Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

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Twin Peaks theory

Twin Peaks Gold EditionWhile Twin Peaks fans have been mourning the loss of Log Lady, Catherine Coulson, we’ve also been eagerly anticipating the reboot and wondering how it’s going to fill that log-shaped void. Twin Peaks was a sensation when it premiered in 1989; no one had ever seen anything like it on primetime national television. What strikes most folks on first viewing, understandably, is how bizarre the show is. (One of my favorite bits of dialogue: Dale Cooper to Sheriff Truman: “Who’s the lady with the log?” Sheriff Truman: “We call her the Log Lady.”) An FBI agent who employs Zen Buddhist detecting techniques? A dancing dwarf in a red room? A giant who gives cryptic clues? A schizophrenic one-armed shoe salesman? What the hell is going on? (Given the nature of the “Black Lodge,” that might actually be the right question.)

A few things struck me on second viewing. First, the second season (or let’s say everything after the Laura Palmer plot has been “resolved”) is not as bad as I remembered. It helped that I skipped all the scenes involving James and Nadine. Heather Graham was not as terrible as I had first thought—her stilted delivery could generously be ascribed to her character’s awkward attempt to readjust to society after a spell in a convent—and her character actually is an intriguing love interest for Dale Cooper (although Cooper’s IQ seems to plummet precipitously once he turns doe-eyed suitor.) But the second season’s bad guy, Wyndham Earle, is a poor man’s Hannibal Lecter and a tired cliche compared to the chthonic terror of Bob.

Twin Peaks tarotAnd that, I think, is what made the Laura Palmer story arc so deeply satisfying. All the Lynchian weirdness spiced up what is, in essence, an ancient and archetypal story. Twin Peaks is a medieval allegory. Bob is the dragon terrorizing the village. Laura Palmer is “virgin” princess (the Prom Queen) made sacrificial victim. Dale Cooper is the Knight in shining armor, defender of the good and upholder of an ancient code of honor. Sheriff Truman is the trusted squire and noble companion. Andy is the Village Idiot. Benjamin Horne is the gluttonous King (are there any scenes of him not eating something?) and Catherine the malevolent Queen. The Log Lady is the Mystic (or maybe her log is? Or Sergeant Briggs?). Harold is the Hermit (J’ai une âme solitaire.) And so on. The whole dramatis personae is effectively a Tarot deck (an idea some clever artist has actually exploited.) Twin Peaks at its best taps into deep, powerfully unshakable archetypes—the weirdness is the just the garnish.

R.I.P. Catherine Coulson

Ashland, OR, where my family lives, is mourning the passing of a beloved community member and Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor, Catherine Coulson.

Although she played an astonishing array of characters on stage, she will forever be identified with the iconic role of the “Log Lady” on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It’s a pretty awesome legacy, in my opinion (as you might tell by my pen and ink drawing of her in the role), and one that Catherine embraced wholeheartedly. When my dad told her it was my birthday and that I was a fan of Twin Peaks she sent me a signed postcard and reminded me that “the Owls are not what they seem.” It was just one small example of the generosity and benevolence she was known for in the Ashland community. I’m deeply saddened I won’t be able to see her on the boards at the OSF or revel in her resuming her role as the Log Lady for the Showtime reboot of the series, but I know that she’s reunited with her log in the White Lodge.

Why We Make Things and Why It Matters

Pete Korn - Why We Make Things

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Peter Korn’s Why We Making Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman is a smart and engaging bildungsroman — the story of how the pot-smoking, draft-dodging son of a lawyer and doctor became one of the country’s most acclaimed furniture designer-makers. It is no accident, in Korn’s account, that a thoughtful college kid looking for a meaningful life in the early 1970s would turn to “craft” for answers—the road had been laid in the late 19th century by John Ruskin and William Morris, the founding fathers of the British Arts and Crafts movement. “Craft” as a concept—a way of thinking and interpreting the world—arguably begins with the Arts and Crafts challenge to the Industrial Revolution (with its exploited labor, polluted cities, crass commercialism and mass-manufactured commodities). An inheritor of Ruskin and Morris’s theories, Korn draws a parallel between making furniture with “simplicity, integrity, and grace” and arriving at “a vision of how life could and should be lived.”

Peter Korn - woodworking-basics

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It is important to remember that “craft” as we understand it (artisanal, handmade, non-alienated, combining manual and intellectual labor) was invented by socialists. It was a politicized concept from the beginning. Craft became a means to designate an aesthetic and social system in radical opposition to prevailing modes of capitalist production. If the Craftsman has become a mythic, Romanticized figure—sure-of-hand, morally upright, and industrious in idyllic surrounding—that owed in large measure to the compensatory and utopian quality of the Arts and Crafts ideas about  the nature of joyful labor, the moral welfare of the worker, the health of society, and the holistic interconnectedness of those issues. As Korn observes, “Furniture, after all, is more than an object of contemplation; it is a prescription for the life to be lived around it.”

