Friday, March 25, 2005

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Emporer's Old Clothes

When I was a child, the funniest story for me was of the Emporer who paraded naked through his kingdom, believing that he was wearing a beautiful invisible garment, having been sold by a trickster on the notion that his new invisible clothes were the grandest; that is, until a simple child cried out that the emporer was had no clothes on.

Lately, I have thought of that story in connection to the obsessive concentration of our society on fashion. The Academy Awards show was about women in extraordinary, elaborate gowns and guys in goofy tuxedos shilling for designers. That red carpet took gifted entertainers and turned them into mannequins, touting designer brands. "Who are you wearing?" was the idiot question of the night. A designated crone wearing a designer face lift and her shriekingly ignorant daughter commented on the gowns and the looks of the participants, with little curiosity about the roles these actors played and the training it took to create their characters on screen, let alone the artistic value of the work they had accomplished. Little if anything was said about the work of the actors parading before us in full sail. They were turned into commodities of the fashion world, diminished in stature, robbed of their true talents, dazzling with their "bling bling" jewels and backless gowns. Now, as a playwright, I have enormous respect for actors, too much respect to believe that anyone of talent should shill for fashion houses. Can you imagine a Bette Davis or a Joan Crawford being asked what they were wearing? The reply would have been a curt "What business is that of yours?" Or more likely, "Are you nuts?" But now the Oscars and the Grammys and the People's Choice Awards sell the idea that the gowns are the women, and the package is the talent.

Today, people are being packaged, and social programs are being packaged. It's the wrapping, not the content that seems to matter. Our President comes before us and tries to sell us a Social Security package based on privatization, a scam if there ever was one, a designer package meant to reward the brokerage houses for loyalty to the party, and further diminish the future security of the elderly. A war in Iraq has been packaged, calling it "Iraqi Freedom" - and we are to look at the package and forget the mounting number of the dead, our soldiers and the civilians caught in the crossfire of the war. And few are willing to say that our Emporer, the goernment is not wearing new clothes.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

MOMA Mia - My modern where art thou?

In the late nineteen forties when I was an art student at the High School of Music & Art, I bought a student membership to the Modern Museum and begain a love affair with that museum and its art that has lasted for most of my life. Not only was membership cheap, but the museum was just large enough to hold a fine collection of the major modern artists, yet small enough to feel like you were viewing their work inside a beguiling, curvacious modern home, one where you were especially invited to linger, have a cup of coffee, and look at the art treasures of the modern world. It was a place where I met my friends, took my dates to see classic silent films, ate inexpensive snacks in the member's cafeteria, sat in the garden and gazed at the big breasted bronze statues and Rodin's Bazac and felt like this marvellous museum belonged to me. It lifted my life as all great experiences with art can do. The museum was rarely crowded, and dedicated to art rather than commerce or mass tourism, the only concession to commerce was one small bookshop that sold art publications. It all felt organically connected to the humanism of the French modernist art that it predominately displayed.

I remember the big three; the agonized Guernica of Picasso, the huge Matisse painting, and most of all that primitive Rousseau of the sleeping Arab, highlights in what was a small but perfect collection of abstract and surrealist art. That feeling of personal affection for the museum continued for many years. Then with each expansion, something was gained in terms of new exhibition space for the growing collection, and something was lost in terms of the pleasure of looking at great art in a comfortable, human environment.

Last week my wife and I visited the new MOMA. Ours was only a two hour visit as we took in the new building, a splendid photography show, and a fine drawing exhibition, and then ran for our lives feeling oppressed by the building and the overabundance of art, and shops, and tourists. We never made it all the way up to the permanent painting collection, deciding to take in the rest on another day when the museum might be less crowded. I don't know how they accomplished it but they even managed to present the vast Manet Water Lilly painting as a huge rectangle of brackish water. I could not believe that this was the painting we all loved. When first approached it felt like airport art, the painting an intruder in the immaculate space. The much praised use of huge glass walls which allowed different floors and various exhibitions to flow into each other was an architectural triumph and a disaster in the presentation of art. One could take in other floors, look down at the garden, but for me, the visitor had a better view of other museum visitors than of the art. Why did nobody anticipate this as they studied the plans and renderings of the building?

