Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween 1989, Poitiers, France

On Halloween of 1989, our friend Laurent Bloch invited us to visit Poitiers, his home town. All Souls Day and the previous evening were a very different type of holiday in France. Many families visit cemeteries, maintain or decorate family graves, and go to church services. There is a public holiday when government offices, schools, and many businesses are closed.

Laurent's family are not at all religious, so he took us on a tour. The first photo shows me in a Visigoth grave, acting for Halloween. The Visigoth graves are something of a mystery, if I correctly remember what Laurent told us. Their sarcophagi, pictured here, have been heaved up out of the ground in the ensuing 1500 years.

We visited a number of the beautifully preserved early medieval churches in the area. Some were restored by the famous (or infamous) Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the nineteenth century. A few may be in more authentic shape -- Viollet-le-Duc is known for his somewhat excessive creativity in making his restorations fit his theories about art and history. We enjoyed all the Romanesque architecture. In the evening, seeing the robed priests silently entering the churches was a very spooky sight.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Indescribable Concert

Tonight we heard an indescribable concert at the Kerrytown Concert House. It was in a number of languages: English, Idiotish, Fringe, HighBrew, Russian, Yiddish, Uglish, Portu-guess, and a few others. One example: the very skilled and talented woman singer performed "La Vie en Rose" accompanied on a musical saw. Pavel Lion, pictured above, performed "Lili Marlene" in Yiddish or maybe it was Idiotish, I'm not sure.

My favorite number was "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" sung in several of the languages I mentioned. Also "Momik." I think it was in Russian. Evelyn says you go to college so you will get the jokes. I'm not really educated enough for this yet, but I enjoyed it enormously.

The Train

This afternoon I was taking a walk with the International Neighbors group when the train went by. I was standing on the dam at Barton Pond when I took this video. I really love to watch the train go by!

A while earlier, I took this picture of my walking companions in front of the dam:

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Bard of Waverly Place

This is the set for the London Globe Theater production of Love's Labors Lost that we saw on the Michigan campus this evening. (I took photos only before the performance and at intermission.) The set was imaginative, clearly designed to be like Shakespeare's original stage with multiple levels and an inner stage, but no changes during the performance.

The production was raucous -- tons of vocal effects, sarcasm, exaggerated costume details, live music on period instruments, lightly modern touches (like playing Hava Nagila when a play-in-play introduced Judas Maccabeus), and constant broad physical humor (even farting jokes) and slapstick of all sorts. The sarcasm and method of reading the lines reminded me of some of the kids' shows on Disney like the "Wizards of Waverly Place" -- really, no kidding. I am not at all familiar with this play, so I don't know if this is a reasonable interpretation.

During Intermission

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What did women want?

I have finished reading Gail Collins' When Everything Changed (which I mentioned in my two previous posts: Women's History and Everything Changed). It's a very thorough history of the progress of women's rights and women's quest for equality in the last 50 years of American history. But as I said, I was disappointed because it lacks the vigor and humor of its author's usual style.

As a witness and as a person affected by this history, what does this book really say to me? Is it really true that women got what they asked for but learned that it's not really what they want? Did upper class and well-educated women see their privileges extended, while poor women's lack of access to education, good jobs, and child care were simply made more painful? Did attitudes towards women in the workplace improve women's chances while attitudes towards women's maternal and housekeeping duties didn't change fast enough to make up for it? Did changes in some fields (military careers, academic science, engineering, average politics) lag behind so that men still dominate them and can make a woman's life in them very hard? What about pressure on women to be beautiful, thin, fashionable or trendy, and flattering to men -- did anything about that improve? I love Collins's optimism. But I'm not sure it answers enough questions.