Korn’s answers to the question Why We Make Things and Why It Matters closely resemble Ruskin’s and Morris’s before him. Craft offers a practical form of building Utopia. (Utopia considered not as a static place but as a process.) One of Korn’s insights from a life of craftwork is that “a good life was not some Shangri-La waiting to be stumbled upon. One constructed it from the materials at hand.”

Exhibition Review: “Unfortunately, It Was Paradise”

paradise1The journal Contemporaneity has published my review of Regina Mamou’s haunting series of photographs, “Unfortunately, It Was Paradise” (Chicago, IL — City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, 2013-2014).  Using various Midwest utopian communities as her subject allowed Mamou to explore the relationship between geography and ideology — how certain utopian ideals and convictions become embedded in physical spaces . I admired the way she put pressure on photography to elicit psychological and spiritual states, something she is continuing to investigate in her new work (check out her website). It was a pleasure to reflect on her thoughtful, fascinating series.

Mist shrouds an open field; the softness suffocates. In Fieldwork (Blue) Regina Mamou stages the paradox of immanence and imminence—God always and everywhere on the verge of appearing: a stifling remoteness, an intimate distance.  The “field” could be visual, physical, conceptual; The “work” is the visual object, the photograph, or the physical work of agriculture, or the conceptual realm of the divine: God in the godliness of good works, of work accomplished in the service of collective wellbeing.

The review is available as a PDF for download through Contemporaneity’s website.

F for Fake

F for Fake - WellesThe charming, sly, and irrepressible movie sorcerer Orson Welles cast his last spell with the little seen and arguably less understood F for Fake (1973). It’s one of those strange and enchanting movies that still feel ahead of their time — a fiendishly clever pseudo-documentary that is like the hall-of-mirrors sequence in Lady from Shanghai extended to 90 minutes. Ostensibly the movie is about an art forger, Elmyr de Hory (seen in the film signing a painting “Orson Welles”), and his biographer, Clifford Irving, who turns out be a fraud himself. Down the rabbit hole we go, meeting Howard Hughes and Pablo Picasso along the way.

Towards the end of the film there’s a (seemingly — since nothing is quite as it seems in this movie) heartfelt paean to Chartres cathedral as the premiere human achievement (made, Welles notes, by anonymous craftsmen not celebrity artists) that is worth the price of admission alone. Welles’ lyrical language in this passage owes something I think to John Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksmjh8LL2zA[/youtube]

The discourse of craftsmanship deals heavily in questions of authenticity versus artificiality, honesty versus deception, natural versus synthetic. F for Fake is Welles’ own meditation (if that’s the right word for a movie so dizzying and rapid-fire) on Picasso’s old adage that art is a “lie to tell the truth.” As his own star dimmed, Welles showed young upstarts like Jean Luc Godard how the cinematic essay should be done — intoxicating, intelligent, breezy, adventurous and fun.

Ridiculing Ruskin

Mr TurnerMr. Turner is a handsome film with a complex and charismatic performance by Timothy Spall as the irascible British Romantic painter, JMW Turner. Not since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire has an actor used inarticulate grunts and mumbles so effectively and expressively. While the portrayal of Turner is sympathetic without being sycophantic, the quality of the film is marred, in my view, by a bizarre characterization of art and social critic, John Ruskin (played by Joshua McGuire, who is certainly having fun), as a lisping, foppish nitwit. An otherwise powerful and affecting film does itself a disservice by treating one of the towering intellects of the nineteenth century—not to mention Turner’s most articulate and ardent admirer—with such contempt. There is no doubt that Ruskin could be a strange and pathetic figure, but to portray him as a simpering McGuire as Ruskinnincompoop is just historically wrong. (To give just one clue to Ruskin’s influence, George Bernard Shaw once said that Ruskin’s Unto This Last converted more of the English working class to socialism than Karl Marx.) In trying to contrast Turner’s earthy potency to Ruskin’s critical grandstanding, the filmmakers have to overlook the fact that Ruskin (in addition to being one of the Victorian era’s great prose stylists) was a brilliant draftsman and watercolorist in his own right.

I sat down to pen a lengthy defense of Ruskin in light of this character assassination but discovered to my relief that a writer over at The Guardian had already done the work:

On behalf of John Ruskin, I would like to sue Mike Leigh for defamation of character. In Mr Turner, Leigh’s astonishing and sweepingly beautiful new film, the painter’s greatest champion has been traduced. Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire, is a simpering Blackadderish caricature of an art intellectual: a lisping, red-headed, salon fop.

