Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Good art? Bad art? In the eye of the beholder.

Back in the late 1980s I went along as a faculty chaperone on a one month student tour to Russia.  It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.  We visited five Russian cities: St. Petersberg (still called Leningrad, but petitions were being offered in the streets to change the name back to the original), Pskov, Tallinn, Kiev (where there was very good opera and ballet) and Moscow, which we left via an alternate route due to the first of the bread and vodka riots that eventually led to the fall of Gorbachev.

While we did a lot of things as a group, we also had a fair amount of free time to explore on our own.  I was always on the lookout for Russian opera recordings that were never available in the U.S. and I scored quite a few.  It made the suitcase extremely heavy on the way home but was worth it.  Russia also has some truly fabulous museums, not just the famed Hermitage Palace in St. Petersberg.  My favorite of all was a modest building out of the center of Moscow that was devoted to what was frankly admitted to be bad art from the Stalin era, the most controlled and repressive years for art, music, architecture, literature, etc. in the Soviet Union's history.

I remembered this painting vividly, it was one of the worst and my absolute favorite from the mass of sycophantic work on display.  I went to Google to see if I could possibly find it after describing it to a friend recently.  The red is obsessive (I mean, even the dog) and Stalin seems to have been a talented contortionist to judge from the position of his legs.

This one is interesting, with Stalin getting the blessing of Mother Russia tricked out as the Virgin Mary (and therefore he's a Jesus figure?  Savior of Russia?) in an atheistic regime.  Stalin had ordered hundreds of churches dynamited in Moscow and elsewhere, but here he is the focus of a religiously-themed icon.  And balancing on one foot.

One thing the Soviets understood was the brute power of monumental statuary.  It's all over the country, especially in sites associated with The Great Patriotic War which we here in "the West" call World War II.  Everywhere we went we heard about the War as if it was a recent or even continuing event.  The purpose seemed to be to keep the population reliving their time of greatest suffering and deprivation so that the half empty food markets and frequently almost completely empty consumer goods stores would look good by comparison; one jewelry store had seven empty glass display cases and an eighth case with exactly five gold wedding rings in it.  My trip to the fabled GUM, the big department store in Moscow opposite the Kremlin, revealed that the Soviet idea of marketing a luxury shirt was to have 50,000 copies of a cheap 1950s American men's nylon short-sleeved shirt ordered up in aqua, pale peach and yellow-green. 

 "The Architecture for the Palace of the Soviets (1939)" 

This building was never built but in concept it isn't all that different from the seven massive and identical official buildings Stalin had constructed in a ring around Moscow (one houses the University of Moscow).  Clearly influenced by conjectural reconstructions of Babylonian Ziggurats (particularly some of the more fanciful versions of the Tower of Babel) it appears in the black lacquer painting below behind the star-topped Kremin tower.

The painting celebrates a historic event, a fly-over of the North Pole by the three airmen in the wreath.

Lesson #1 in how to make a beautiful woman look like hell.  The popular actress above is Lyubov Orlova, Stain's favorite movie star, particularly for her performance in the movie Volga, Volga, advertised in the poster shown below.  Great likeness, no?

And we end with this sad little construction, a not-so-Triumphal Arch in the typically massive, the more concrete we pour the better Soviet style.

One thing I will say, is that Stain himself sometimes had enough of the dreck that was being turned out to glorify him, particularly if it was demonstrably inept.  He refused to have that portrait in red anywhere he could see it, and he is known to have left an opera premiere in which the two young lovers sang of their desire to sneak away from the workers' housing in the Collective and watch the moon rise over the Heros of the Soviet People Hydroelectric Dam.  Sometimes even megalomania just can't take it any more.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


One Day Only Michigan/Arizona Primary Post

Friday, February 24, 2012

As it happens, that lower corner of the bed labeled Napping Quarters above, is exactly where Starr loves to curl up in the morning after breakfast for her first big nap of the day.

