Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Occupy Wall Street

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

January 5, 2012
Okay, I’m back, after a couple of weeks of luxuriating in unprecedented SoCal warmth, house-sitting at friends’ Spanish villa in Altadena, commuting to kundalini yoga classes every day at Golden Bridge in Hollywood, hanging out with family—and taking a necessary break from thinking.

But then my friend, Larry, and I got to talking about music, as we have over the years, and I was surprised to hear him say that music is in a lull, and there’s been nothing new since Radiohead. Really? Meanwhile I’m finding that there are so many new and interesting sounds out there I can hardly keep track of them.  I love that I can stream KCRW’s Eclectic 24 all day long and enjoy almost everything (except Tom Waits; what do people see in him?). I’m always writing down the names of bands I’m going to explore in more depth on Spotify, but I never get around to it because the next day there’s a whole new list.

Larry put forth his theory “that the generation associated with 9/11 are a little traumatized and didn't invent very much (now they are 28 to 36-year-olds)” and hopes the "occupy generation will come up with something provocative and new.”

Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire are pretty exciting to my ears, but Larry doesn’t like them. MGMT? He says they sound like the Stones, ca. 1979. Huh? They may have written a tribute to the Stones, but they also wrote one (their only annoying song) to Brian Eno. Far from being “stunned” their music is celebratory to the point that their last album is entitled, “Congratulations!” And what about Lady Gaga? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Larry referred to an article in the current Vanity Fair,You Say You Want a Devolution” by Kurt Anderson, whose thesis is that, “as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.”  To Kurt, cars look the same, clothes look the same, and music sounds the same as it did in 1992. (A similar argument is put forth in Simon Reynolds’ book, Retromania).

As far as cars go, it’s unfair to expect innovation from an industry that’s been simply struggling to stay alive. In fashion, even if the disappearance of showy designer labels were the only change, the world is better for it. I, for one, am delighted that leggings finally returned. We still wear jeans, but they’re tighter—a lot tighter. Along with being squished like sausages into their “jeggings,” women are teetering around on cartoon-like high heels (no one said we have to like what the younger generation is wearing, remember?) Oh, and how about this? More facial hair for men and less pubic hair for women (is there a connection? I’ll try not to make something of it). Then there’s the plaid fad, come and (hopefully) gone, and in footwear a proliferation of boots—high, higher, short, and (except for Uggs), pointy and pointier—flip-flops and (eek!) Crocs. In the past ten years waistbands dropped to the point of exposing the tops of thongs and worse, but have mercifully inched upward. We have global warming to thank for the fact that there’s a lot less clothing in general, and with so much more exposed skin, tattoos and piercing are now mainstream.

Regarding music, I put the question to son Matt, a culture critic by profession, who commented that just as it’s hard to buy a bad bottle of wine these days, music in general is of such high quality that the A bands might not stand out as much from the B bands as they once did. He reminded me of the junk music that proliferated on the airwaves in the 70’s—an entire genre of “soft rock” that is, thank God, pretty much done for. Larry is complaining about Bon Iver and The National, not Rod Stewart and Tom Jones—and even he will no doubt admit that teen throbs Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are more listenable than the Osmonds and the Carpenters ever were.

Lady Gaga is hardly “stunned,” nor is she simply a clone of Madonna (Anderson calls it an “Immaterial Difference,” which is cute but not accurate). In fact the very same issue of Vanity Fair has a cover story on Gaga with a pull quote that states, “As ‘Jo Calderone’ at the V.M.A.s, she instantly made every female star who had pink hair or wore a contraption on her head look dated.” Stuck in their need to make disparaging pronouncements about the younger generation (just like our parents!—it’s a stage of  human development that, while undocumented, is as predictable as the Terrible Twos) it’s possible that Boomers simply can’t see the distinctions. While the “provocative and new” characterized the revolutionary times we grew up in, they may not be the qualities this revolution requires. My theory (I’m at that age; we have to have them!) is that there’s a time for innovation and a time for development, and we’re in the latter stage—it’s just that our hunger for the new has kept us from exploring it.