I almost felt physically sick when I saw him onscreen…This posthumous portrait is unconscionable.

Read the rest of the article here. 

The Pope, Morris, and the Environment

Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home

Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home

Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, has generated a massive amount of press coverage, commentary and controversy. I really appreciate a Pope who short-circuits the easy and predigested categories of “red” and “blue” politics: he is too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals (meaning, I guess, that he’s an orthodox Catholic). This has caused mass confusion bordering on hysteria among the culture warriors bent on “us vs. them” logic. “Laudato Si” is a plea for a rapid and holistic response to the environmental crisis, and the terms in which Pope Francis couches his argument are familiar to anyone interested in the Arts and Crafts movement. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history,” Pope Francis writes, decrying the evil effects of economic industrialization on the poor and the environment.  There is a suspicion of so-called “progress” and the way technology “tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic” and sacrifices the economically and ecologically vulnerable along the way. There is an aesthetic as well as moral and spiritual dimension to the Pope’s plea for urgent action: ““The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

For William Morris, the beauty of the natural world was the source and summit of artistic expression. His socialism was in no small measure a response to how capitalism degraded and exploited the environment for profit.  An active member of early environmental and conservation organizations, Morris understood that a vital aspect of restoring joy and dignity to labor would be reintegrating workers with their environment. Labor should belong to the natural cycle of things, not to a system of exploitation and destruction for profit or gain. No one, he wrote, should be “allowed to cut down, for mere profit, trees whose loss would spoil a landscape: neither on any pretext should people be allowed to darken the daylight with smoke, to befoul rivers, or to degrade any spot of earth with squalid litter and brutal wasteful disorder.” Morris would have approved, I think, of Pope Francis’ simple assertion that “everything is connected,” and the implications that follow for how to “care for our common home.”

 

Theaster Gates and William Morris

A Guardian article/interview with Chicago-based artist, Theaster Gates, makes it clear that the “poster boy for socially engaged art” has a lot in common with William Morris. It’s unsurprising that Morris’s commitment to art as anti-capitalist activism would resonate with contemporary artists. His interest in the relationship between craft, labor, and the environment still seems ahead of its time, not to mention his trenchant criticisms of a capitalist system in which art is reduced to an exchangeable commodity, sold to the highest (richest) bidder, such as the recent sale of a Picasso for a mind-boggling $179 million.

wpid-theaster_gatesAsked if he were a superhero Gates says he would be the Unknown Craftsman: “You know! Mask and cape, making anonymous interventions, changing the city forever.” Sounds like a man after Morris’s heart. Gates, son of a roofer, adheres to a “philosophy of pride in things done well, made well,” which he calls part of his “strategy of hope” for urban renewal and repurposing houses in low-income neighborhoods. His first show at White Cube was called My Labor is My Protest, an apt expression for Morris’s insistence that joyful labor would help combat social ills. Like Morris, Gates is interested in workshop practice and communal production, investing in wood and metal shops. When asked directly if William Morris influences his work, he answered:

“I think, as William Morris realised, as new power structures emerged, some things were being lost for ever. I am into that. I’d rather have a communal cinematheque than Netflix, so I’ll make one. The people I work with, they love each other now. They are like family. All of the scales are exciting for me, from wanting to make a pot to getting 60 people to make something well. It’s the same feeling. We believe in the things we make.”

The fact that Gates, one of the most exciting contemporary artists working today, shares many of the same values as William Morris (and is confronting many of the same entrenched social problems) proves the ongoing relevance of Morris’s thought. I think Morris would consider Gates one of history’s “pilgrims of hope,” using labor as a form of protest and work as a form of communal uplift and renewal.

theaster

Guardian review of Morris exhibition at National Portrait Gallery

MacCarthy - Morris

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With all the Left Front hullabaloo dying down, I’m finally able to catch up on some overdue reading from the last couple of months. That includes reviews of shows I desperately wish I’d had the time and travel funds to see this past year. Particularly Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960, a National Portrait Gallery exhibition curated by Morris biographer Fiona MacCarthy that closed earlier this year. The exhibition received predictably mixed reviews. I say “predictably” only because Morris remains a controversial and divisive figure — someone whose promethean energy (which found channels in poetry, design, publishing, and socialist politics) is impossible to adequately capture in a single exhibition.

264_Anarchy_Beauty

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That said, a brief review of Anarchy and Beauty by Jonathan Jones at the Guardian manages to be condescending, confusing, and historically inaccurate all in a breathlessly meagre few paragraphs, rendering the author’s negative judgment on the exhibition suspect.

The review begins promisingly enough by protesting that the exhibition reduced Morris to liberal pieties (fair enough: turning firebrands like William Blake and Morris into homegrown heroes evinces the culture industry’s endless ingenuity at de-fanging radical criticism). But it turns out that Jones is impatient with the exhibition’s “nostalgic assumption that [Morris] must be cherished as a hero of the left,” an assumption that “invites the obvious – yet here never contemplated – response that his social vision failed.”