The museum was now more than a repository for great art, it was a tourist attraction, something to write home about, but alas, not everything worth writing home about is worth loving. What was missing was a building that placed art in some human, proportionate context. The design was so clever, so accomplished, and yet so cold and unfriendly. Here we had the museum as a theme park, entertaining yet chilly, and ruthlessly informative, unwelcoming to anyone who had come to look at art, rather than tourists and escalators and shops. Unlike the Metropolitan Museum where if one is lost, one makes remarkable discoveries, finding pockets of painting and sculpture that one might not have been drawn to before, if lost in the new MOMA you kept looking for an exit. There seemed no way one could have a personal connection to a picture in that vast space, there were no delightful discoveries, only more "important" exhitibions. Most successful perhaps were the exhibitions of modern industrial design, the everyday products that were displayed in cases, and seemed at home in a glass warehouse, the objects reminders that people could actually used industrial design objects in their everyday lives.

We plan to visit MOMA again soon, hoping to amend or correct our first impression, but even if I grow to respect the building (one could never love it) there is no way that it can compare with that marvellous old building on 53rd Street that allowed a young man to have a first love affair with modern art. Yes, the world has changed, and one must accept that different times have different needs. But some things are constant. Human beings need human scale in 2005 as we did in 1950.

It is not the fault of scale alone. One can still visit the vast Metropolitan Museum and have an intimate experience with its pictures, deal with crowds of tourists, and yet focus on the art. The art is housed in well proportioned rooms, not interesting architectural spaces. Here at the new MOMA, the building swallows the art experience, its architecture which at first seems so seemingly light and elegant soon becomes an oppressive presence; a great transparent whale of a museum, a building to respect, perhaps, but never to love. Perhaps love is too hard to build into museums these days. It doesn't cost enough money. Sherman Yellen

Monday, March 07, 2005

Empathy, Democracy, and me

Let others call themselves progressives, I am content to be called an old fashioned unreconstructed liberal. I was born the first year of FDR's presidency and have spent a lifetime watching liberals protect the citizens of this country on issues from Social Security to Civil Rights. Liberal was a proud name for a set of beliefs based on the idea of brotherhood and humanity, that is, until the word was redefined by a radical conservative minority who equated treason with civil rights, immorality with human rights, disloyalty with peaceful protest and a questioning of power.

When I was a boy I would hear the old guard Republicans excoriate FDR as "that man in the White House." He was considered a traitor to his class. I never thought I would be going down that same road, castigating the leader of my country now that I am in my early seventies, watching with alarm as our powerful leaders destroy the democracy I knew. Exaggerated? Possibly. But on balance it's better to be considered a crank than a coward. It's too hard to stand by and watch the erosion of a democracy that has taken two hundred years to develop, and not say a word or even two hundred more in its defense.

We now have a President who talks about exporting democracy to the world as if it was an American brand that will quickly bring joy, peace, and enlightenment to the downtrodden, rather than viewing democracy as an ideal that only grows into government when seeded in education, tolerance and a tradition of law. It strikes me as strange that the more democracy we try to export elsewhere, the less we seem to have at home. Are we now to believe that democracy is a finite resource? I am delighted that the Iraqis have had their first free election, but how much better if it had come from within, if it was their revolution, their resolve, their sacrifice and their glory, not a "democracy" imposed from without, with the extraordinary loss of civilian and military lives. How long will this nascent democracy last when we finally leave the scene? As an American I worry more about my own country's democracy than what happens abroad. Democracy, like charity, begins at home. When tyranny comes to a country it does not come wearing the uniform of another tyranny. Like democracy which must be fashioned out of native materials, tyranny comes in its own native guise. Back in the nineteen thirties Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel Prize winning author, observed that if fascism came to America it would not be wearing jackboots and marching in a goose-step, it would come looking and talking like a good 'ole boy, grinning and waving to the neighbors. He meant Huey Long, the Louisiana demogogue, but the analogy holds today.

