Monday, May 25, 2009

The Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago

If you grew up in the Midwest Chicago will always be a comfortable city. Unlike New York Chicago is a city where the country and the city flow together almost seamlessly. The streets continue out into the suburbs and the flat Midwestern plains are not far away from the artificial mountains that sit at the middle of our metropolis. Everything about Chicago is comfortable, except the weather.

Until recently the special exhibitions and permanent collections of Chicago's Museum's were not especially provocative. One can become exhausted in museums such as the Metropolitan in New York or the Tate in London but our museum's never gave the visitor that sense of being overwhelmed until now.

The Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago is a masterpiece created for Chicago by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The juxtaposition of this new wing (It is almost the same size as the old museum) with the staid and terminally Midwestern be aux arts building that is joins is jarring and overwhelming.

Most Chicagoans view the Art Institute in the same way they view Comiskey Park or Wrigley Field. They know what they are going to get and it is 'nice' in a Midwestern way. The Modern Wing changes everything. The old standards are no longer in the Art Institute. The room of armor, the Chagall Windows, the small galleries filled with Cezannes and Monets are a thing of the past now and this is a welcome change.

The first thing you notice in the Modern Wing is the quality of the light. Unlike the older sections of the Art Institute the Modern Wing is filled with natural light. A kind of atrium joins the Museum to the city and the street. Out of every window you can see the 360 degree panorama of the city. On one side you have the many famous buildings of the Michigan Av Streetwall, on the other the Wing is joined to Millenium Park by a wonderful over the street footbridge and on the other side you can see the water and the lake.

The gallery spaces are not only filled with some of the most important works of art of the past 100 years (Modern beginning in 1915)- But the galleries are so open and light filled that you can actually enjoy the paintings in many different settings. I especially liked the design and furniture rooms which are filled with drawings and models of famous buildings and design pieces.
There are whole rooms filled with installations and rooms for films. In the end the whole museum allows you to get a sense of art since 1915 that in the old museum seemed an afterthought in relation to the Art Institute's enormous French Impressionist collection.

Another aspect of the museum that is interesting are the public spaces. The Terzo Piano restaurant sits on the roof and has easily the best views of the downtown. A garden is still under construction but it melds well with the Lurie Shoulder Garden in Millennium Park.

The thing that the Modern Wing does most effectively is remove provincialism from the Art Institute. For many of us who grew up on the Art Institute it always seemed that we were in Bertha Honore Palmer's Salon in the pre-Modern Wing museum .

That stodginess has been eliminated. The only criticism that I have is that to get from the lobby to the pedestrian bridge there are only down escalators creating a line at the only Elevator but this is a traffic issue and does not take away from Piano's triumph.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Flarf- Conceptual Poetry and CNBC

Since so many people around the world are going through the Great Recession with me it has become a kind of group experience. No matter what happens in my day the reality of the Great Recession is right there like a muscle pull always reminding you of what might be.

I have had time however to think about the situation we as a world find ourselves in and something has become clear to me. The reason we are in this situation is because of elites and their domination of the conversation.

I often watch CNBC during the day. This is just to avoid TV shows with Depends ads. As you listen to the business leaders on the screen it becomes very clear that none of them are in danger of losing anything. They all went to the best schools, they all come from the best places and when this is over they will still be on top. It is kind of like watching a poetry panel with Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten and Michael Palmer their place is secure and they have no fear.

The result is that the realities of life and the fear of many of us are abstractions to them. All of the TV personalities also live in a dream world. They all speak the same language and talk about the same things. The millions of people who have lost so much are simply not real to them. The result of all of this is that when this is over the Elites will be on top and the rest of us will be left with the scraps on the floor.

One respite in this sea of stress and vexation for me are pod casts. I especially like New York’s WNYC they have great conversations especially the Leonard Lopate show. I downloaded a poetry reading the other day that was held at the Whitney- advertised as a “poetry war” between Flarfists and Conceptualists.

Here is the URL to listen to the reading

I was interested because most podcasts about poetry suck. So I put this one on my ipod and went to the gym. I thought perhaps it would motivate me to write? The poets who read were Christian Bök, Nada Gordon, Kenneth Goldsmith, Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad, Kim Rosenfield, Gary Sullivan, and Darren Wershler

Kenneth Goldsmith who was the empresario of this event at the very fancy NY Whitney Museum set up some faux war between the Conceptualists and the Flarfists which is as relevant to our current world situation about as much as a war between Dungeons and Dragons Devotees and those who prefer Mist on Playstation.

It became clear as this podcast played on that what caused the economic meltdown- the elites serving elites and ignoring the effects of their work on society as a whole-- is also true in poetry. Goldsmith talked about ‘that in poetry there still is an avant garde’ and that these two groups are totally separate from the ‘mainstream’ poets who are getting published in the New Yorker.

Is he really serious?

Do people still worry about that? The way I look at it at least the New Yorker Poet gets a check with which he or she can buy some beer.

The reading began with someone bleating sounds then Christian Bok read his elitist drivel. Nada Gordon’s poem on why she loves men is sort of funny at the beginning but then you begin to think if a man wrote that poem using the same tone about women he would probably be called violent and misogynistic.

K Silem Mohammed’s reworked Sonnets are clever but he lost me when he said that he was the smartest man in the room. The poetry does not sound that different than many other experimental poets work? It must be the marketing that makes it better? Or am I missing something? Or is it because allot of it comes from New York and San Francisco?

