speaking for our time

Last month, I celebrated the first year of marriage with my wife. We didn’t have a lot of money or time to plan a big getaway, so we borrowed a car and headed up to The Berkshires for an overnight stay in a Super 8 Motel. Not knowing the area, we hopped online to research what fun we might find. We discovered The Norman Rockwell Museum is in Stockbridge, MA just twenty minutes away from our motel. I was super excited at the chance to see the original paintings made famous by so many Saturday Evening Post covers.

“Coming and Going”

My wife was interested, but didn’t share my enthusiasm.

“We have to go!” I insisted.

She conceded, and we embarked upon what I can only describe as a magical afternoon.

It may seem odd that I was so insistent on visiting the museum, but Norman Rockwell is a childhood hero. My father owns Monical’s Pizza Place in Canton, IL, and when I was in junior high, my mother and he redecorated the small restaurant. They chose to cover one wall with Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post wallpaper. The pizza place was my second home, and that wall spurred me to learn about and fall in love with Norman Rockwell.

Typically, I’m not a nostalgic person. I don’t yearn for my youth. For some reason, though, Norman Rockwell turns me to a 14-year-old again. I look at his work with wonder. He had a way of capturing life that photographs don’t. Now, I was going to see his original paintings

If you look at his work, it’s not exact. Sure, the faces look almost like the photographs from which he worked, but he’s fabricated the scenarios. He was a storyteller; a curator of life, plucking people’s faces to put in his paintings and tell tales about certain times and places. Sometimes, they are iconic, like the family around the dinner table at Thanksgiving in Freedom from Want.

Other moments are highly political and charged with dissonance of the day, like The Problem We All Live With, depicting the real-life Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old African-American girl, walking to an all-white public school in New Orleans, LA on November 14, 1960. President Obama displayed it outside the Oval Office for the first three years of his presidency. That’s how important this painting is.

It all deeply impressed my wife. She’d always viewed Rockwell as an art director of magazine covers. A commercial artist who created hazy, iconic Americana. Certainly, at first glance, his oeuvre can feel like this, but the deeper you look, the clearer it becomes: He was a great artist who reflected the times in which he lived with immense passion.

Dario Fo, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997, said, “A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance.”

Norman Rockwell spoke for generations. His images still influence artists today. Just two weeks ago, The New Yorker riffed on The Tattoo Artist, a painting of a man receiving a tattoo where he’s crossed out his previous girlfriends and adds a new one. The satirical illustration, Skin Deep, is by Barry Blitt and featured Mitt Romney having old political positions that no longer suit his platform crossed out for new ones.

He also influences painters, like comic artist Alex Ross, who has his own exhibition “Heroes and Villains” at The Norman Rockwell Museum from now until February 24, 2013. To commemorate Rockwell, Ross painted a portrait of the master specifically for this exhibition. Unsurprisingly, he chose to portray Rockwell as an American hero, draped with an American flag.

“Norman Rockwell” by Alex Ross

Norman Rockwell’s attention to detail and subtle storytelling boldly spoke for his own time. That isn’t an easy to do. Often, I see young artists bent on portraying their own lives, which often leads to self-indulgent psychological work to which others cannot relate. As artists, we must seek truth in others and do our best to curate stories that change the way humanity sees itself. Through empathy, we can see others and, hopefully, make a better world.

All photos were taken by me on my iPhone, except for the Alex Ross image, which was found on his website: www.alexrossart.com

a note to president obama

You’ve been out of the country, Mr. President. There’s something happening here. We’re speaking clearly. Please, listen. It’s time you bring about that change you spoke of three years ago.

I still want to believe in you.

photo by Charles Dharapak / AP

Close up on photo by Charles Dharapak / AP

skeletons on the horizon

In 1999, I told a friend that the bottom would fall out of the New York housing market eventually. The friend laughed and said it would never happen because rich people have always moved to New York, and they will continue to do so, buying up or renting properties. When my friend laughed at me, almost ten years ago, I said, “Just you wait. Something that is beyond our imagination will happen, and the New York real estate market will drop.”

Since I moved to New York in 1993, I have not paid more than $850/month in rent. I’ve paid as low as $600/month, and one time I even lived in this city for free (four months on the Bedford L train stop in an illegal basement studio with cockroaches the size of my thumb). And in those 15 years, real estate has gone up, up, up. I’ve never owned a car, apartment or house. A long time ago, I resolved that I probably would never own any of those three possessions while residing in New York City, unless I struck it rich.

Now, in the wakes of the mortgage and economic crises, it has happened. The bubble burst, but I’m still broke. During a time in which the market is dipping its hardest in 60 years, I still don’t have any money. On the upside, the best part about not having any money in an economic downturn is that your life doesn’t really change that much. Others, I’ve seen, are not as lucky. My mother, who dreams of retiring early and moving to New York City to be near her two children and new grandson, now cannot fathom leaving her home in Illinois because she cannot retire due to the damage done to her retirement fund. Even Europeans are shying away from the new real estate, for the economic downturn hits them, too, in this global economy.

