Sunday, December 8, 2013

tom

December 1st was World AIDS day. It has been since 1988. This day usually rolls around every year with little notice. I saw mentions of it as I scrolled down my Facebook news feed. I noted that some of my friends had changed their profile pictures to pictures of red ribbons for the day, and I even read a few stories and articles about the early years of the epidemic. Other than that, there was little fanfare; no television specials about the history of the epidemic - how far we've come in 30 years in treatment and awareness, no televised news stories about how infection rates continue to climb in young people and in gay communities - just the regular suspects doing the same things that they did last year, and the year before that... choristers preaching to the choir.

Monday night, I was going from the East Village to Gramercy, and even though it was raining and cold, I decided to walk. I crossed 18th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. I hadn't necessarily been avoiding this block, at least not purposely, but even with as much time as I've spent in that neighborhood, I hadn't walked down that block in years. On the south side of the street, towards the center of the block is a string of nearly identical townhouses; brownstone staircases leading up to an old-New York style grandeur of years gone by - big windows revealing high ceilings with ornate moldings and chandeliers. Each of these houses has small entrances underneath and to the side of their front stairs. One of these entrances led to the apartment that my boyfriend Tom used to live in back in the eighties. I couldn't be sure which was the one he lived in, but as I walked back and forth a couple of times trying to isolate which house it was, I remembered times I'd spent inside one of those buildings years ago; young, excited, in love, hopeful, not yet cynical, not spoiled; a naïve and innocent me, a deceptively simpler time. 

I didn't see many examples of healthy, loving relationships growing up. My grandparents had been married for decades, certainly they had loved each other, been dependent on each other, but I don't recall them showing affection for each other. My parents divorced when I was four, my mother went on to date and then marry domineering and abusive men, a model I knew I didn't want to repeat. And my father pretty much went through women as one might go through a seasonal wardrobe. It was the 70s, the sexual revolution, and while there were a couple of gals who stayed around for a while, when those relationships lost their luster, their newness, he'd call it off and move on to the next. Any negotiations or particulars of a day-to-day supportive and loving partnership were, and to some extent still are a remote and distant concept - one that I might grasp in theory, but have had no first-hand experience of in practice.  

Tom and I were young and we were foolish, carefree and uninhibited. The two of us, bundles of raw hormones set loose on each other (and the world) in an increasingly scary and uncertain time. Tom became HIV positive. Impending fear hung over our young lives as friends and acquaintances would get sick and then quickly vanish. I have no recollection of our even talking about our fear. I do remember Tom being tenacious and uncompromising in taking precautions to keep me safe. This often resulted in his withholding of sex - a gesture I can now see as loving, but as a young man raging with desire, was unable to accept. Even so, we managed to stay together through a number of tumultuous years, the fondness and physical attraction of each for the other outweighing the difficulties of our fear and our sero-discordance.

At the time, friends, justifiably enraged by the lack of HIV/AIDS services or treatment, Mayor Koch's lax response, and the Reagan administration's negligence harnessed their anger and joined ACT UP. I volunteered at GMHC (at the time, still a two room office above a restaurant on 18th Street and 8th Avenue) and the PWA Coalition, a small organization located in a donated apartment off of a courtyard on West 12th Street that helped people with AIDS acquire experimental drugs and acted as a support center for a community that was quickly being slaughtered by an invisible monster. 

I admired those brave warriors who threw themselves wholeheartedly into battle, educating themselves and their community through civil disobedience and community organizing; changing the trajectory of HIV/AIDS treatment and legislation for generations to come. I cheered them on; stayed on the periphery. I didn't possess the tools to focus or hold my resolve in the face of such loss or the fear of my own mortality. I turned my concentration to pursuing what then looked like a promising career in the arts, meeting people with similar interests and turning my attention away from the overwhelming health crisis and away from Tom. Tom, whose health was declining as he quietly slipped into depression and secret drug abuse. Of course, now, with hindsight and some adult critical thinking skills, these turn of events all make perfect sense, but at the time, I didn't know what was going on; I simply couldn't process what was happening in my world. 

For a few years, I excelled in my nascent career. I traveled, was lauded for my talents, met new and exciting people, and began to quietly immerse myself in drink and drugs - perhaps to quiet the guilt I'd felt for abandoning this love, for abandoning Tom, or maybe even the guilt of being an unlikely survivor when all that remained of handfuls of friends were memories of beautiful young men, no longer there to share my journey with; opportunity ripped from them. I was actively constructing protective walls all around me. Drugs, alcohol, and denial make for sturdy building blocks when creating an impenetrable barrier against the world. 