The Podcast played and it became interesting to see how close its tone was to CNBC and the talking heads there. You had all the inside jokes and special words, which are also central to the elites on CNBC and secret codes (Flarf, NASDAQ). The separation from reality and the affinity with fine things and aversion to the ordinary the sense of being set apart from the masses. The elitism in this poetry reading oozed over the airwaves. This group of poets- who are mostly college professors- continued to ply their elitism not realizing how cliché they have become.

I have been spending allot of time lately reading through the 1930’s. In the Autumn of 2006 issue of Chicago Review Kenneth Rexroth was profiled and I have come to appreciate him more and more. In a letter to Jonathan Williams in 1951 he said that following about poets that I think applies

“keep away from dilettantes, potters and weavers, get your nose in the sweaty armpits of real people”

Maybe these folks need to get out of the Whitney....

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day

In the middle of the 20th Century self described Catholic writers, poets and activists mattered to global discourse. Today most Catholic poets and writers try to play down that part of their lives because many times the Church makes being faithful and thoughtful impossible.

In these days when Catholics are arguing whether it is acceptable for Barack Obama, the President of the United States to speak at Notre Dame. We look at a near past where intellectual discourse was welcomed within Catholic institutions.

The pre-Vatican II Church was more dogmatic and has been rightfully vilified as close minded in many things but it was also far more open than today's Church to debate. Within the same Church at the same time Dorothy Day and William F Buckley wrote, spoke and both were viewed as good Catholics.

During the period from 1930-1980 important Catholic intellectuals, activists, poets and writers like; John Courtney Murray SJ who with Reinhold Niebuhr defined a theology for the nuclear age; Flannery O'Connor, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, William F Buckley, Malcolm Muggeridge, William Everson, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac, and Jacques Maritain all wrote important literature . These thinkers were not just read by a small ghetto of conservatives but often graced the cover of Time Magazine.

Catholics were also central in social change globally. Ernesto Cardinal in Nicaragua, Dom Helder Camara in Brazil, Cesar Chavez in the USA, Charles De Foucould in France, Pope John XXIII, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, were all witnesses for peace and justice and among all of these great figures perhaps the most interesting and important for American Lay Catholics was Dorothy Day of New York.

In The Duty of Delight, The Edited Diaries of Dorothy Day, from Marquette University Press, Robert Ellsberg a long time editor for Orbis Books and friend of Dorothy's gives us 5 decades of her inner most thoughts. In this volume we get to experience the Depression in New York- and realize how our current economic situation is similar. Day also lets us see what it meant in Catholic parlance for a Lay Woman to start an organization with the word Catholic in the title. Along with Paul Elie's 'The Life You Save May Be Your Own.' Robert Ellsberg's Duty of Delight revives a lost world. A world that we are not likely to see again in our age of narrowcasting and Facebook.

The Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day's organization was uncompromising. Founded with her friend French philosopher Peter Maurin the Worker believed in the corporal works of mercy (See Matthew 25) were central. The Worker also believed in Labor Unions, Pacifism, and apostolic poverty which flumuxed Marxists and Conservatives alike. Dorothy Day was a radical the way St Francis was a radical and this upset everyone. She believed that the reason that there was war and poverty is because we failed to love as Jesus loved. Day was arrested in her life hundreds of times protesting war and poverty. She believed as well that the urine caked Bowery bum was the image of Christ and she lived accordingly. The Catholic Worker newspaper is still published over 70 years later and over 100 Catholic Worker houses exist today.

In a May 1973 entry in the diary she defined her creed;

" I am dogmatic, I believe in the Divinity of Christ, Christ as God, and Redeemer, Saviour, True God and True Man. I believe in a Heaven and Hell, Resurrection of the Body, Life Everlasting. I believe with St Augustine that we are all members or potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ,. In other words we are all members of one another and that if the health of one member suffers the health of the whole body is lowered. I also believe with the IWW (Early 20th Century Marxist Organization) that an injury to one is an injury to all" (TDD: P 531)

The Catholic Worker was listed in 1957 along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by J Edgar Hoover as Communist Front organizations. The FBI director wanted to arrest Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King as subversives. I guess Dorothy would have thought it good company. In the Duty of Delight Day's reflections on her many friends important people like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton and Cesar Chavez are shared. But she also introduces activist priests, sisters and lay people who today are not remembered.

The book ends with Dorothy Day's death in 1980. 1980 was a perfect time for her to leave us. Soon after her death a campaign to marginalize the kind of activism promoted by Vatican II, Pope John XXIII, and his encyclical Pacem in Terris, and the Catholic Worker was begun by Right Wing groups and the Church Magisterium.

Today most of the important Catholic thinkers and activists of Day's time are not highlighted in Catholic media or in Catholic parishes. On many Catholics sites every major Catholic thinker and activist of the 20th Century from Day to Merton to Murray to John XXIII will not be mentioned because of some concern about "Doctrinal Purity". In fact the website Catholic Culture (Right Wing) Says of the Catholic Worker website "This site has articles which distort the Church's social teaching by promoting a radical pacifism." As if Jesus was something other than a pacifist? It seems to me that Dorothy Day would have laughed at that.

In the end The Duty of Delight edited by Robert Ellsberg shares with the world the inner life of an extraordinary woman. While the Church continues to canonize people for creating new novenas or devotions Dorothy Day's "cause" for sainthood is stalled in Rome. Could it be that she is already a saint and we should not bother with the paperwork?