UPDATE: A number of studies have just appeared on the same topic as Collins's book. From Judith Warner, writing about the dubious gap in women's happiness:
Freedom, opportunity, respect, dignity, self-determination and equality — those universal human rights we somehow judge optional for women — do not make people unhappy. Only roadblocks to those entitlements do. Particularly when those impediments are packaged as what we “really” want.
See When We're Equal, We'll Be Happy

Women's History in "Time"

Gail Collins, whose book When Everything Changed I'm continuing to read, isn't the only one writing about how women's place in society has changed in the last 40 or 50 years. Ed Rollins published a story at CNN about how much times changed in the life of his mother, recently deceased at the age of 91. He wrote: "she was not just a spectator to those changes, she was a participant and a pioneer. She was not a woman's libber. She just got up every day and led by example."

Rollins cites Time magazine's recent set of stories: The State of the American Woman. The anchor article by Nancy Gibbs, What Women Want, presents a summary which essentially is an echo of Collins' book, which she cites. Writes Gibbs:
It's funny how things change slowly, until the day we realize they've changed completely. It's expected that by the end of the year, for the first time in history the majority of workers in the U.S. will be women — largely because the downturn has hit men so hard. This is an extraordinary change in a single generation, and it is gathering speed: the growth prospects, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are in typically female jobs like nursing, retail and customer service. More and more women are the primary breadwinner in their household (almost 40%) or are providing essential income for the family's bottom line. Their buying power has never been greater — and their choices have seldom been harder.
Time also reports on a number of polls about attitudes towards women. And Maria Shriver wrote about her recent study of how families live and work today and about her mother, Eunice Shriver. She says:
Everywhere I went, people talked to me about how stressed they feel, especially when it comes to financial security. Women said that never before has so much been asked of them, and never have they delivered so much. Divorced mothers talked to me about trying to make do without child support. A single mother who had just lost her job told me she was utterly dependent on her family and friends just to stay afloat. A businesswoman on the West Coast told me she and her husband "are constantly renegotiating our agreement about what gets done [and] who does it." You hear a lot about the search for a "balanced life." More and more women say that if they could, they'd like to leave companies that are unresponsive and start their own businesses. Many of them do. In fact, the number of women working for themselves doubled from 1979 to 2003, so that women make up 35% of all self-employed people.
We're supposed to question ourselves about the value of the changes, maybe. Gibbs cites the recent dubious study proving that women are less happy than the used to be (the change is much more marginal than the ones featured in these articles).

I wonder why this is suddenly such a hot topic. I'm sure I'll figure out the reason soon. In any case, I plan to finish reading the Gail Collins book soon.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Everything Changed?

Gail Collins' When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present received a rave review by Francine Prose in Sunday's NY Times Book Review: 'When Everything Changed'

I ordered it immediately and I've now read about half of it. So far, I'm very disappointed because I feel as if I read every word of it 40 years ago or more -- above is a photo of my dusty attic bookshelf with so many of the sources of her material. I even recognize a number of her little vignette stories. Below is another photo of two very well known and extreme examples of books by individuals she mentions in the book.

If Collins had something new to say -- something witty and fun to read like her New York Times columns -- the sense of nothing new wouldn't be so bad. Usually when she comments on current events, she's discussing something that I read in the paper that week, not a lifetime ago, and she manages not to seem redundant. Unfortunately, I hardly recognize the Gail Collins that I thought I knew.

Maybe it isn't fair to expect her to say something new. I remember too much to be surprised by the retelling of the terrible stories of oppression of women that she covers in the first 200 pages. If I hadn't read it all before, I'd be quite interested. Actually, I remember the reading but also even remember some events such as the one above (clipped from a campus newspaper). Evelyn (in hooded coat) and I (leaning over her) were looking over literature and buttons. But is it too much to ask Collins to apply her witty and penetrating skills that she uses in her columns?

I will try to read the second half of the book and hope it gets better.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Marcel Duchamp is Relevant

In the New York Times today: an editorial on conceptual art: "Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?" by Dennis Dutton. Excerpt:
Since the endearingly witty Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art 90 years ago by offering his “ready-mades” — a urinal or a snow shovel, for instance — for gallery shows, the genre has degenerated. Duchamp, an authentic artistic genius, was in 1917 making sport of the art establishment and its stuffy values. By the time we get to 2009, Mr. Hirst and Mr. Koons are the establishment.

...Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.

In this respect, I can’t help regarding medicine cabinets, vacuum cleaners and dead sharks as reckless investments. Somewhere out there in collectorland is the unlucky guy who will be the last one holding the vacuum cleaner, and wondering why.
NOW this is probably the last of what I would like to say about Marcel Duchamp. There are hundreds or thousands of web pages and blogs dedicated to him if you want to know more. My posts in sum are:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Marcel Duchamp's Chocolate Grinder

"Marcel took very little alcohol or food; he would simple eat what was given him. No one gave him a lot because everyone knew he didn't eat very much -- two or three peas and one bit of meat. But he did smoke cigars." (from "John Cage on Marcel Duchamp: an Interview" by Moira Roth and William Roth, 1973)
Hmm. Was this one more example of Marcel Duchamp's famous posturing? Or maybe he didn't like to eat American food, having been brought up in early 20th century France. He was indeed very skinny.

I decided to see if there was any connection between Marcel Duchamp and food, as I'm in the habit of thinking food thoughts for my food blog. So this post is more or less on both my blogs today.

The only other Marcel Duchamp-food relationship I can find is the "Chocolate Grinder," which Duchamp remade at least three times, as a readymade (an actual kitchen tool for grinding chocolate, displayed as a work of art), as a painting, and as a sketch. It appeared once on a Dada magazine cover. Duchamp described it as a bachelor machine: "The chocolate of the rollers coming from one knows not where, would deposit itself after grinding as milk chocolate... The bachelor grinds his chocolate himself..." (From The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, ed. Sanouillet and Peterson, p. 68)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Marcel Duchamp Exhibit

The Philadelphia art museum has one of the best Marcel Duchamp collections anywhere. Currently they have a special show about him (the link may be only temporary):
Now Through November 29, 2009
Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic assemblage Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) has been described by the artist Jasper Johns as “the strangest work of art in any museum.” Permanently installed at the Museum since 1969, this three-dimensional environmental tableau offers an unforgettable and untranslatable experience to those who peer through the two small holes in the solid wooden door.
Really interesting review of this exhibit in the L.A.Times: "Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés: The revival of a masterpiece"

"Nude Descending a Staircase"

"The tiresome thing," once said Marcel Duchamp, "was that every time I met someone [in the US] they would say 'Oh! Are you the one who did that painting [Nude descending...]? ' The funniest thing is that for at least thirty or forty years the painting was known, but I wasn't. Nobody knew my name. In the continental American sense of the word, 'Duchamp' meant nothing. There was no connection between the painting and me." Pierre Cabanne, Dialogs with Marcel Duchamp, p. 45
This quote resonates! I heard of the painting "Nude Descending a Staircase" (right) long before I heard of Marcel Duchamp by name, because it was my mother's prime example of radical and strange modern art; I think she mentioned it often, with incredulity. To lots of people her generation, it was the epitome of what was bad in modern art -- not serious, not beautiful, not realistic, not comprehensible, not awesome, not Art.

Was I intrigued? Maybe. During the time I was growing up and hearing about "Nude...", I am sure that I never saw a reproduction of it -- when I finally found out what it looked like, I think I was disappointed, since it's a relatively typical cubist work, and I had seen Cezannes, Picassos, etc. before it. And I had seen nudes. I had always thought my mother was uncomfortable with some level of nudity in the painting, but it isn't really very nude at all. She had some other problem with it.

Working through this personal history with Marcel Duchamp, I begin to wonder if my mother herself knew what the picture looked like -- after all, she was familiar with Picassos and Cezannes. I suspect that she visualized it as much nuder than it was. She always thought that her own acceptance and public permissiveness of nudity in great art was mysterious, as she wouldn't have accepted nudity in any other venue. I now know that "Nude Descending a Staircase" earned its reputation at the Armory Show in 1913, when my mother was three years old, but in her view it seemed more contemporary than that. She reflected the slow pace at which it became somehow mainstream.