I learned that Tom had died after the fact. I hadn't seen or spoken with him in some time. Estranged from his family and with few friends, the young man who may have been the great love of my life had died a lonely and unnoticed death while I was off chasing childish ambitions. An adult, but really little more than a boy, with no emotional coping tools, it was too much for me to even consider. My alcoholism and drug addiction blossomed, my life would become a demoralizing whirlwind of unmanageability and shame that lasted the next ten years. I'd opted for ignorance of my own HIV status, understanding that a positive test result would likely mean death. In 1996, at a doctor's insistence, I took an HIV test and the results came back positive; just in time for the first generation of the life-saving "cocktail."

I walked 18th Street last Monday, and it was rainy, and it was cold. Certainly self-indulgent, perhaps even maudlin, I imagined all that might have been if circumstances had been different, if I'd been able to respond differently. Even if Tom couldn't have survived his illness (he died in 1990 or 91, five or six years before protease inhibitors were available), maybe facing my fears and my feelings, maybe being able to communicate openly with him could have saved him those final years of drug use and isolation, could have given us both a genuine, if all-too-brief partnership. Only now, more than a decade into my own recovery, am I beginning to unpack my feelings of such devastating loss - and of my love for Tom.  

Tom

Saturday, November 9, 2013

update:

Pope Continues to Shock World with Surprising Awesomeness

In the past couple of weeks, Pope Francis has continued to make international headlines with his decidedly un-Popelike behavior. In late October, during a Mass at St Peter's Square, he allowed himself to be upstaged by a little boy who refused to leave the stage, instead clinging to Francis' leg and eventually seating himself in the Pope's chair. Just this last week, pictures of the Pope kissing a severely disfigured man have gone viral. And now this!


Friday, September 20, 2013

beneficence

 











This past March, when Argentine Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen as head of the Catholic Church, I was quick to join in grumbling about the institution's cast-iron conservatism, dogmatism, and lack of progress. Directly following Benedict's (Ratzinger's) retirement; a career ecclesiastic whose tenure as Most Holy Father was plagued with scandal and hypocrisy, skepticism and disillusionment with the Catholic Church was at an all-time high.

Notwithstanding the encouraging possibilities of Bergoglio's being the first non-European to be chosen as Pontiff in 1200 years, as well as the first Jesuit ever, feelings of discontentment and doubt were escalated. Even as the world was rapidly progressing into the 21st century, it seemed the Catholic Church was preparing itself to demonstrate an even more rigid parochialism and dogmatic intolerance. So in July, when Pope Francis was asked about gay priests, and he responded, "Who am I to judge?," the trajectory of the church took a surprising and heartening shift.

Could this quiet and simple man single-handedly catapult the Church into a new direction? Unguarded and personal responses from this unassuming Pontiff seem to be doing just that. 

Pope Francis has done away with the protective-domed "Popemobile." He walks among the crowds kissing babies and shaking hands; he speaks of the poor and of service, and he has washed the feet of women (an act that outraged traditionalists), of prisoners, and of Muslims! As the planet's most highly-appointed ecclesiastic, he's brought new-found and unexpected humility and humanity to his title. Whether this can be attributed to his life and work as a Jesuit (an all-male order of the Roman Catholic Church whose mission focuses on education, ministering to the sick and impoverished, intellectual research, promoting social justice and ecumenical dialogue) or to the spiritual life and commitment of one man placed in the most iconic and powerful role of the Church will remain a mystery. Yet yesterday, a series of talks with The Pope was published, and the world got more of a glimpse into the man behind the title, and the Church's trajectory shifted even further.

In the extensive interview, Pope Francis candidly discusses homosexuality, women, contraception, and abortion. He reveals a surprisingly gentle and compassionate character while dealing with topics that have traditionally drawn acrimonious responses from high-ranking officials in the Church. 

"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. 

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently … 

We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching."

Frances' implication that the Church's continued "obsession" with specific social issues, and his prophetic warning that keeping those obsessions within the content of the Church's preaching will result in its ultimate destruction are prescient and sound. 

In an auspicious and ambitious turn, when asked specifically about gay people, the Pope said:  

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality, I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

It is enlightening to learn that the Pope's favorite film is Fellini's "La Strada," that he loves Mozart, and that he reads Dostoyevsky. All this new and personal information lends him an air of a kindly professor, or of a wise uncle (or use your own analogy). He comes across as intensely human, a trait not often associated with His Holiness.

Unlike the chain of events that occurred in the legendary land of Oz, the Church's curtain has been drawn back to reveal not a fumbling and self-serving fraud, but rather a humble and farsighted leader; a spiritual teacher who speaks of moving the Church beyond dogma and refocusing it on people. 