Further, how actually “new” was our beloved rock ‘n roll? Someone old and hip in the 50s could have easily dismissed Elvis’s music as a fusion of existing music: rockabilly and R & B. What made it “provocative” was the fact that he was white. And the Stones and the Beatles would have been nowhere without Elvis—they could have been seen as clones in the beginning, when their provocativeness had more to do with being British with funny haircuts.

“Newness” in 50s and 60s may have been more about a culture gap, which is now closed.

In making his case for stasis, Anderson also notes that Frank Gehry was the major architectural influence in 2002 and still is in 2012. So what? We had Frank Lloyd Wright from 1895 to 1959 and we’re not finished with him yet.

Therefore, it may be that Occupy Wall Street, rather than copying, is building on the peace movements of the 60s, Gaga is building on the Madonna precedent as MGMT is building on a synthesis of the Stones, Eno, the Beatles, Bowie and Pink Floyd (to whom I think they owe the most) without sounding like any one of them….

Which brings us to contemporary art, which truly sucks (at least that in most museums and commercial galleries). Unlike architecture and music, it really is devolving. Instead of building on the old ideas, current art is getting watered down to the point that it has little pulse left, with artists reinventing the wheel left and right. I believe, however, that the cause is situational rather than generational. Where Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew Van Wyngarden of MGMT could sit in their Wesleyan University dorm rooms in the mid-00s, sharing the music they liked, listening to it over and over, picking it apart, their BFA counterparts were relegated to looking at projected images or reproductions in books or on the Web. How many had actually seen a Rauschenberg combine? And even if they did, what about the ones that came before and after it? How many art students now know that Eleanor Antin preceded Cindy Sherman, or that Lucas Samaras has already done everything they (the students) are trying to do? How many have experienced an actual installation by Olafur Eliasson or attended Marina Abramovic’s piece at MoMA or have seen Christian Marclay’s The Clock? That’s why museum retrospectives, like MoMA’s de Kooning show (closing 1/9) are so important, but becoming fewer and fewer as belts are being tightened; it’s so much less expensive to clear the Guggenheim for Tino Sehgal than it is to borrow, insure and ship invaluable works.

Former art movements evolved out of direct contact: social situations that built on other social situations, younger artists reacting—in person—to the artists and art of previous generations. Now they're responding to information rather than the immediate visual experience a true understanding of art requires. Also galleries and museums, by their very nature, cannot react to the times because they’re planning at least a year, if not years, in advance.

That’s why we shouldn’t be looking to galleries and museums for the new but to the streets. Street Art is currently the most exciting and relevant visual art because it’s generated in a social situation and must survive in the moment, which is unique to NOW. One example:

Meanwhile, if you want true inspiration in fashion, look to the kindergarten crowd, set free because liberal parents no longer feel the need to pick out their children's clothes—and unlike earlier generations, kids so far seem to have no desire to conform to any but their own sensibilities. I wish you could've seen the little girl at the airport in high, polka-dot rubber boots, shocking pink tutu, and long-sleeved striped T-shirt, her curly hair topped by a giant bow. And here’s my little friend, Lucinda, who, every time I see her, is wearing yet another imaginative combo. All is not lost.

*Thanks to Roberto Juarez and Nikolas Freberg for their input. 

December 3, 2011
It had to happen. Following the final performance of Satyagraha at the Met Thursday night, opera-goers found the story continuing in real life as police tried to shoo them away from the OWS gathering outside—which included the composer Philip Glass, who used OWS’s “human mic” technique to recite a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita. In true “minimalist” tradition (which means, counter-intuitively, that you say things more than once), Glass repeated it three times:

When righteousness

Withers away

And evil

Rules the Land

We come into being

Age after age

And take visible shape

And Move

A man among men

For the protection

Of good

Thrusting back evil

And setting virtue

On her seat again

I think we could make something of the fact that, along with Naomi Wolf’s arrest at OWS downtown, this story never made it to the New York Times, where both Glass and Wolf’s cultural contributions have been more than amply covered (including Wolf’s delightful dissertation on little girls’ obsession with princesses, published this weekend). I first learned about the Lincoln Center protest on the LA Times website (via Facebook, of course), and recommend this thoughtful coverage by Seth Colter Walls at The Awl
November 18, 2011
Moonset, Tulum, Mexico 11-12-11

I spent last week in the Yucatan, getting up before 4:00 a.m. practicing yoga, meditating and chanting in Sanskrit on the beach facing the rising sun—with the setting full moon behind us.