Not too long after I met Fritz in the spring of 1997, we went down to the Animal Shelter in Boston that's just on the border between the South End and the Theater District.  Over the years, I'd gone there for several cats.  There was no record of her date of birth; like so many of their animals, she had come from someone who couldn't keep her (a lot of the cards on the cages said "Owner incarcerated," for example).  She wasn't a kitten but clearly a young adult.  I figure she's now just about 16 years old, still very healthy and active.

In the past, when I was living in a circa 1860 Victorian Gothic farm house in Boston's Roslindale neighborhood, I had up to three cats, but for the last ten years Starr has been an only cat and she shows distinct signs that she likes having us all to herself.

I don't think I would ever given her the name Starr.  The associations for me are Ken Starr, the sleazy lawyer in the Bill and Hilary Clinton Whitewater investigation, and Brenda Starr the cartoon character.  But she knew and answered to the name, so Starr she has remained.

She's getting to be an old lady cat.  Because the Aga is on all the time and radiates a gentle heat at all times, she frequently sits in front of it with her back almost touching the surface.   

The silestone counter top on the divider between the kitchen and the living room is another favorite perch for her.  While hard, it's always gently warmed by the Aga.  She can follow everything that's going on in the kitchen and most of the living room from there as well as getting the soothing warmth.

Starr is very vocal.  It's unquestionable that there's a fair amount amount of Siamese in her background; the voice is unmistakable.  We like to have "conversations" back and forth. We have no idea what each other is saying but there's a real give and take in our utterances.  But she has one or two yowls, markedly different from each other, that she uses for one thing and one thing only.  There's a very loud and deep one that sounds like O-yow that means a hair ball's coming up.  It gives me just enough time to steer her off a rug and onto some bare floor.   

She has her rituals.  After we've been out of the house for a while, she'll greet us at the kitchen door with a lot of yammering and then run just inside the living room, throw herself down on a hand worked Moroccan rug and roll over on her back for a tummy rub.  If the rub isn't forthcoming when she feels it should be, there will be a great deal of writhing around making chirping sounds.  When I dress or undress, she's always in the room on her back on the rug looking for a handful of fingers to rake her tummy fur back and forth.

One of the rituals I wish she'd drop is the walk she takes some time, or a couple of times, each night through the entire house from the living room through the kitchen, down the long hall through the dressing room into our bedroom, yowling all the way.  Sometimes I sleep through it but it frequently wakes Fritz.

We have simple but very nice pocket doors in various places in the house, mostly in the back hall area and dressing room to eliminate lots of doors opening into the hall.  They're pine and their bottom surface rides about an inch and a half above the floor.  It took her a couple of years to teach herself how to open them.  She drops to the floor on one flank, gets her paw under the door and hooks the leading edge of it with a claw or two.   It's simple then to pull the door open (the concealed overhead tracks roll very smoothly and easily) and in two or three seconds she'll have the door open enough to get in and out whenever she wants.

I couldn't live without a cat.


Monday, February 20, 2012

During his presidency, and even as early as 1775, George Washington was seriously concerned about the stability of the territories beyond the Appalachian Mountains and therefore isolated from the string of developed States along the east coast.  He particularly worried that settlers isolated beyond the mountains would eventually throw their lot in with France and/or England, increasing those nations' footprint on North America and restricting the growth of the United States.  His idea was a canal created from a reconstruction of the Potomac River (his vast plantation, Mount Vernon, being conveniently located on a bank of that river) that would allow commerce and travel to and from the west.  That plan failed when the Potomac proved unsuitable for the kind of restructuring necessary, but the idea had been planted that an east-west connection was essential for the new country's security, growth and development.

This is my current read, soon to be my former read as I'm in the final chapter.  I had known OF the Erie Canal since grammar school but never really known ABOUT it, about its crucial importance in the early history of the United States.  It turns out that the origins of banking and finance in this country, the expansion of its economy onto the international stage, the development of new products and industries, encouragement of immigration, settlement of the mid-west and beyond, development of numerous towns and major cities in New York State, and a great deal more can be credited to the project that was considered impossible, financially ruinous, and an immense folly when it was first proposed.  Mr. Bernstein tells the story in an enjoyable and absorbing manner.