I am not Catholic, and I continue, with good reason, to be skeptical of the body that Pope Francis represents. Still, it is refreshing to have been proved wrong in my pre-judgement of him upon his selection. And how unsuspected to discover that the iconic head of a behemoth, world-wide, doctrinal institution might act as a personal pastor.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

september song


















Last weekend, Labor Day weekend, officially marked the end of the summer season. Sure, the farmer's markets are still bounteous with tomatoes, corn, peaches, okra, and other flavorful end-of-summer produce, but kids are back to school, college campuses are bustling, and one can just tell that folks are anxious to start dressing in layers with their new sweaters and boots. My morning walks have been getting a little more brisk than I'm used to; very soon I'll have to break out the hoodies. Many people love autumn, but my experience is that any season change hits me hard - this one in particular. I love summer; the heat, the humidity, the late-evening sunsets, the empty streets on weekends, I just love it. So the impending months of cold grey weather and darkening afternoons hold no sweet promise for me.

I've been remiss (really more lazy) in keeping up with my blog posts over the summer. While I'd like to rattle off a list of enviable weekend spots I've visited or smart events I've attended, the truth is this season has been much more about quiet reflection, contemplation, and personal learning than about anything else. Balancing personal goals and family obligations. Showing up for my aging parents and my extended recovery community while balancing self-care and my spiritual life has proved to be no small order. Add to that the seemingly behemoth task of walking forward into the next chapter of my life as a newly college-graduated middle aged man, and things seem particularly daunting. For the moment, at least, I seem to be balancing these challenges with relatively little complaint. I have my fingers in a lot of pies. There's a lot on my plate. I have a number of balls in the air. Use whatever metaphor you wish - a whole bunch of stuff is coming down the pike, and more than anything, I'm excited. Scared, but excited. I'm not going to give much by way of specifics right now, but I'm juggling some charged propositions of what might propel me into the next few chapters. So while I haven't done a lot this summer, I'm entering fall hopeful. 

I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

shady lady / slush puppy

New York City is one of the greatest cities in the world. It's where I live - it's where I come from. I am challenged by it, I struggle through it, it's what makes me what I am, and I love it. I've enjoyed using this blog as a space to examine art, media, culture; museum and gallery reviews, etc., but in response to what I feel is the very real and impending threat of Manhattan, my hometown, becoming an exclusive island of behemoth bank accounts, luxury living glass towers, and corporate franchised chains, I'd like to weigh in on the state of the city and the upcoming Mayoral election.

Only a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that I would not be supporting a female candidate for the Mayor of New York. Even more unimaginable still is that I'd not be supporting an openly lesbian candidate. I believe that the presence of women and LGBT people in elected positions or holding high office is essential to civil rights, equality, and fair representation. If I'm to be truly interested in equality, however, I need to honestly measure the candidates on their records, or, if you will, the content of their character.

As I watch the emerging media firestorm begin to swirl in anticipation of the upcoming Mayoral election; reading about each candidate's momentum, contributions, and endorsements as well as the media's rehashing of issues already present in most New Yorkers' consciousness: public education, stop and frisk, hospitals, public transportation, affordable housing, neighborhood safety, etc., I try to remain mindful that my immediate personal response to a candidate's personality may not necessarily be founded in a firm foundation of solid information. So I've tried to objectively assess my position on the candidates' records and positions, and it is that starting point from which I base my disapproval of Quinn. 

There has already been quite a bit of noisy and divisive rhetoric coming from the Quinn detractors: "anybody but Quinn," "New York is not for sale," etc. While I may agree with the positions of these detractors, pushing pejorative phrases, or reducing the disapproval of a particular candidate to a placard or soundbite may not be the most useful way to educate a voting public on where a candidate stands on issues. In fact, pushing forward a brash and negative tone might actually alienate some constituents; constituents who might otherwise have agreed with that particular position.














In Christine Quinn, New Yorkers have been dealt a significantly hard to overlook double whammy; she is a woman, and she is openly lesbian. These two facts indicate that she immediately has the support of certain local and national organizations whose primary purpose it is to ensure support for female and LGBT candidates around the country. Similarly, there are large portions of the electorate who will vote for her simply based on the fact that she is either female or lesbian. Early on in Quinn's campaign, as a lesbian, she received endorsements from the HRC, the Victory Fund, Empire State Pride Agenda, and the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City. As a female candidate, she's been endorsed by EMILY's List, and the Women's Campaign Fund. These endorsements are deceptive. How can the Women's Campaign Fund endorse candidates as disparate as Olympia Snow, Elizabeth Warren, and Christine Quinn? Can they not see the glaring differences between these women? One need only look at the list of Quinn's top campaign contributors to notice that many of them are the same big businesses and corporate conglomerates that Warren would like to see prosecuted for tanking the economy and throwing working class Americans under the bus. Yet these national organizations cannot, or choose not to see it because their primary motivation is to identify and promote the gender, or orientation similarities of candidates. Most national women's political organizations support female candidates, period. And how about the good folks at HRC and the Victory Fund? Do you think they realize that Quinn has repeatedly and consistently turned her back on New York's LGBT community in favor of corporate investors and major developers? Have they considered how she used her short time at the LGBT Anti Violence Project as a personal political springboard for her own career and agenda? No, they seem only to see an openly lesbian Democratic candidate who supports marriage equality, and for their purposes, they need look no further. 