My return to New York felt like a continuation when, Tuesday evening, I saw Philip Glass’s opera, Satyagraha, at the Met, a meditative experience sung in Sanskrit. Instead of a story line, the opera consists of series of tableaus representing the movement Gandhi led in South Africa up until 1914—where, as Glass says in his notes, “Almost all the techniques of social and political protest that are now the common currency of contemporary life were invented and perfected.” The opera is an anti-drama: instead of building to a climax, the final act is gentle and quiet. featuring a transcendent solo by Richard Croft as Gandhi (this is the best example of his “Evening Song” I could find on the Web; I don’t know who’s singing it).

The irony was not lost on me that while non-violent protest was being celebrated in as august and mainstream an institution as the Metropolitan Opera, Mayor Bloomberg was preparing a vicious, military-style crackdown on the sleeping denizens of Occupy Wall Street. Interesting, too, that the opera’s staging made abundant use of projected text throughout, as the Occupy protestors did yesterday, on the Verizon monolith near their mammoth march on the Brooklyn Bridge (interview with the creator of the projections here).

Well the good news is that we can no longer continue to wage war against other countries since, in recent times, our excuse has been that we were liberating the masses from regimes that suppress human rights and free speech. If this were happening anywhere else, the righteous U.S. would be intervening. The question now: who’s going to step in and liberate us? Canada, perhaps?


Another OWS hero: retired Philadelphia police captain Ray Shaw, arrested in uniform. If you missed it, read the story here.
November 5, 2011
After only skimming the headlines for the last few years—everything was just too depressing—Occupy Wall Street has turned me into a news junkie, combing Facebook for links and breaking news and  posting them to my page. I’m inspired by the people who are willing to put themselves on the line for what they believe, and fascinated by how the news is handled, something that wasn't easy to evaluate before the internet.  So far, England’s Guardian (to which I subscribe online) has had the most timely, complete, and balanced coverage. For instance, last night a Guardian reporter on the scene broke the story that yet another Iraq veteran had been critically injured by Oakland police, this time wielding batons.  As of this afternoon, although it was in the Daily News, there was no mention of the incident in the New York Times, and Fox News quoted only police sources, which, as one can imagine, yielded sparse information. I’m also intrigued by the police actions and their possible motivations. While both Oakland raids (one to shut down the camp, the other to remove a crowd that had taken over an unused building) were clearly calculated in advance, many of the arrests and much of the brutality that’s occurred there and in other cities, including New York, seems to be spontaneous and personal in nature.


With this kind of police action I’ve had my own bizarre experience, in a situation that was neither ideologically nor racially motivated, and certainly never hit the news. The scene was a small art gallery (now it might be called a “pop-up”) on the Lower East Side circa 1988, where my friends, Karen and Julius, had an exhibition in a space their friend (I can’t remember his name, so will call him “Jim”) had rented. Recently Jim had broken up with his girl friend (I’ll call her “Kelly”), because of her drug use, but she kept hanging around. Unbeknownst to Jim, our softhearted friends had allowed her to spend the night in the storefront while they were installing the show.

Kelly was present at the opening, and by the end was out of control, screaming and banging on the floor with a beer bottle. Jim tried to get her to leave, but she didn’t seem to have any place to go on that frigid night when the temperature was below zero. In desperation Jim called the police twice, but no one came. Finally he called and said (in what everyone will agree was a stupid move, and in hindsight a REALLY stupid move) that a robbery was in progress.