The Erie runs from Troy to Buffalo; subsidiary canals were built northward from Troy to link to Lake Champlain; and from Syracuse to Lake Ontario to bring the St. Lawrence River into the system.  The Erie itself was a massive construction project.  Thousands of men with only shovels and pick axes and anything they could invent on the spot, dug a twelve foot deep, forty foot wide trench for 375 miles through forests, farmland, swamps, and finally through the dreaded twelve mile wide, solid rock Niagara Escarpment.   

Begun in 1817, the canal itself and all its locks were finished in 1825 -- an astonishingly short eight years -- and opened with great ceremony and rejoicing capped by the"Wedding of the Waters" in which water from Lake Erie was poured into New York Harbor along with water from other great rivers -- the Nile, Ganges, Volga, Amazon, etc. to symbolize the newly possible connection of the interior of the country with the rest of the world.  There were several days of celebrations in New York City and in Buffalo.

A packet boat,  a passenger vessel,  being drawn along the canal by a team of three horses.  Mules were used for freight boats that carried 50 tons of cargo.  The boats operated 24 hours a day, changing teams regularly; they made the Albany to Buffalo journey in four days rather than the many weeks expensive overland freight hauling by ox cart had taken previously.

A 1904 photograph of the spur that ran southward to connect Syracuse to the Erie Canal.   It was later filled in to become a main boulevard through the city.  Canal boats are tied up to the embankment on the right.

Late Victorian postcard of the locks at Lockport.  The original flight of five locks built in 1823 is on the right.  The later two lock system, more than double the width of the original locks to accommodate wider and longer industrial barges of the late 19th century, is on the left.

Four years ago, Fritz and I began a road trip westward to Cleveland, then south into Pennsylvania and finally back to New England, the purpose being to visit friends, relatives, and to visit as many Frank Lloyd Wright houses as possible.  Driving west on the New York Thruway, contemplating a free afternoon in the Buffalo area, I looked at maps to see if anything interesting was along the way.  My eye was caught by the promise of boat tours through the western end of the Erie Canal in Lockport.  We headed there directly and had three hours on the canal, up with the captain in the wheel house and learning as much as we could.   

We sailed through a goodly chunk of the Niagara Escarpment, the monumental rock formation that Niagara Falls is relentlessly carving its way through.  In the early 1820s, there was only primitive pre-dynamite blasting powder to break through the rock.

While some sections of the canal have fallen into ruin or been filled, as in Syracuse, much of it is still navigable and still accommodating serious freight.  Mules and horses have been replaced by tugboats.

The canal has also become a bit of a goldmine for tourism.  One can take a riverboat tour from New York City via the Hudson River, the Erie Canal from Troy to the Lake Ontario connector, north through Lake Ontario to the beginning of the Saint Lawrence River and then to Montreal.

But it is also possible in a couple of towns on the western half of the canal, including Lockport, to rent modern versions of a packet boat and sail the canal privately.  The boats have a maximum speed of five miles an hour, sleep either four or six, come with a full working galley, and can be rented for various amounts of time up to a week.  Tie-ups are provided at frequent intervals with facilities for dumping trash, refueling, and grocery shopping.  A training session precedes each rental.  Ever since our canal boat tour, we've been considering teaming up with some friends and renting one of these boats for a leisurely week, stopping wherever we see an interesting place.   

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The new brouhaha over birth control, of all things, has brought out this voice advocating violence:

Via Right Wing Watch, meet Bishop R. Walker Nickless, of the Sioux City, Iowa diocese, who's here to set you straight:

"You know, the power of evil is going to try any way that it can to get a hook into our world and the values that we hold as so dear and so important to us believing people. And the power of evil—the devil—can certainly look—is looking everywhere to find places where they can—where the power of evil can make a difference. To tear us apart, to get us to just look at the worldly values and forget about—you know, that there’s something more important than the values of the world. And that’s why we’ve got to stand up and violently oppose this. We cannot let darkness overshadow us. We’ve got to be men and women who proclaim the light, and we’ve got to tell the truth, and we’ve got to be transparent, and we’ve got to say that government cannot do this to us."