A few years after I was thinking about my mother's generation and Marcel Duchamp's "Nude...", my sister happened to look in an old art book that belonged to our mother. In it, she found a 1964 clipping from the St.Louis Post Dispatch reporting an interview with Marcel Duchamp. He noted the connection between his work and pop art, predicted the demise of pop art, and propagated the myth that he had not done any art work for decades. What’s important is that it demonstrates my mother’s continuing interest in him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bachelor Machines: Duchamp or Da Vinci?

Marcel Duchamp, among many other playful artistic endeavors, invented machines that did nothing. He called them "Bachelor Machines." These machines were not functional or practical. When he wrote about them he connected them to the technology in the modern world. One such "machine" was "The Large Glass." It's hard to comprehend exactly what it "did."

Bachelor machines seem to me to be the opposite of readymades like the snow shovel or the bicycle wheel. A readymade originated as something with a purpose, but Marcel Duchamp would select it for some other inner quality that he would intuit or notice -- this was not a physical resemblance, but something more essential. Contrariwise, a bachelor machine looks like a machine but it has no purpose.

I realize that I have a paradigm in my own mind of a bachelor machine. It's what we made as children by setting a tricycle on its seat, and turning the pedals by hand, pretending it was a machine, grinding out some invisible product or substance. My friend Marcel Duchamp would surely have played this game with us.

Leonardo da Vinci also invented machines. They relate to technology in both his world and in ours -- people interpret his never-built, and in some cases technologically fanciful, machines as visionary -- he wanted to invent flying machines centuries before even the first hot-air balloon flight, for example. I have a deep feeling that these too were bachelor machines. In the last 20 or 30 years, I've seen are heard about a number of efforts to manufacture working models: but in fact, they can only sometimes work, and often require modern high-tech materials. His flying machines were mostly unworkable, and totally impractical if made of wood or the heavy metal available in his time. His pulleys may have worked sometimes, especially if they were sketches of working equipment that he observed -- but sometimes he seems to have ignored the weight of the rope that would be needed for a very tall working pulley. Leonardo seems to have been ok at inventing weapons, but I'm not even sure about that.

A Dada moment: Leonardo's famous plan for a bicycle was way ahead of its time but had a rigid frame which thus prevented any means of steering. Many models of it have been displayed in exhibits about his technology sketches. SURPRISE: it turns out the bicycle sketch, "discovered" in 1974, was a 20th century fake. Delicious!

I wonder if people are over-interpreting Leonardo's engineering commitment and expertise. Marcel Duchamp helps me to this thought.

"Duchamp was one of the most Leonardesque of artists," says A. Richard Turner in his book Inventing Leonardo. "Both men held mathematics to be fundamentally important, and both supplemented their art by purely intellectual investigations. Both were vitally interested in process as opposed to product, and took care to record their intellectual processes in annotated form . . .. Finally both were secretive and enigmatic by temperament." (p. 146-7)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Use a Rembrandt as an Ironing Board

Long ago I bought a postcard at the Centre Pompidou Museum of Modern Art in Paris. I bought it because of an image of Mona Lisa on it. The title was "Utiliser un Rembrandt comme planche a repasser, Marcel Duchamp" by Daniel Spoerri. I wondered why it was Mona Lisa, not a Rembrandt, on the ironing board (planche a repasser) in the image.

This made me uneasy. I felt that no artist could be ignorant about who painted the Mona Lisa. Then I discovered that I was the ignorant one -- but ignorant of something much more obscure than who painted the Mona Lisa. You see, Marcel Duchamp made notes about various Dada art topics. Once he talked about using a Rembrandt for an ironing board. That obviously inspired the artist, who referred to Duchamp indirectly by the image of Mona Lisa. I applaud this Dada indirection!