Assuming that a candidate is progressive because she is lesbian is as foolish as assuming that a candidate supports a woman's right to choose simply because she is female. Like many who came before me, I belong to a particular generation of gay people who've had to struggle for any recognition, many of whom may still believe that having an openly gay person in high office trumps any disagreements they may have with his or her record or positions - visibility at any cost. I disagree. In this instance, that cost is too high. That such a large number of LGBT people don't support Quinn is a refreshing indicator that we really have come a long way and are moving toward an environment of equality. We're entering an era where identity politics has permission to take a back seat to the nuts and bolts issues that face all New Yorkers. Considering that what is up for grabs is the most powerful office in New York, I'm less concerned with a candidate's orientation than I am with his or her vindictive nature or plethora of questionable campaign contributors

My local bagel store is now a Verizon Wireless center. My neighborhood discount drug store is a Bank of America. If you are like me, you may have noticed that there is scarcely a spot you can stand on the island of Manhattan where you are not more than three blocks from a Duane Reade. 7-elevens, once a suburban and rural phenomonon to New Yorkers, are now popping up around downtown Manhattan, willy-nilly, like so many pimples on an adolescent's forehead. Of course, Quinn is not single-handedly responsible for these changes, but her history of kowtowing to corporate interests, developers, and tourist revenue would indicate that these sorts of changes would continue unabated. If this homogenizing and strip-mining of neighborhood uniqueness isn't enough to convince you of the kind of catastrophe that would likely result from a Quinn administration, perhaps you might consider how Quinn has stashed City Coucil funds in phantom accounts to later be doled out for her pet projects; aka slush funds; her questionable position on "Stop and Frisk," or the use of her office to advance the interests of real estate developer donors. There is also her position on carriage horses and animal rights to consider, as well as how she is the lone candidate in the field who will not promise an educator as public school chancellor (think Cathie Black). There are no shortage of issues to examine where Christine Quinn's involvement and voting record are not questionable (secrecy, cronyism, slush funds, vindictive withholding or allocating of public funds, overturning term limits, etc.). Perhaps, not least of all, the recent string of hospital closings, most notably Saint Vincent's.

It is plain that Quinn's motivations lie in keeping closely in cahoots with corporate interests, large and powerful real estate developers, and fostering continued record tourist revenue. One only need attempt to drive through midtown to notice that seemingly every third intersection is now a mini-park with lushly-packed planters, lounge chairs, and picnic tables. These mini-parks are lovely urban oases, to be sure, but they can also be frustrating obstacles for commuting New Yorkers. And what of the sudden surfeit of corporate branded Citibikes? Easy affordable bike-shares for working New Yorkers? That has yet to be seen, but once families of tourists start running amok on Manhattan streets atop those 45 lb cycles...  Well, that's a whole other post in itself.

Quinn is a self-proclaimed "fierce advocate for gay rights." She claims paramount concern for issues facing the LGBT community. In that light, I can't be the only one to have noticed the irony of her participating in a protesting march to draw attention to the rise in violence against LGBT people. The march and protest was held in immediate response to the fatal shooting of 32 year old Mark Carson. It is not farfetched to speculate that Carson's life might well have been saved had there still been a hospital (St. Vincent's) just two blocks from the shooting, rather than having to wait for an ambulance and then make the trip across town to Beth Israel Hospital. The march, it should be noted, took place in the shadow of the skeleton of what once was an historic hospital that served the gay community for generations, and was the nerve center of treatment during the early years of the AIDS crisis. 

Truth: eliminating a hospital and emergency center that serviced gay people is violence to gay people.

In another move that reads as shockingly antithetical to the interests of gay and lesbian people, Quinn's strong-arming of City Council to rename the Queensboro Bridge after Ed Koch, in spite of overwhelming public opposition, is indeed questionable. Josh Isay, Quinn's chief strategist has said that "Ed Koch was an incredible leader for the city." Isay, and by default, Quinn seem to have forgotten that Koch (How'm I Doin'?) who was in the closet, ignored the gay community in the early years of AIDS as tens of thousands of gay men died - most probably out of fear of calling attention to his own questionable orientation. In what appears to be pandering for endorsements from beyond the grave, now the Quinn campaign is courting Koch's surviving sister to amplify what would have purportedly been his support for Quinn's candidacy.