The condominiums being built in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I’ve held residency for ten years, have all but halted construction. As I sped along in a car on the BQE New Year’s Day, I looked at the lattice of would be condos and wondered what will happen to all of these buildings barley born. Do financiers have the money to finish the projects? What is happening to all the store fronts recently closed or going out of business? Will this city return to the shell it once was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, overrun by crack dens and squatters doped up on heroin? Hey, crack is cheap, and now that we’ve destabilized Afghanistan, smack is more plentiful that ever. It seems conditions might be perfect for a resurgence of the 80’s. If kids start killing kids for their Air Jordans, it’s over.

I trust this scenario isn’t probable, but a recent article in the New York Times and a report by the Associated Press indicate otherwise.

Much debate grows over the focus of how to create new jobs. President-elect Obama seems to be considering a new New Deal, which will provide jobs in construction in repair of interstate highways and bridges. This would be a good proposal, if the thousands of people being laid off were all in the construction business. However the fact is that unemployment in professional services outnumbered that of construction by almost 20,000 people in November of 2008.

We need to turn our focus to generating jobs in technology and other corporate infrastructure to get a large majority of the workforce off the unemployment line. “The Office” replaced “The Honeymooners” as a comedic reflection of the American lifestyle because there are fewer blue collar workers than there were 60 years ago. There are fewer farmers, too. Technology has taken over, and people who once would move to a different state to work construction on roads and bridges are not as prevalent.

President-elect Obama mentioned a “Technology Czar” (it seems as though we have czars for everything these days) as a possible addition to his administration, and I think this is a great idea. The only thing that seems to not be slowing is technology. More computer games, more social networking websites and more intensive business technologies are paving the way for a new perspective on what is important and how we can generate jobs to stimulate the economy. Plus, any new jobs that might be created in construction will take upwards of two years to even implement, so the only reason to work toward creating these jobs is to “promise” that the future will have more jobs. This will drive up stocks as it did with the promise of offshore drilling, which will take 10 years to implement. Building bridges and interstate highways are not an immediate fix to the current problem.

I’m hoping that the skeletons of metal and mortar rising in downtown Manhattan, Harlem and Williamsburg get completed. I never thought I’d say that, but I feel that when they’re completed, it’ll signify that our economy is on the upturn. I hope that the half-finished houses and empty lots across the country get filled up, for the farmland razed to make way for the pre-fabricated houses isn’t returning to farmland any time soon. I hope that we can generate technology based jobs, so the stock market and banks can see the unemployment rate dip down again, which will then give the capital to potential home owners who might purchase homes or condos. Then domestic construction jobs will return.

In the mean time, I’m hoping I sell a screenplay or win the lottery. If I can do that in the next year or so, I might be able to purchase some real estate. Quite frankly, if that happened, I wouldn’t purchase one of those glass monstrosities. I’m looking for a pre-war, classic New York apartment in a co-op building because the condo laws in New York City stink.

______________

As a side note to all of this mumbo jumbo, I saw Danny Hoch’s TAKING OVER at The Public Theater just before the New Year. It’s a thoughtful and angry meditation (if mediation can be angry) on the gentrification of Williamsburg. My white guilt rose into my throat, and I came out of the show wondering if I were part of the problem. After all, I am a transplanted Illinoisan living in a neighborhood that was once filled with Hasidic Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Poles and African Americans. When I first moved here, I raved about how I lived in the most diversified neighborhood ever. These days, most of the people getting off at my subway stop are of the Caucasian persuasion, and I am one of the few tenants on my street who still has a Puerto Rican landlord.

Finally, after much soul-searching (thanks Danny), I realized something: I’m an artist, and artists have been coming to New York City for over a century to make it in the Big Apple. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, right? Artists have also been at the forefront of the gentrification problem. I lived in Hell’s Kitchen before it was Clinton. I dwelled in Alphabet City when smack addicts would shoot up in the hallway of my apartment building and avenues A, B, C and D stood for “Aware, Beware, Caution and Death.” And, I had huge art parties in my loft in Williamsburg before many artists lived on my block. What I finally realized is the Hasidics, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Poles and African Americans all came to New York City from somewhere else, too. If I weren’t still broke after all these years, I’d feel a little more guilty for my part in the gentrification process; but for now, I’ll thank my lucky stars that my rent is still affordable, I have my health, and know that when I “make it here,” I’ll purchase that perfect apartment.

why is no one talking about this guy?

For the past week or so, there has been a hubbub about President-elect Obama’s selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration in January. I understand the disappointment and anger of so many people, specifically GLBT Americans who are still reeling from the massive loss of Prop 8 in California. However, there is someone who is getting hardly getting any recognition as this drama unfolds. Reverend Joseph Echols Lowery is one of the foremost African American ministers in the United States. He precided at Coretta Scott King’s funeral, helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Park’s arrest in 1955, and he’s a strong advocate of equal rights for GLBT Americans. More info here.