Everything was interesting to Marcel Duchamp, as reflected in his readymades, so who knew what he might be thinking about an ironing board. One of my favorites among the less-well-known is his version (maybe versions) of the Parisian sign "Eau et Gaz a tous les Etages," or just "Gaz..." as shown in the photo from a Paris street.

The sign on a Paris building means that there is water and gas service on every floor. When in Paris, I found these placards mysterious, and was told they were there to inform the fire department. They date from the era when not all buildings had water and gas on every floor. Marcel Duchamp suggests that they are absurdities, like so many texts you see on the street.

Once I dreamed that Marcel Duchamp and I were walking along and he said "I am the eau et gaz." At the moment of waking up I had a clear insight: Marcel Duchamp was water! and air! Elemental.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Me, Marcel Duchamp, and L.H.O.O.Q.

Some years ago I wrote a piece called "My Friend Marcel Duchamp." I began by describing why I feel he is my friend. Mainly, he made "L.H.O.O.Q." -- that is, Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee. I like Mona Lisa parodies and other playful uses of Art with a capital A. Appreciating and collecting Mona Lisa parodies as I do, L.H.O.O.Q. is a touchstone for my collecting activity. In fact, it may be my first collected item. Whoever makes Mona Lisa parodies is my friend.

In my first dream about Marcel Duchamp all those years ago, I had an insight into this. I was walking with Marcel Duchamp, and discussing an image of Mona Lisa with a mustache. As it happened, the work in question included a color photographic reproduction, not the usual etching that one gets on postcards of the real L.H.O.O.Q. This Mona Lisa reproduction appeared to the right of a larger scene, which I do not remember, and which I had not seen outside my dream. As we walked, Marcel Duchamp explained that he had wanted Mona Lisa to be in this work as a joke, but was afraid that Americans wouldn't recognize it, so he put the mustache on to make sure it would be funny to everyone. I answered yes, it was funny.

Do you get the pun in L.H.O.O.Q? I didn't get it until I read an explanation in a book somewhere. It's a joke on the order of CDB being read childishly as See The Bee, with a picture of a Bee. You pronounce the letters in French and make them into French words: Elle (L) A Chaud (HO) Au (O) Queue (Q), which means "She has a hot piece of tail!" The French have many jokes like this, and the Dadas loved them.

The genre of L.H.O.O.Q. — as invented by Marcel Duchamp — is "Rectified Readymade." A post card, readymade, is rectified by the addition of the beard and mustache. Or in another version published in one of the early Dada chronicles or manifestos, only a mustache. And later, L.H.O.O.Q. Rasee: the "shaved" version, which you could mistake for a simple post card from the Louvre or any tourist shop if you weren't in the know.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, much later in their careers, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, the inventors of Dada, later re-made their earlier disposable artworks and readymades, such as L.H.O.O.Q., "In advance of the broken arm," "Why not sneeze," and the famous urinal titled "Fountain by R.Mutt." All is in service of the Dada view of the concept of a masterpiece and of Mona Lisa worship.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Warhol and Duchamp

Quote about the way that Andy Warhol sometimes (or often) had no hands-on interaction with the works of art that he signed and sold:
In this conceptual approach to making art, Warhol inherited the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, an artist he knew, admired, painted, and filmed. Like Duchamp's ready-mades, the ultimate importance of a work by Warhol is not who physically made each object, but the ideas it generates. As the son of immigrants, Warhol in his early works returned again and again to the theme of America itself. What else are the paintings of cheap advertisements for nose jobs and dance lessons concerned with if not the American dream and the price of conformity it exacts? As soon as he'd examined the American obsession with celebrity and glamour in the portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, he was quick to show its race riots and electric chair. Unlike Duchamp's, his was a highly public art, one that criss-crossed between high art, popular culture, commerce, and daily life.
From The New York Review of Books, "What Is an Andy Warhol?" by Richard Dorment. To restate this discussion: Warhol asked not "What is art?" but "What is the difference between two things, exactly alike, one of which is art and one of which is not?" Unlike the Dada nature of similar questions in the work of Duchamp, the Warhol question is a legal question because of a lawsuit about exactly which Warhols are authentic Warhols. And the financial self-interest of the foundation that gets to say which is which and trash the losers.