I wish I didn't believe this, but I do think that somewhere, sometime there will be violent attacks in the US against people, businesses, offices, lawmakers, et al that the radical Right considers oppose their very narrow view of the world. It's a new low for clergy to advocate violence -- Bishop Nickless must want a cardinal's hat VERY badly indeed. But he's way out of sync with his own congregations: survey figures show that something like 92% of American Catholic women use birth control, so that horse left the barn so long ago that the farm has been sold and turned into condos.

There used to be a philosophy called "live and let live." It respected the beliefs and practices of others. Obviously, live and let live is dead. It makes no difference that Catholics are not being forced to use birth control, that Catholic and Evangelical women are not being marched off to the abortion parlors against their will. If they don't believe in it, then nobody can have it.


We're still awaiting the result of the current debate in the legislature here in NH over the bills to repeal same sex marriage.  I say bills because some alternates have been proposed that include downgrading all existing marriages into civil unions, which, contrary to the statements made, do NOT provide all the protections and benefits of marriage by a long shot.  Despite the well known fact that a 2 to 1 majority of NH citizens oppose repeal, the Republicans have announced that they have the votes to overturn governor Lynch's pre-announced veto should the repeal bill be approved.  Given the strong popular opposition to repeal, there are reports that at least some Republican legislators fear being voted out of office in this year's elections should they defy the voters.  Isn't that nice?

Here are some interesting figures quoted from a WMUR-TV story and some relevant political cartoons:   

"It's a time of change and the momentum is with gay marriage," said Michele Dillon, chair of the sociology department at UNH, who specializes in sociology and religion.  Poll after poll shows the "millennials" — those age 18 to 29 — overwhelmingly favoring same-sex marriage. "The younger generation is perplexed that it's even an issue," Dillon said. "They're just totally ahead on that."

The UNH poll indicates 71 percent of those age 18 to 34 "strongly oppose" repeal of New Hampshire's gay marriage law with another 14 percent somewhat opposing repeal.  In a PRRI poll taken last June, 62 percent of millennials favor gay marriage, including 49 percent who identified themselves as Republicans.

"It's just not a big deal for younger people," Smith said. "On the other hand, it's a big deal to their parents, and it's a really big deal to their grandparents.  It's like stair steps," Cox said. "As the age groups get older, there's more opposition.  The UNH poll found that of those 65 and older, 39 percent oppose repeal while 51 percent support it. The PRRI poll indicated 31 percent of those 65 and older favor gay marriage.

"Young people have friends who are gay and lesbian, and they don't see what all the hullabaloo's about," Cox said. "Their parents, on the other hand, didn't have those strong connections. I mean, they could have had gay or lesbian friends, but they never knew it. It wasn't accepted."

PRRI recently conducted a poll specifically asking members of different religions where they stood on the issue of gay marriage. The results show a divided nation religiously. Some 75 percent of all white evangelical Protestants, black Protestants and Mormons oppose gay marriage.

Favoring gay marriage were Jews (78 percent), non-Christian religiously affiliated Americans, including Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims (72 percent), white Catholics (56 percent), Hispanic Catholics (53 percent), and white mainline Protestants (52 percent).

"The religious/secular divide on this issue is shrinking pretty dramatically," Cox said.

Thursday, February 09, 2012


"PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- A group in Portsmouth is hoping to rehabilitate an abandoned five-story historic building in the city's downtown area.  The group 3S Artspace has plans to turn the old Frank Jones fermentation building off Islington Street into a 10,000-square-foot performance space, art gallery and farm-to-table restaurant.

"The building was once a hotdog factory and, before that, the largest brewery in the country.
"It's a huge project and one that I have been thinking about in one form or another since I was probably 15 years old," said Chris Greiner, co-founder of 3S Artspace.  The building was abandoned two decades ago and is one of the last buildings of its size available in the city.  "This is the frontier of Portsmouth, if ever there was a frontier in Portsmouth," Greiner said.
Greiner said he has lived in Portsmouth for 10 years and is a part of the arts and music scene. His group's name, 3S Artspace, refers to the three spaces planned for the building.  The project would be a multimillion-dollar renovation, and Greiner said it will rely on community funding.  "We've only been public with our project for a few days and already, the public support has been overwhelming," he said. "Literally overwhelming."  He said he hopes to open a year from now. "

Portsmouth is already an arty town, but the idea of another performance space and a decent-sized gallery is exciting, particularly as the age and style of the Frank Jones building suggests the flexible, ruggedly textured exhibit spaces that have been such successes for showing modern art at Mass MOCA, DIA Beacon, and several other converted industrial buildings.