In an interesting turn of media attention, presumably in response to a flurry of bad press, especially a very unflattering New York Times piece, Quinn came out publicly as a recovering alcoholic and bulimic. In an interview for the New York Times, she talks about her mother dying of breast cancer, and the sadness and loneliness that ensued after her mother's death, which led her to alcohol. It may read as overly cynical, but one can't help question whether the timing of the decision to go public with this information might have been calculated to make her appear more human in light of press reports that have painted her as a volatile and vindictive political animal. May she have the best of luck and good fortune on her journey in recovery, however, the move to come out at that particular time seems devilishly shady.

Hopefully more unsavory truths about Quinn will be revealed as we get closer to the election, and hopefully, New Yorker's won't be fooled by her political savvy, as they were with Guiliani or with Bloomberg. Suffice it to say, this lady looks to be one nasty piece of work, and having her as Mayor would be an utter catastrophe for New York City.

 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

pretty vacant

"Punk: Chaos to Couture" is an attempt by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum to explore the impact that the punk movement has had on the world of high fashion from its beginnings in the 1970s to the present. At the beginning of the exhibit is a recreation of the bathroom at CBGB, the once influential rock club located on the Bowery that has gone the way of so many other culturally significant locations all in the name of gentrification and luxury living. The recreated bathroom is gritty, nostalgic, funny, fascinating; feels historically substantial, and also seems just about the only thing in the vast spectacle that feels museum-worthy in the cultural context of punk. Of course, some of the gowns are beautiful; their materials luxuriant, the workmanship painstaking and exquisite, but what does any of that have to do with punk? 

The first room of clothing boasts a bulky collection of Vivianne Westwood T-shirts and blouses. That their inspiration was derived from angry disenfranchised British street-youth is undeniable. In the corner of the room was a small assortment of Westwood T-shirts worn by Adam Ant, the pop star was never considered punk to begin with, but rather was maligned by punks and rockers for commodifying and mainstreaming what had been created to represent anti-establishment and anarchy. The very design concept of the show; each mannequin wearing identicale bubblegum-pink, shag afro wigs is more reminiscent of a disco-dance-floor theme party than of the angry individualism branded by punks.

And them came the gowns: Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabanna, Gucci, etc.; beautiful to be sure, yet in the context of punk; fractured, disassociated, and hardly worth talking about. I was no stranger to the New York punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s. I remember one party in particular, where the music was painfully loud and wrathful, the floor filthy and covered in sticky wetness, and a young woman I was talking to was wearing a torn, white, vintage dress that had rat's heads safety-pinned, higgledy-piggledy across the bodice. I remember her explaining to me that she had gotten the rats from the laboratory of whatever school she'd been going to, severed the heads, frozen them so that they would thaw and then bleed down the dress as she wore them during the evening. I don't recall seeing anything like that represented in the exhibit. 

Most disturbing is that "Punk: Chaos to Couture" implicates fashion, luxury, and exclusivity as the inevitable consequence of punk. Truly, what stands on display in the museum is the antithesis of what the punks were expressing. The show itself, concept and execution, is clearly financially motivated; a transparent move on the part of the Museum to attempt to recreate the success of the Alexander McQueen exhibit, which was on display from May to August of 2011. "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" was the Met's best-attended exhibition in the history of the Costume Institute. It was so successful that the museum had to extend its hours to accommodate the long lines of visitors. This brazen presentation of capitalist corporate greed masquerading as museum-worthy art and culture is so illicitly contrary to the roots of punk as to be reproachable. Like countless other businesses and attractions in New York City, the museum is now capitalizing of the surfeit of tourists flocking to the city. Tourist revenue seems finally to have surpassed art, culture, and curatorial responsibility as what is of paramount importance to this world class institution. It is exactly this brand of manipulation of the masses; this forcing of a corporately sponsored, and socially acceptable hegemonic culture onto an exploitable public that encouraged the punks to question the dominant power structure and to champion anarchy.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

historiography






















War photographs are not really my thing. Nor would it be likely that anyone accuse me of being a Civil War buff – far from it. Of course, I appreciate the technical skill and bravery that war photographers need to have at their disposal in order to go into battle-torn regions and document the gruesome brutality and worst of human nature – combining skill and an aesthetic eye; a rare talent. The courageous men and women who bring their cameras into this field should be applauded. Still, it’s not my thing.  