Well, I guess it is Dada. Art. Money. Fun.

Marcel Duchamp by Irving Penn

Indirectly, Marcel Duchamp was also in the news this week in the obituaries of the photographer Irving Penn. Duchamp cultivated a very Dada look, which Penn famously captured.

Marcel Duchamp

I wish I could remember a dream I had a couple of nights ago about "In advance of the broken arm." That's the title of one of Marcel Duchamp's readymades. If you were literal minded, you'd say, it was not a work of art, it's a snow shovel hanging in the museum. Different museums even hang different snow shovels and hang them different ways: from the ceiling, on the wall, high or low... As a museum guard in Philadelphia, home of many Duchamp works, once said to us: "that Marcel Duchamp was a piece of work." I love Dada, brainchild of Marcel Duchamp.

On Tuesday in Bloomington, I found a small collection of Duchamp's remade readymades, which no doubt made me dream of "In advance of the broken arm." The museum also has other works such as "Why Not Sneeze -- Rrose Selavy" (shown above). This work consists of a number of sugar cubes made of marble, along with a few other things inside of a cage. The reason Marcel Duchamp so named the work may be because of the marble sugar cubes. You see, he couldn't use real sugar cubes, because art has to last. So he made them out of marble. Which is cold. And gives you a cold. So why not sneeze? There are lots of other "authoritative" versions of why and what this work is about also, which goes along with his method of creating an identity for himself and his work. Why not sneeze -- a joke no one can get -- captures the spirit of Dada. When asked about it in one case, his reason was "pour compliquer les choses."

Duchamp's early readymades dated from just before the first World War, but he remade them in the 1960s -- with the result that you can see them in many museums. In fact the most famous readymade, "Fountain by R. Mutt," was lost or destroyed after it was first submitted to a supposedly un-judged art show. If you were literal minded, you'd say it was a urinal lying on its side with "R. Mutt" written on it. Don't be literal. When challenged that a urinal displayed on its side was not a work of Art, but was only plumbing, Marcel Duchamp defended R. Mutt, noting that plumbing and bridges were the greatest art created in America. Later, he said none of his works were ever accepted at first.

At one time I did a lot of reading about Marcel Duchamp. In the next few posts, I'm going to rework some of what I wrote down at that time.


Last night we heard cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan play four sonatas by Beethoven, Britten, Stravinsky, and Rachmaninoff. I enjoyed the performance. We had great seats, especially because three seats in the row ahead of us were unused. The photo is blurry but gives an idea of how well we could see.

The program notes had a new twist: for each piece there was a "Snapshot of History" -- a very brief mention of events that took place in the year of the sonata. Just enough history to be intriuging: "Death of Catherine the Great, Czar of Russia," "The Berlin wall is built," "Cary Grant makes his debut as a movie actor," "US President William McKinley is shot."

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

African Arts in Bloomington IN

Makonde Mask

Baule Mask

Kube Embroidered Cloth

Senufo Mask

Marcel Duchamp in Bloomington, IN

Thursday, October 01, 2009

International Neighbors Hiking Group

Back to the Botanical Garden on a beautiful day today. I was in this group in the past, and I think I'll stay with it again for a while. I just hope there's some good weather in store: last night was the first frost, and the arbor covered with bottle gourds and other gourds was all wilted leaves today.

Update on the mystery plant

The plant in the photo last week (Bird Hills Park: A Walk With Prue) turns out to be Jack-in-the-Pulpit in its fall incarnation. Thank you, Carol and Elaine.