Down with Renoir!

Yesterday at noon, protesters began to chant: “Rosy cheeks are for clowns / Do your job, take them down.” Another: “God hates Renoir! God hates Renoir!” The number of people attending the protest in front of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts numbered in the middle-to-high single digits, according to reports.

Max Geller, a political organizer, hates Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the Impressionist painter who died in 1919 and never used anything but pastels in any of his several many famous and gigantic works. If one could type a sentence that used air quotes and then took them away and then replaced them again, one might perhaps begin to convey a sense of how completely almost serious and almost mocking and yet earnestly this hatred is felt.

Protest is important. In a free country, one ought to be able to protest anything and everything. This happens to be a free country, and the display of Renoir’s frenetically-dabbed pastel pastorals is as good an object of protest as many. (Not “any,” but many.) Two of his works have fetched more than $70 million at auction in the last quarter-century, so the received perceived wisdom in both the art world and the world world is that Renoir’s many giant works are good and valuable.
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My Favorite Cave

The aurochs is an extinct form of cattle that overlapped with humans for tens of thousands of years. It lived in Europe, North Africa, and western Asia; the last one died in 1627. We domesticated it: Our modern-day beef cattle and dairy cows are descended from the aurochs and some of them bear a deep resemblance to the extinct animal. (Picture a bull in a bullfight, but make the animal taller and even more muscular; this would have made a bullfight a bit more even.) The reason for the extinction of the aurochs is the all-too familiar one, and it can be summed up as: Humans have enjoyed beef for a very long time.

Early modern humans, homo sapiens, showed up around 100,000 years ago, and we really started to leave a mark on the landscape around 40,000 years ago. This is deep in our prehistory, and no one knows what our Upper Paleolithic ancestors were thinking. It just appears that thinking is something they were doing.
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You Can Help Opus 40; Here’s How

In November I wrote a column about a fundraising campaign to help restore one of my favorite places, Opus 40, in Saugerties, NY. There is a new fundraising campaign this month—and you can help.

Every year, Ulster Savings Bank, an upstate New York institution (it was my bank for years), holds an online vote to pick a nonprofit organization for a cash award. The top award is $3000, which is not much, but as I have explained in previous articles, every bit helps in the rebuilding of the damaged parts of the sculpture park. You do not need to be a Hudson Valley local to vote.

If you click on this link right here: (Mid-Hudson Heroes), you will find Opus 40 at the top. If you have a Facebook account, you can vote. Further, you can vote every 24 hours between now and March 6. Opus 40 is only one of approximately 150 nonprofit organizations being recognized by the bank, so every vote counts.
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The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Kampf zwischen Fasching und Fasten (“The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”) depicts today, the day before Lent. Today is an important enough day in the Christian calendar to go by a few nicknames: Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” “Pancake Day.”

Any day that is associated with food, whether because restrictions are about to be imposed or restrictions are to be erased for one special day, by rights ought to have as many nicknames as it can bear.
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Connect the Colors

For those with synesthesia, the world seems no more interconnected than they assume it always is for the rest of us, until the person with the condition casually mentions how lively and bright blue the letter K always is to a playmate, who then reacts in a baffled way.

It is a condition that an unknown number of people have, but it is a condition to which the modifier “suffers” can not be added, because it does not often have negative effects on an individual’s life. It is not known how many people have or might have some form of synesthesia because not many people take the time or are offered the opportunity to describe the way they perceive how they perceive the things they perceive.

A person who is color-blind usually learns at a young age that there is a color that everyone else sees and can name that they do not see. (I am a person who does not have color-blindness, so I have difficulty describing it. I have had color-blind friends, and one, a great writer, made it sound like something I wanted to experience, too, which was not his aim.) Opportunities do not present themselves very often to mention that when they see blue they taste sweet, and when the first opportunity comes and the synesthete takes it and is met with a puzzled look that they interpret as criticism, most do not mention it again.

It is a world of connections that the synesthete occupies, with sounds presenting colors or colors tastes. At its most benign, it is not an intrusive sensation; there are not many reports of individuals avoiding specific words or numbers because of a foul taste or harsh sound, or vice versa. But there are some. Most people with synestesia report that the experience is an awareness that, for instance, a color is involved with the letter or word they are looking at. It is something that can be ignored or enjoyed.

Somewhere in my school days, I must have mentioned seeing words as I speak them, and the classmate to whom I told this must have made me feel terrible. What remains in my memory is a ghost of a thought that I was somehow a bad person for this and needed to tell on myself to the teacher the next time we had a spelling bee: I thought I was cheating whenever I “saw” a spoken word and could spell it out loud as if it was in front of me. (I think I did try in my eight-year-old way to tell her and was met with a baffled look.) Maybe I am simply a very good speller and that’s that. Maybe everyone sees their speech. (It is always word by word, not whole sentences and they are always white letters.) If it is a form of synesthesia, it is the most boring case of it anywhere, ever, and all it ever did for me was earn me a lot of 100s in spelling tests in elementary school.

To this day, if I concentrate, I see the words I speak … somewhere in my perception. Not so plainly that they block what I am looking at in reality, but they are somewhere, usually to my left. This was the case when I studied foreign languages, too, the spelling just came naturally. There are words that never show up, though, and those are the words I always need to look for.