History is fascinating and essential. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” said George Santayana, and I couldn’t agree more. Nevertheless, when it comes to war, I am usually disgusted and saddened by the basest and most brutal instincts of man to harm his brother in the name of religion, land, or politics. It’s just not something I choose to focus on. Layered on top of my already decided discomfort and distaste for military battle are all of the complex issues related to the American Civil War: slavery, racial prejudice, Southern intolerance, etc. Confederate flags are still a high-flying symbol of white supremacy, bigotry, intolerance, and any number of other unsavory things. As a progressive and liberal Yankee, these associations leave a bitter taste in my mouth. So it was with trepidation that I walked into the Photography and the American Civil War exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
            
I’m grateful that I did. The collection on display was unquestionably comprehensive in its scope: more than 200 photographs; battlefields and war-ruined villages, documentation of slaves as property, wallet-sized portraits of soldiers and families; intricately framed daguerreotypes, portraits in lockets, political campaign buttons, doctors’ photographs documenting wounds and amputations, a series of photographs by Alexander Gardner depicting the hanging of the five conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln – the combination of all these materials opened my eyes as well as my mind. 
 
As if to ensure my interest in what was to come, in the first room was a portrait of abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth; dignified and regal with deep, soulful eyes that made me wonder what lifetime of atrocities they’d witnessed. Directly next to that small, yet queenly portrait was a photograph of Runaway Mississippi Slave, Gordon; his back a keloid constellation of brutality and pain; a map of human suffering and cruelty. Immediately I understood the importance of what I was seeing and was reminded of the integral relationship between photographs and how we respond to social issues.  In the high corner of the room was a calligraphy-printed quote “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” – Abraham Lincoln, 1858.
            





















The crowds were thick in the galleries the afternoon I went, and many of the items on display; small and demanding of close inspection, but I patiently stayed my place in the slow procession to take in as many of the images and objects as I could.
          
Of course, I was expecting to see the Matthew Brady portraits of Lincoln, I’d seen them reproduced countless times in books, magazines, and newspapers, but I wasn’t prepared for the austere power these portraits have in context.  Nor was I prepared for the documentation of how our President had aged during his time in office. No longer just a thing of educational TV series or beer-bellied redneck reenactments, I was developing a personal relationship to the Civil War and could actually feel areas of my mind expanding to make room for this new information and its supplemental emotions.

Rooms of bleak landscapes; Virginia, South Carolina; photos of burned town center buildings that looked like they could have been ripped from the soundstages of Gone with the Wind. Many of these photos credited to Matthew Brady, but interestingly, and it is still being discovered; scores of young men, fascinated by the then new science of photography, were taking to the field and capturing images, which were attributed to Brady who was comfortably in his studio in the nation’s capitol.             

Walls of photographs lined one room documenting medical procedures: amputations, bullet removals, wounds, etc. Each photo I looked at created a personal connection for me with the subject – did these young men and boys actually know what a camera was? Were they able to see the finished results of the picture taking? Many of them were probably illiterate and terribly scared. Did they know their faces were being captured forever? They certainly couldn’t have known that crowds of art enthusiasts, historians, and tourists would be lining up to analyze their likenesses a hundred and fifty years after they’d suffered such humiliations. My mind reeled through the century and a half that separated us.
   





















There were cases lined with photos from the end of the war of white women and children labeled: Freed Slaves of Louisiana. They had been slaves because of the “one drop rule,” even though they'd looked no more African-American than Gwyneth Paltrow.The one drop rule was something I'd heard of, but the visual evidence supporting its enforcement was staggering.
          
In the final room was the series documenting the hanging of Lincoln’s murder conspirators – a 19th century most wanted follow-up, complete with accompanying newspaper headlines. There was also a Matthew Brady portrait of Robert E. Lee taken two days after Lincoln’s assassination. The wall text explained that after surrendering at Appomattox, Lee returned to his home in Richmond, Virginia. Large areas of his affluent neighborhood had fallen and been burned, but his home was surprisingly still standing. In the photograph, Lee is standing on the back porch of his home; his hat in his hand. He looks old, tired, and solemn; the weight of defeat a heavy shadow on him.
 
The indelible collection of faces is what impacted me most: Young. Old. White. Black. Innocent. Stupid. Angry. Frightened. Defiant. Thoughtful. Anxious. Brave. Naïve.  – A world of people that are gone, whose experiences can only be guessed at by the clues that are left.  Case after case of daguerreotype portraits – suggestions of young men with glass shadows; phantoms, some looking no more than children; cleaned-up and uniformed; bayonets proudly grasped in adolescent hands, some of them with rosy painted cheeks or an added twinkle in their eye; many of them displayed in precious and intricately decorated cases; silver lined with deep-colored velvet. These were sons and brothers; boyfriends and husbands; real people with real families and real lives; they’ve evaporated into the historiography of our country’s policies and ideologies. All this evidence of loss made me reflective and sad. 
           