Lies and evasions have become the coin of the realm in the hands of our national leaders. A clever, well spoken woman boldly lies to the congress and the congress votes to confirm her in office as Secretary of State. This will not be the first time in human history that political leaders lie and redefine patriotism to mean loyalty to a radical ideology and the suppression of information. We have a President reluctant to answer an intelligent opposition, salting the press with fawning, sometimes paid acolytes, just like some South American dictator, determined to answer to no one except his God, and fortunately for this president, he is convinced that God speaks through him. He will not let himself be accountable, will not admit to error, will not accept responsibility for errors made by others during his administration. Accountability is something that Mr. Bush has never recognized in his personal and profession life. Never has the bully pulpit of the Presidency been more accuratly named, serving a bully President.

Many say that we Democrats lost the election because we long ago lost the solid South. As soon as Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats pushed through Civil Rights legistlation that solid Democratic South cracked. The sainted Ronald Regan was eager to exploit this, but he had a sense of shame, a sense that is not shared by his Republican successors. Republicans, willing to pick up the broken pieces of Southern bigotry, reassembled them and founded a new radical conservatism on it. "Conservative" replaced segregationist or bigot as the term of choice. By finding sympathetic figures in minority groups, the new radical conservatives were able to deflect the charges of bigotry. Who needs Bull Connor with a fire hose and a bludgeon when you have Clarence Thomas ready to vote against every law that will lift up his own people? We can take heart when an old Southern segregationist like Senator Byrd speaks up for minority rights, speaks out against the duplicity that brought us to war, his is a rare voice of reason in the Senate.

All this has been done through the manipulation of fear and terror, following the tragedy of 9/11. Never have so few attempted to impose their radical views on so many, not since the Stalinists - those other true believers who serve as a role model for the right in its tactics and in its blind, intolerant certainties.

Sady, the liberals allowed themselves to be redefined as soft on terrorism and crime without putting up much of a fight. One could see it coming years ago when the very name Democratic Party was reduced to "Democrat" Party by its opponents, eager to detach the idea of democratic ideals from the adversary party, smirking as they coined the new truncated name for the opposition. Did we call them the Republic party in return? No, we left them with their "can" and their smirk intact. It sounds so childish, but by letting the radical right corrupt the language, and frame the debate, a great deal of democratic ground was lost without a battle.

The sad fact is we lberals let the playground bullies take over the playground, and now we have to face the results of our past timidity, as we find the economy broken by a spendthrift president, unchecked by formerly prudent members of government, or a Federal Reserve eager to cook the books for the President. We see America's thriving labor movement destroyed by economic policies which have shipped jobs overseas without building in protection for our own workers, and a pusilanimous press failing to stand up for the people's right to know. Our problem is not this new batch of Bush/McCarthyites - there are always tin horn tyrants ready to rise up and exploit ignorance and fear, it is the lack of Edward R. Murrows in our world -advocates for decent open government and democratic principles, men and women ready to probe deeply into injustice and engage the powerful in battle. The loss of press independence, with the consolodation of right wing power through conservative ownership of the media, is a part of our current American tragedy.

The President's plan to "save" Social Security by savaging it has met with tremendous resistance from the public. Despite the snake oil sales pitch, the White House finds it cannot con the people on this issue. For once, the use of fear by this administration has backfired. It results from the honest fear of the elderly and the middle class, fear of facing old age without a safety net of Social Secutiry which is creating the roadblock on this road to so called privatization which is really decapitation. Seniors, having witnessed prescription drug program become a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry, having seen a war declared to search for weapons of mass destruction turn up nothing but mass chaos, are now reluctant to see their Social Security safety net become a gift to the brokerage houses, and the security of old age damaged and destroyed for generations to come. Seniors are not opposed to this bill out of fear for themselves, contrary to what Bush claims they do understand that it may not affect while they are alive, but unlike Bush, they have empathy for the generations to come, the lives of their children and their children's children and want to see their economic futures protected.