Frank Jones had been mayor of Portsmouth and a Representative in the U.S. House when he lost the election for Governor of New Hampshire by a small margin in 1880 and rededicated himself to his various businesses which stretched all the way down to South Boston.  He expanded the Portsmouth Brewery in the massive red brick style of classic New England mill buildings. 

The Jones buildings covered a huge area and were very famous.  Most of them are gone now -- big as it seems today, the old fermentation building on the left, above, that Mr Greiner wants to convert is dwarfed by its now absent neighbor with the clock tower.

Jones also rebuilt the famous Rockingham, a handsome red brick Second Empire hotel with magnificent woodwork and stained glass windows, in the center of Portsmouth.  In 1879 he bought and massively expanded both the building and grounds of the Wentworth Hall inn, out of town on the New Hampshire shore, into a Belle Epoque grand hotel now known as Wentworth-by-the-Sea.  Sadly, Jones died three years before the 1905 gathering of international diplomats, military leaders, press and assorted dignitaries when President Theodore Roosevelt brokered the peace talks ending the Russo-Japanese War at Wentworth-by-the-Sea, using the Rockingham and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for associated activities.

The profits from the production of Jones Ale, a quarter of a million barrels of which were produced annually, were enormous, combined with the income from all his other enterprises. He purchased 1000 acres of land on the outskirts of Portsmouth and built Maplewood Farm and enjoyed it with his family for the last four years of his life.

Now shorn of it's 1000 acres and with Maplewood Avenue passing between its front steps and the tree on the left, Jones's home has been broken up into apartments.  But not too far away, one of the last remnants of his vast brewery may be about to take on a new and important role in Portsmouth's cultural life. 


This picture was not taken here at the house.  I found it on the web and wanted to share this delightful scene.  We have deer but they've never come this close to the house.  That we know of.


Sunday, February 05, 2012


In which The Blogger indulges in some Controversial Speculation

Not so very long ago I came across a religion-based blog called Queering the Church: Toward a Reality Based Theology (the link is in the side bar to the left).  It's common knowledge to friends and long-time readers of this blog that I was subjected to strong Catholic indoctrination as a child, rebelled against it and am now a happy, well-adjusted atheist who looks back in interest at the contortions Christianity in general goes through to impose its will on everyone and justify doing so.

A guest writer on Queering the Church (if an electronic entity can have a sexual orientation, can you guess what this one's might be?) wrote on the theme Was Jesus Homosexual?  Having been struck early in my Catholic education by the huge contradiction of the Church's condemnation of homosexuality versus the mass of naked male saints in Great Religious Art writhing in pain/pleasure as they're being martyred (Saint Sebastian being the poster boy for Catholic homoeroticism, see below) I replied with this comment:

It might help to put this discussion into the context of the culture in which Jesus was born and raised.  Can we assume that Judaism was as homophobic then as Orthodox and UltraOrthodox Jews are today?  If so, it is even more striking that Jesus never said one word against homosexuality -- or even about homosexuality.

But he didn't grow up and live in a wholly Jewish world; the Roman presence was very strong, open and accepting of all cultures (as long as they capitulated to Roman political dominance) and homosexuality was a given in Roman life, especially in the military.  Those sayings and encounters of Jesus concerning Romans (before falling into their hands at the end of his life) are all cordial -- pay Roman taxes, although that would not be a popular stance to take to a Jewish audience; and the celebrated supplication by the Roman officer on behalf of the man we now know, thanks to proper translation, to be his lover and not his servant.  Jesus had no problem healing the Roman's lover and even praised the man's faith in coming to him for assistance.  Not a word of rebuke, as with the woman taken in adultery, and no remarks about those decadent Romans and their pretty boys.

