and diversity of thought in the public sphere. Happily, there are still a visible examples of that in practice. Consider the advertisement I spotted this week on the rear end of a public bus chugging along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.



British novelist Ian McEwan, in conversation with Richard Dawkins, is less sanguine about the durability of America’s greatness in this regard. Video here. Dawkins mentions what he sees as an America “rapidly degenerating into a theocracy.” McEwan agrees, and says this development is “one of the most extraordinary reversals in history, isn’t it? You have this extraordinary social experiment: America, an immigrant state, founded in reaction to the religious absolutisms of Old Europe. And then, fast-forward a couple of hundred years, you have at least in Western Europe, more or less entirely, a set of secular governments, and political conversations conducted without any reference to God, while the United States is a place where you cannot hold high office without invoking this Deity.”


Stuyvesant Van Veen

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

First of all, what a great name.  He could be a character in a novel by Thomas Pynchon or T. Coraghessan Boyle. But instead Stuyvesant Van Veen (1910-1988) is the name of  a vital American artist of social conscience, and one who deserves greater attention. A painter, muralist, satirist, and illustrator, he employed his well-honed graphic talents most powerfully during the 1930s.

Searching Google uncovers only bits and pieces of his legacy: a cursory NY Times obit found here; his 1932 depiction of the folly of war here; a 1937 photo of Van Veen working on a U.S. Courthouse mural in Pittsburgh here; a profile of his work during World War II (Van Veen served as Sgt. in the Army) creating a mural at what is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, here (second photo of 24).

Recently I won an eBay auction of a drawing Van Veen created in 1937 for publication in the radical monthly, The New Masses. (I was the only bidder.)  The image of looming military threat — literally from over the horizon — was common in political cartoons of that era:




Now comes the fun part — researching the history and meaning of the piece. I’ve got to find a set of New Masses from 1937 to see if in fact the drawing was reproduced there. Was it used to illustrate an article?  On what subject?  What’s the meaning of the title, “Silk Stockings are Bayonets”? Does the image depict a specific episode of fascist aggression — somewhere in Europe or Asia?  Why did Van Veen make the drawing so large (it’s 29 x 20 inches)? Was that the standard size New Masses required its illustrators to submit for purposes of reproduction? Or did Van Veen intend the drawing for public display separate and apart from its magazine appearance?

I will update this post when answers are found.

UPDATE (09-26-2010). Adam McIntosh posted a comment explaining the title and historical context: “The title “Silk Stockings are Bayonets” is a reference to the fact that the silk used in the making of stockings in the 1930s was imported from Japan. Thus implying the buying of silk stockings was funding the Japanese war of aggression in China. Besides the title, if you look at the soldier, despite the dehumanizing vagueness of the depiction, his gear, especially the helmet, is unmistakably that of the Imperial Japanese Army.”  My thanks go to Mr. McIntosh. With his information about the Second Sino-Japanese War that broke out in 1937, and with a little help from Google, I found a photograph in which”New York ladies parade with non-silk stockings to support the boycott on Japanese goods”:



Metaphorically speaking, America is . . .

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Are you looking forward to the onslaught of articles and books announcing that “America Is A Sinking Ship [or other metaphor of bloat and decline]” ?  

On Saturday the theme popped up in The Times (U.K), where British columnist Matthew Parris wrote that Barack Obama will be the first President to manage an empire in decline.  Emblematic of the decline, in Mr. Parris’ view, is the sorry condition of Detroit automakers. While most observers point to the Big Three’s recent mistakes, Parris claims the problem dates back to over half a century ago:

As a keen amateur car mechanic I have, since the age of 16, been puzzled by something about America. Here was a nation crazy about automobiles and held out to me as the last word in modernity, innovation, capitalist dynamism and go-ahead technology in all that it did. But its cars weren’t any good. I say “weren’t” – we’re talking 1965 here – because some commentary about the current woes of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler has suggested that it is in recent years that the US automotive industry has slipped behind; and it’s certainly only quite recently that they’ve started losing a lot of money.

But the product, though always flashy, has been technologically inferior since the end of Second World War. While European carmakers were pioneering front-wheel drive, independent suspension, small diesel engines and efficient automatic gearboxes, the Americans kept churning out big, thirsty, fast-rusting, primitively engineered behemoths. Partly this was because fuel was cheap, but the oversprung American limo, loose-handling and imprecise, was always a pig to drive, too. At root the problem was lack of competition.

Yes, lack of competition allowed the problem to fester, but also to blame is a consuming public who accepted flash and preferred big over small.   I remember, during the sixties and seventies, how Detroit responsibly, if grudgingly, introduced a batch of compact car designs, but buyers treated each new model as a child they couldn’t wait to fatten up.  After the first year’s introduction as a genuine small and relatively efficient vehicle, the car would grow in length, breadth and weight, and most importantly in strength (greater horse power!).  A good example is the Chevy Nova.  And talk about fast-rusting: my brother’s Nova rusted so thoroughly you could see the road beneath your driving feet. 

Creeping giganticism is characteristic of our national culture.  We see it in carsMcMansions, language (the neologism “ginormous” is now in the Meriam-Webster dictionary), our bodies and body parts.  Is there any wonder why American kids have an enduring love of T-Rex and her pals?  

All of which leads to the question, so is America a Giganotosaurus?

No, I’m not ready to embrace the coming doom and gloom scenarios.  I would rather steer the subject back home, and note that it is a shame book titles are not copyrightable, because I’d like to lay claim to this one:

“America and the Failure of Undercoating.”