Having said all that, unlike some liberals, I do not see President Bush as an evil man, determined to destroy democracy for sport and profit. He is no moustache twirling villain in our national melodrama, tying the heroine to the railroad tracks. He is more the CEO of a large corporation who feels it is his job to reward his stockholders, the people who put him in office, and screw the consumer if need be. I am sure George Bush loves his good wife and his two darling daughters, doesn't beat the dog or kick the cat, and believes deeply in God and country. It is not intelligence or good nature that this man lacks, it is empathy, the quality of moral imagination, the ability to understand the feelings and circumstances of those who are not ourselves, to project ourselves into the lives and problems of the less fortunate. It does not require the talents of a great writer to do so, nor the soul of a bleeding heart liberal, merely the imagination of a decent human being who recognizes that we do not live alone in this world. Through empathy a leader can understand those who were not well born, those not descended from well connected families and Presidential fathers. Empathy is quite simply the ability to imagine onself in another's worn sneakers. It is the quality that makes us both decent, charitable, humane, and civilized. Carried to extremes the lack of empathy can produce sociopaths and serial killers. In the case of George Bush it produces a frat house insensitivity to the feelings of anyone but his own privilaged group. Does he truly believe that it was through his own special skills and great wisdom that he gained his Yale admission, his ownership of a ball club, his Texas oil cronies, and his political leverage? He appears to have forgotten or never leared that there were always family and friends to see him through his early scrapes with life and the law.

Bush is a fortunate man in a world where most men are not. Most are born to struggle for a small measure of security in their lives. Instead of seeing his privalage as a gift,and an obligation, as FDR did, as Teddy Roosevelt did, and as some Rockefellers did, he regards his privilage as a condition he has earned, one to which he is truly entitled in the manner of ancient royalty. His tragedy is not that he does wrong, but that he believes that the wrong he does is right, simply because he does it. I am sure he means it when he says that he wants all workers to be part of the ownership society. But ask a worker in Wallmart why he is not in the "ownership society" that Bush proposes and they will laugh. All that most working Americans own is debt. True ownership requires discretionary funds, obtained through high salaried jobs or inheritance, not money used for daily survival. This is the President and the party that have refused to raise the minimum wage, a party that speaks a language of morality while practising policies of indifference that border on cruelty. Is it any wonder that Bush runs up a national debt unheard of in our history - when he was never obliged to scrape by with Daddy or Daddy's cronies to bail out his failues in the past. We have a president who had the brilliance to be born well. And the misfortune not to understand it.

That quality of empathy which is necessary in any truly religious person is totally lacking in the born again Bush. It is his tragedy as a man and ours as a country that unlike Clinton (who was laughed at for saying so) he doesn't feel the pain of others. Empathy is what made Lincoln great, what informed the life of such founding fathers as John Adams, Franklin, and Madison, and later, FDR. Without it a leader can only dictate, he cannot lead the people.

Without a couragous press to speak up and challenge the powerful our democracy is placed in greater jepordy than ever before. We sorely need a better class of journalists, a more vocal and strong willed Democratic opposition, men and women who are willing to risk the anger, the mockery, and the brickbats of the powerful when they are opposed. And an opposition party that knows how to oppose.

I have no special qualifications for making the above comments other than having lived awhile, read a little, and formed some opinions. I'm writing this blog because I have a desire to share my feelings and ideas with others, based on a life that has spanned seven decades. At other times I will talk about books, music, movies museums and theatre, subjects in which I have some knowledge, and cast an inquiring eye on anything I think worth writing about from Cristo's gates to the overdose of fashion consciousness in our society that corrupts and devalues people as it objectifies them. It gets lonely sitting here burdened with all these opinions so I will give them an airing on this blog from time to time. I welcome your comments. Sherman

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A new beginning

I have had the most wonderful day celebrating myself on my new webpage. I recommend it to anyone who needs a lift in this cold winter. I welcome all my friends, family, and curious strangers who might wish to see what today brings in the way of my snap judgments and words of wisdom.

Visit my new site at Come soon, I get lonely.