Friday, April 12, 2013

precious

To call Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009) a deeply moving story of personal triumph over adversity would be to sell short its blistering performances as well as its emotional impact. Likewise, to call the film an exercise in racial and class stereotypes would be to underestimate precisely how offensive and potentially destructive its ramifications might be in terms of how it represents particular groups of people.  Just as the film appears to fearlessly grapple with difficult and serious issues affecting children and disenfranchised communities (illiteracy, obesity, education, incest, sexual abuse, social services, etc.), it simultaneously denigrates African-Americans, women, and the poor as a grim and exaggerated fabrication of 1980s life in the ghetto. On its surface, Precious is a moving drama about one young girl’s personal and difficult transformative journey. On further examination, the film’s dichotomies emphasize the importance of appreciating the difference between what a work is and what it does.
                                                                                     
Primarily, as an article of commercial entertainment, what Precious does is inspire its audience by telling a story of the strength of the human spirit emerging triumphant through the most severe and extreme adverse circumstances. In doing so, however, it also simultaneously paints a picture of the poor as cruel and violent; ignorant, immoral and deceitful villains; child-rapists, thieves, welfare-scammers, neglectful parents, and uncaring scoundrels.  Precious complicates its own indictment of the poor by conflating representations of poverty with representations of blackness and pathology.                                  

Generating controversy to encourage commercial success is a filmmaking tradition, and in that practice, Daniels leaves no stone unturned and no envelope un-pushed. The very conditions that may be an affront to the viewer are the same conditions that may compel the viewer to become emotionally invested in the film.  Is Daniels a skilled cinematic craftsman or a flamboyant hack? Does dramatic license allow the use of racial stereotypes in a persuasive strategy at the expense of a group’s representation? It would be unthinkable to accept Precious as a significant, or even legitimate film had it been made by a white filmmaker. Daniels, being African-American, is given a much broader margin of freedom in being able to exploit ethnic and cultural clichés without incurring charges of racism. Nevertheless, a number of his directorial choices strongly reinforce negative categorizations that already exist against poor and black communities.

Expressly problematic is Daniels’ approach of having the villains of Precious be dark skinned, while the film’s heroes are light skinned or of mixed race.  Certainly, having the bad guys wear black and the good guys wear white is a storytelling trope that dates back to the initiation of projected film and before, but does it remain practical to continue to institute this device when there is so much at stake to one particular cultural collective? This method might make it easier for an audience to identify, consciously or not, which characters might be trusted and which characters might pose a threat. Playing to and exploiting this oftentimes subconscious, shameful and unfortunate institution of skin color discrimination within the black community seems especially unethical and negligent in light of the content of this particular film.   
                          
Of course, owing to the nature of cultural hegemony and the way dominant ideology insidiously seeps into a culture’s collective unconscious, Daniels’ casting decisions may not have been necessarily malicious, but might perhaps be a reflection of his own personal perception of whom he may identify as dangerous and threatening, or whom he may identify as comforting and safe. Nonetheless, given the attention to detail that is paid to every scene in the film, the predominant message that darker-skinned people are untrustworthy and dangerous, and that lighter-skinned people are protective and safe remains loathsome and indefensible.    
                                                          
The filmmakers’ attention to this message of light versus dark, particularly as it relates to skin color, is so painstaking as to have Mary, Precious’ odious, abusive mother, wear light makeup in the penultimate scene, as if her intention is to appear kinder or more “acceptable” to the social worker. This character’s action to lighten her appearance speaks directly to the internalized racism and self-hatred cultivated by cultural hegemony.      
  
As questionable and irresponsible as perpetuating these hegemonic messages may be, Daniels uses them to dramatic advantage, making Precious a sensationalistic powerhouse of a film. In the same way that, in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino coupled popular references with depraved violence to make probing social commentary about our culture’s relationship to violence, Daniels attempts to take dramatic and larger-than-life approaches to some of the more difficult issues in Precious. The crucial difference between the two being that Tarantino’s films primarily deal with white gangsters, drug dealers, and petty criminals; familiar characters belonging to groups whose power and dominance are neither threatened nor underrepresented, while Daniels’ drama hinges on the experiences of a vulnerable member of an underrepresented, near invisible subordinate group (female, obese, illiterate, abused), whose exploitation results in consequences of social misrepresentation.                                                                                                   
The film is fraught with disturbing imagery that reinforces strongly held cultural prejudices indicting subordinate groups as responsible for their own dilemmas. Daniels cuts from a scene of Precious being incestuously raped to pigs’ feet sizzling in a pan full of grease. The girl is not only equated to a piece of meat, but cheap, unhealthy, often discarded meat. Are we to reason that Precious’ lack of self-care, self-control, intelligence, ambition or motivation may be partly to blame for how she is mistreated? She doesn’t only eat an entire bucket of fried chicken – she steals it. The implication that a child’s worth is contingent on her height/weight proportionality, intellect, or moral conduct is troubling.   