How many Romans did Jesus know?  About four miles from Nazareth was a Roman town with military presence.  There was a lot of construction work there and as the New Testament identifies Joseph as a carpenter and Jesus as going into his father's trade, it isn't impossible that they spent time there because the work was there.  Jesus may well have known Roman culture and been very comfortable with it.

So, was he homosexual?  Barring some sensational new documentation we'll almost surely never know his sexuality for certain (or barring some completely faithful translation of the gospels free of the manipulation they've been subjected to over the centuries, or barring a major, unprejudiced  reconsideration of the many gospels the Catholic Church decided to suppress over the centuries because they didn't say what the Church wanted them to say).  But one fact that I don't usually hear as part of the discussion stands out: Jesus never married.  Now aside from all the old jokes about Mary wailing, "Oy, I want grandchildren and my son runs around the country with twelve men," which may or may not be an indication of something, not marrying would not be typical.  Or perhaps he did marry young in the usual parent-arranged marriage and it failed -- there are those three decades of "hidden years" after all, for which no records survive that we know of.  Who knows what might have been going on?


A couple of typical and clearly homoerotic representations of Saint Sebastian in Renaissance/Baroque art:

 By the artist Carlo Saraceni -- note the placement and angle of the arrow -- as if you could miss it.  
In a collection in Prague.

By Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, nicknamed Il Sodoma which means exactly what you think it does, and which he delighted in because of his coterie of "handsome young men and beardless youths."  None of that stopped the Pope from granting him a knighthood.  In the Pitti Palace in Florence.


Wednesday, February 01, 2012


The Sculpture Post

The Boston Art Commission has narrowed down to three finalists the possible designs for a Memorial to the noted American author Edgar Allan Poe. I suspect Poe is thought of much more in relation to Baltimore, but he was born in Boston and had an unfortunately rocky start in life there. As the years passed he had little regard for the city, and Boston felt the same about him. But just as John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac were eventually embraced by their home towns (once they became really famous writers, cynics might say) Boston is now proposing to reclaim Poe on highly visible ground near the Common and Public Gardens.

The three finalists are all women, and two of them have collaborators in realizing their designs. The work of all three is being shown at the Boston Public Library; will public reaction be a major, or even THE major component in deciding which artist gets her creation chosen?

Los Angeles artist Jennifer Bonner has the most high concept entry. From some of the information on her site, it would seem that the transparent walls of her construction will act as projection surfaces, possibly triggered by the approach of visitors. If I'm correct, the ephemeral projections could be a reference to the hallucinatory nature of some of Poe's work.

This sculpture by Anne Hirsch of Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, is placed on what strikes me an a poorly designed plinth. The figures seem to me to have some real power and darkness about them but the base strikes me as bland, dominant in the wrong way, and unrelated to what it supports.

Blogger Mike Mennonno pointed out a possibly problematic resemblance between the female figure's pose and draped face, and the infamous photograph of the torture victim at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He felt it might sink Ms Hirsch's chances of having her work chosen as the winner.  I hadn't caught that association but can easily see how others could.   I see her more as an Angel of Death figure.

The most dynamic of the three finalist works is by Stephanie Rocknak of Oneonta, NY.  I can imagine this one being the public favorite. Poe appears to be fleeing while his valise explodes, scattering its contents and releasing the raven from his most famous work. Too obvious? I see panic, fear and menace in this work which may be just right.

Your thoughts?


Emergency Exit, sculpture by Chen Wenling

This piece raises SO many questions about construction and support techniques! And is that really just a monumental fart that has shot the bull onward and upward?


The following popped up on a couple of Facebook pages today and several of the resulting comments took it to be real.  The fact is that there is no Whitson University in the US, and while College Hill is a college neighborhood in Worcester, MA, the zip code is for Naples Florida. 

As someone who's experienced the frustrations of the process of job application to institutes of higher education, from both the applicant's and the search committee member's point of view, I found this satirical piece a delightful and poignant comment.

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