Immediately two or three cop cars arrive, everyone is out the street, and Kelly is suddenly composed, quiet-spoken and polite. Jim tries to explain but no one’s listening. Finally Julius, eager to make things clear, gently taps a cop’s arm to get his attention—and all hell breaks loose as the cops grab and handcuff Julius, Jim and anyone else within reach, throw them roughly into their vehicles, and drive off.

[Shoved in with them was a lovely, young visiting artist from Germany who barely spoke English. I never learned what happened to her. Or Kelly.]

Left on the sidewalk, Karen is surprisingly calm but shortly realizes that Julius has their house keys, so my boy friend, Jeff, and I drive her to the police station and wait outside.  When, after a long while, she doesn’t appear, Jeff goes in to investigate. Coming back to the car, he tells me she’s been arrested.

Karen's story was that she went to the magistrate to ask for the keys, and was ordered to leave. She thought he didn’t understand so went back (obviously we were all operating from an impression of the police derived from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood). That’s when she was tackled by cops who dragged her by her feet (she was wearing a short skirt) to a cell. In the scuffle she reached out and grabbed a pay phone receiver, breaking her arm, and also had a hank of hair pulled from her head. At the time Karen was 30-ish, tall and slender; I’d be surprised if she weighed more than 108 pounds.

For the next two days we sat vigil in the court, waiting for our friends’ cases to come up, listening to cops and criminals make their pleas, and becoming marginalized. Before we would have been rooting for the cops, but now our sympathies were with the other side. (Kid knocks over old lady and steals her purse? Woo-hoo!).

Today someone who’s been apprehended must be brought before a judge within 72 hours or released, but back then, apparently, stays could be infinite. Fortunately Jim’s mother finally had the sense (and the means) to hire a lawyer from the many who were hanging around the court, and immediately our friends were brought up, charged, and released. Karen had been kept in a single cell with other women, many of them prostitutes who turned their fur coats inside out and slept on the floor. There was an exposed toilet, but Karen thinks no one had to use it because the baloney sandwiches on white bread they got three times a day stopped them up. While in jail Karen was told that if she were sent to a hospital it would delay everyone else’s chances of release, so her arm didn’t get treatment until afterward. I’m not sure if it ever healed properly, but I do know that for a long time it hampered her work as a seamstress.

Even though they were released, Julius and Karen wanted the charges against them dropped. I somehow was able to find them pro bono legal counsel and after many months, including a visit to our home by the police’s rigorous internal affairs investigator (who told Jeff and me he wrote detective novels on the side), we all met in police court. My testimony at that trial was the hardest bit of public speaking I’ve ever had to do. Ultimately the charges against both Julius and Karen were dropped, the cops were disciplined (the one who'd pulled out her hair was a woman), and Karen was awarded $30,000.

I don’t know about Karen, but for many years after that, whenever I saw a cop, I’d cross to the other side of the street.


For a surprising (or, sadly, not surprising) addendum, I found these recent “reviews” on Google Maps for the Avenue C police station:
SinthiaV ‎- Aug 14, 2011:

According to a judge in a recent arraignment, these cops frequently arrest people on trumped up charges, which are later dropped for lack of evidence! The disposition says it never happened, but try telling that to your boss or family. This precinct treats the people they exist to protect and serve like irritating garbage. Can anyone out there relate a positive experience they have had trying to get help from the ninth? Once I was arrested trying to get them to enforce an order of protection, which the offender violated in front of several witnesses! All I did was ask them to write an incident report!! They also punched me in the face for trying to write down an officer's badge number. Be very careful dealing with this precinct, as they have a long history of mistreating people and abusing their power. To be honest, I am a bit frightened to be writing this, but they seem to dislike me already, so it seems worth the risk to warn a potential unsuspecting newbie who might expect a certain type of behavior from the police. Don't expect the norm. It seems a little like Wonderland sometimes in this precinct. The ninth plays by it's own rules and it's up to you to figure them out. Good luck.

dawn - Dec 11, 2010:

No one ever answers the phone in this precinct. Doesn't anyone work here?