How does one describe one’s perception? Perception may be the most unique and personal portion of human experience—or it may be the most identical; either way, we do not have a means of testing it, except based on anecdotes from individuals. Perhaps strawberries taste the same for you as they do for me—in which case, Hooray for us! because “strawberry” is the best flavor, period—or they do not. And there is no boundary definitively marking the areas in which a “blue always seems to cheer me up” casual causality that most people express and the areas in which a child can spell, not because of an “i before e” rule, but because red always goes to the left of green, which tastes better anyway.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for June 7 asks, “If you were forced to give up one sense, but gain super-sensitivity in another, which senses would you choose?”

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 21 asks, “You can singlehandedly create a causal relation between two things that are currently unconnected—a word and an emotion, a song and an extreme weather event, wearing a certain color and winning the lottery. What cause would you link to what effect, and why?”

And please visit and participate in the Alterna-Prompt, “The Blog Propellant.”

Grade School Avant Garde

Art that is odd for the sake of the odd is often neither. Sometimes it is both. Meet the Lettrists.

Greil Marcus, in his essential history book, “Lipstick Traces,” describes a particular type of artist:

There is a figure who appears in this book again and again. His instincts are basically cruel; his manner is intransigent. He trades in hysteria but is immune to it. He is beyond temptation, because despite his utopian rhetoric satisfaction is the last thing on his mind. He is unutterably seductive, yet he trails bitter comrades behind him like Hansel his breadcrumbs … He is a moralist and a rationalist, but he presents himself as a sociopath … No matter how violent his mark on history, he is doomed to obscurity, which he cultivates as a sign of profundity.

Marcus’ book places the punk rock movement of the late ’70s in a “secret history” of western culture beginning in the 17th Century but he finds his greatest excitement in recounting the stories of the Dadaists, the Lettrists, and the Situationist International.

Often, it is the same story, though: Revolutionary thinker(s) who create art via revolutionary thought that (sometimes angrily or destructively) confronts the norms of the era are largely ignored by the culture at large except by a few who incorporate the new art in more popular forms. Something that was created with great energy, occupied 100% of its creator’s brain, becomes a tiny part, sometimes less than 1%, of a larger movement and a footnote in history.

The Lettrists are an example. Some of them are still going, 70 years after Isidore Isou came up with the idea. What was the idea? That the alphabet is a random bit of socially acceptable ordering of language, yet we make many more sounds than are indicated by our 26 letters. Sneezes should have a place in an alphabet, because, well, they communicate.

Here is Orson Welles interviewing Maurice Lemaître and Isou, who is the poet in the center who can not seem to stop grinning:

The dedication to the fantasy of a new language is powerful to witness, but I am not a fan of other people’s fantasies. There is little different between Tolkien and Isou in that they both invented unique alphabets; for me, Isou’s attempts at expanding our way of describing life here on earth is more interesting. But interesting is all that it is. It is seductive in its lack of seductiveness.

Give me Lettrism over “Lord of the Rings” and give me the Sex Pistols over either.

Further, the so-called “flash mobs” that have been invading retail spaces over the last decade or so are the offspring of the Situationists of the late 1960s, except the Situationists wrote long manifestos and conducted public debates about things like the idea of society, and flash mob participants consider the fact of a group making a group statement to be the statement, period. And now flash mobs are a part of any media campaign’s advertising budget.

Yes, I am a cranky “get off my lawn” old man in my punk tastes. This is because I am a cranky old man, deep down, deeper than any punk can reach. (Or this makes me very punk, but no one can declare themselves that.) In the late ’70s one of my schoolmates was an import from London named Dan, and he already had terrible teeth (we were 10 or 11), a gaudy accent, and wore torn t-shirts and played music whose major point was its loudness. (Or so it seemed to my ears.) I wish I could write that in 1978-’79 I was friends with a London kid who introduced me to the Sex Pistols and The Clash, but I can not. I detested the noise. I was also introduced to rap music around then or even earlier: another elementary school classmate was rapping like Gil Scott-Heron in 1976, but we were 8 and what little rap that I remember was about his birthday party.

In the 1990s, I fell in love with what was by then ancient punk rock and started to absorb it; around this same time Johnny Rotten/John Lydon started to become a beloved cultural figure in Great Britain, which he remains.

The energy of anger, the cultural energy of anger, the dedication to anarchy (which brooks no dedication), rarely appealed to me and more frequently scared me. Any anarchists in my circle brought out my inner parent, which is probably why I hated them all the more. (Hate? Wait a second. I do not hate …)

The violence of change indicates a world of absolutes, of either-ors; a world that includes shades of gray and a third way presents yet another either-or, however: Either we live in a universe of absolutes or we do not. The revolutionaries live in the hyphen between the either and the or and like the hyphen, life there is brief. Every culture has an avant garde, and every culture defeats it by ignoring and then absorbing it.

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Image at the top found at: Ideological Art.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 15 asks, “From your musical tastes to your political views, were you ever way ahead of the rest of us, adopting the new and the emerging before everyone else?”

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