Two things are happening here. The far left wing doesn’t understand what Obama means by “Change,” and by causing such a ruckus over Warren’s selection to give the invocation, they’re allowing the right to have the appearance of taking the higher ground because they aren’t making a big stink over Reverend Lowery.

Almost tediously throughout the past four years since Barack Obama made his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, we have heard a variation on a phrase. He used it in his acceptance speech on election night:

“Young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled, Americans have sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of red states and blue states,” he said. “We have been and always will be the United States of America.”

The United States of America. This has always been a difficult concept for me to grasp. How do we have 303+ million people spread out across 50 states over 3.7 million square miles and still call ourselves “united?” Our differences are so vast and varied that there’s no possible way that we can “all get along.” But, this man, who was born to a white, American mother and a black, Kenyan father, is doing it. He’s putting the man who has been known to speak out against homosexuals and the man who has fought for gay rights in the same inaugural program.

Further, the line up for the day looks like this:

Musical Selections
The United States Marine Band
This is all American. The military. A band. Yet, anti-war activists have said nothing about the military playing a role in the program

Musical Selections
The San Francisco Boys Chorus and the San Francisco Girls Chorus
Children. Everyone likes children. And they are representing a part of the United States. Kids are Americans, too!

Call to Order and Welcoming Remarks
The Honorable Diane Feinstein
The Senate Majority Leader. A senator. A Jew. And someone who use to be against gay rights. After serving as mayor of San Francisco and the homosexual community being outraged that Feinstein would not march with them, she has had a strong career in national government, and she says, regarding Prop 8: “I think as more and more people have gay friends, gay associations, see gay heroism, that their views change. I think people are beginning to look at it differently, I know it’s happened for me. I started out not supporting it. The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve seen the happiness of people, the stability that these commitments bring to a life. Many adopted children who would have ended up in foster care now have good solid homes and are brought up learning the difference between right and wrong. It’s a very positive thing.”

Invocation
Dr. Rick Warren, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, CA
A white preacher who runs a mega-church and preaches against the homosexual lifestyle while stating that he doesn’t “hate gays” – he even gave them doughnuts when they protested his church. Basically, Warren is a bigot who says he loves you while preaching you’ll go to hell if you don’t follow his way of thinking.

Musical Selection
Aretha Franklin
The Queen of Soul. African American. A legend. Need I say more?

Oath of Office Administered to Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
By Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
The Honorable John Paul Stevens
A coupla white guys standing around, giving & taking oaths. What it’s looked like for the past 233 years.

Musical Selection, John Williams, composer/arranger
A white, Academy Award winning composer
Itzhak Perlman, Violin
A Jewish, Israeli virtuoso.
Yo-Yo Ma, Cello
A French born, Chinese-American virtuoso.
Gabriela Montero, Piano
A Venezuelan born, American virtuoso.
Anthony McGill, Clarinet
An African American prodigy.

Oath of Office Administered to President-elect Barack Hussein Obama
(yep, he’s using his middle name)
By the Chief Justice of the United States
The Honorable John G. Roberts, Jr.
Another oath give and take; however, this time, to the nation’s first African American president.

Inaugural Address
The President of the United States, The Honorable Barack Hussein Obama
That’s right.

Poem
Elizabeth Alexander
An African American “Quantrell Award”-winning poet who teaches English language/literature, African-American literature and gender studies at Yale University.

Benediction
The Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery.
See above.

The National Anthem
The United States Navy Band “Sea Chanters”
Again, military, music and ‘merica.

This is a beautiful line up. It’s an wonderful testament to the man taking the oath that day. Not only is the diversity amazing, but the talent is phenomenal. These Americans come from all over the country and the world, celebrating the first African-American to be sworn in as President of the United States of America. It should be a great show.

For Rick Warren to be the one issue on which people focus in a myriad of problems that our country currently faces concerns me. I don’t want to marginalize the GLBT movement. It’s gaining immense traction right now, and I hope that Prop 8 gets overturned. I do think that we need to look at the big picture, which so many Americans do not see. There’s so many of us. Gays are represented at the inauguration. So are right wing, fundamentalist Christians. What would’ve been real balls is to have had a Muslim cleric give the invocation. Now, that I would have admired.

Remember, too: Obama has to get re-elected. He needs to show Americans he is representing all of them. If he can do that, he really will implement a sweeping change that we have not seen in a generation. Let the man do his job, and see what he does. The change we are looking for is happening, if we take a close look.

_______

This blog was inspired by Melissa Etheridge’s blog, which appeared yesterday on the Huffington Post. She met Rick Warren recently and shares her experience and discusses her thoughts on this issue. There are other points of view out there, too. I encourage you to read them, too. Lynda Resnick and Emma Ruby-Sachs both have interesting thoughts on the matter.