This is a bizarre argument. Morris remains a hero to the left precisely because (not only his) social vision failed (a vision that included environmental conservation, joyful labor, and beauty-infused everyday life) and global capitalism continues to dominate the world economy. Morris vehemently protested the environmental degradation, worker exploitation, and violent imperialism attendant to the “rise of the consumer society”; that is exactly why his social message is as vital and necessary today as in his own time. And in a sentence as condescending as it is ill-informed, Jones writes that Morris “never seems to have understood that his bids to set up alternative, small-scale workshops making things that were unquestionably luxuries would not threaten capitalism at all, but give ideas to entrepreneurs.” Morris never pretended his company threatened capitalism, and it was a source of acute anger that he spent his career (in his own words) “Ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.”

Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design

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In a weird bit of non-logic, Jones objects to the way the exhibition so takes for granted “that Morris is an inspiring hero that it forgets to set out a coherent case for his creative achievement.” Well, isn’t making Morris the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery already a (not particularly tacit) case for creative achievement? And asking whether Morris was a great designer (as Jones says he wishes the exhibition had done) would be like asking whether Matisse was a great painter … in an exhibition about Matisse. What’s the point? And Jones seems to have forgotten his skepticism regarding Morris’s designs by the end of the review when he claims that Morris’s “creative brilliance” “helped to build modernism.” But Jones doesn’t even try to make his own case that “Morris was a true revolutionary, but his vision led not so much to the Red Flag as to Matisse’s Red Studio,” since there is simply no case to make. For an informed discussion of the link between Morris and modernism, see Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius. When a review is as both negative and nonsensical as Jones’s, it has the opposite effect of making me even more eager to see the exhibition. Unfortunately I’ll have to settle for the exhibition catalog.

Collated reviews of Left Front

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 10.38.56 AMI’ve been posting individual reviews of The Left Front as they’ve come to my attention, but now that the exhibition has closed at the Grey Gallery, I thought it would be useful to have them all (at least the ones that I know of) collated in one place. One of the great pleasures of curating the exhibition has been the thoughtful, intelligent responses it inspired.

The New Yorker: “Left Turns: The Radical Art of the Nineteen Thirties” by Peter Schjeldahl (1/26/15). “A fascinating scholarly show…a show that I wish some museum would take as the seed for a major, broadly inclusive exhibition.”

Financial Times: “A look back at the political art of the 1930s highlights a lost moment of moral clarity” by Ariella Budick (2/2/15), “…the show as a whole evokes an era when a large cohort of artists woke up each morning fired with a sense of social purpose.”

New York Observer: “Seeing Red: NYU’s Grey Gallery Revisits America’s Socialist Moment in Full” by David Ebony (2/2/15). “Today, as union members make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. workforce, and economic disparity gets more extreme by the day, it might be the time for artists and the intelligentsia to take another look at America’s “socialist moment” that is so thoughtfully and skillfully illuminated in this show.”

Tablet: “Occupy Wall Street! The Jewish CP-Friendly 1930s Version” by J. Hoberman (2/5/15).

Guernica: “Re-Examining the radical art of the “Red Decade” by Roslyn Bernstein (2/25/15). “The timing for mounting an exhibit on the history of art in political activism was perfect.”

Artforum.com: “Critic’s Pick” by Jason Farago: A “large and important exhibition.”

Hyperallergic.com: “Picturing a Communist Revolution in the U.S.” by Becca Rothfeld (2/16/15): “Different artists disagree as to how communist convictions are best or most effectively visualized, and the best part of The Left Front is the methodological tension that underwrites the varied approaches on display.”

Bedford + Bowery: “This Exhibit of Radical Art Speaks to the Power of the Pen” by Robin Cembalest (1/12/15): “fascinating, thought-provoking show.”

Artefuse.com: “The Left Front at the Grey Gallery,” by Daniel Gauss (2/12/15): “…the predominant approach in this show is to document the social wrongs of the time, and there’s something really amazingly exciting and fun, even 70 years down the line, about seeing artists just laying the naked truth of the corruption, exploitation and abuses of their society out there for anyone to see.”

The Indypendent: “The Red Decade: Art with a Gritty Heart” by Gerald Meyer (3/10/15). “This show powerfully contradicts the canard that the Communist Party imposed social realism as the sole aesthetic style on artists.”

Cartoonbrew.com: “The Left Front” by Stephen Persing (2/20/14): “Co-curators (and Northwestern doctoral candidates) John Murphy and Jill Bugajski have done a fine job of scholarship and, I hope, started the ball rolling for future studies of the period.”

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