Especially disturbing is how Precious in turn mistreats the little girl who lives in her building – illustrating that abusive behavior is learned and repeated. Precious is eventually absolved of her atrocious treatment of the girl (by passing on her magical orange scarf to the child), but only after her miraculous transformation from victim of monstrous motherhood to loving and nurturing mother herself.    
                                      
Seeing the young girl, her face bruised, accompanying her mother in the social services waiting area, suggests that child abuse is not an isolated offense, but rather a commonplace practice specific to the community portrayed in Precious. This aspect of the story, which was most certainly meant to have been inspirational: the passing on of the magical scarf of possibility, the brave breaking of the chain of abuse – wouldn’t be so irresponsible and offensive had Daniels countered these atrocities by showing examples of loving families and parents within the same community, but that balance wasn’t represented.   

Perhaps most reprehensible is the libertarian wet dream fantasy ending message of Precious that anyone, regardless of personal circumstances (semi-illiterate, abused, obese, saddled with two infants, diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, whatever) has the ability to pull themselves out of the morass of their unfortunate surroundings and overcome life’s most challenging obstacles if only they have enough self-reliance and motivation to do so. This misleading dogma of personal responsibility removes all onus from more fortunate viewers to take any action to help better the lives of those less fortunate than themselves, just as it gives false hope to anyone tormented by their luckless and tragic conditions. 
 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

radiant child


The disquieting and uncomfortably titled, "27 Club" consists of an unfortunate group of exclusive celebrities who died at age 27: Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse. Not being a musician, Jean-Michel Basquiat is an unusual entry; he died from a heroin overdose in 1988.

I returned for a second contemplation of the Basquiat exhibit at the Gagosian gallery in Chelsea last week. While my first visit left me with a crisp and concrete response to what the young painter might have been trying to convey in his works, I went away from my second visit more than a little befuddled by what was being presented, and also somewhat sad.


Brooklyn-born, Jean-Michel Basquiat was son to an Afro-Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father. He grew up speaking, reading, and writing in English, Spanish, and French fluently. In the second half of the 1970s, Basquiat found fame (or infamy) as SAMO©, graffiti-ing buildings around Soho and downtown Manhattan. He participated in a group show in 1981, and was then featured in an article in Artforum magazine, which brought him to the attention of the art world. While at first glance some of his paintings may seem gimmicky or amateurishly higgledy-piggledy, at his best, Jean-Michel Basquiat's work ranks among the most original of his generation - maybe even of his century. 

After 1960s Pop Art championed celebrity and the commodification of the mundane, and after the sterile rigidity of 1970s minimalism, it seems Basquiat's multicultural New York-ishness, his energy and his anger were exactly what the art world thirsted for. He exploded onto the scene. His work and his personality - synonymous in a way that might only be compared with Andy Warhol's art/persona - shot to fame like a juggernaut. His gritty, Afro-centric, hurried, and agitated paintings began fetching exorbitant prices on the international art market. Unusual and impressive for an artist so young. Particularly notable for an African-American artist of any age.

This legendary and fast-burning superstar of the art world has been examined and reexamined in books, documentaries, films, and numerous retrospectives. What new insights could possibly be shared that haven't been considered before? And why reconsider his work and position now? What biting parallels might be drawn from his time and ours? The current landscape of unparalleled economic disparity, emerging class warfare, poverty, and an industrial prison complex that feeds itself on African-American and immigrant communities would have undoubtedly been fertile material for Basquiat's sharp and caustic voice.

In the 1980s, Punk Rock was being infused with a New Wave dance beat, clubs like Danceteria and Pyramid were spitting out celebrities, fashion trends, and artists that were making an indelible impact all over the globe. African-American neighborhoods in Mayor Koch's New York were being ravaged by crack, and corrupt police tactics were responsible for the deaths of graffiti artist, Michael Stewart and senior citizen, Eleanor Bumpers. AIDS was also beginning to take its devastating toll on the arts communities, especially in New York City. The landscape was rich with inspiration for Basquiat's unrestrained talent.

All the excitement, danger, inequity, and corruption of his generation are evident in the large unwieldy canvases (and boards, and slatted panels, and other salvaged materials) hung about Gagosian's sprawling, sun-drenched Chelsea gallery. Basquiat painted on a large scale, and each piece practically screams at the viewer with urgency and compulsivity. Whether his unique blend of compulsive obsession and urgency was motivated by his need for expression or the alarming prices his paintings were demanding (or both) may remain unknown. The result, however, is that he seems to have created his own artistic language; fusing painting, drawing, collage, and poetry to produce a distinct and vibrant historiogrphy of his experience as a young black man in a world dominated by the aristocracy of a privileged white few. His sharp jabs at an unfair hierarchical dominance are as much a commentary on the political landscape as on those who ruled the art world. An unlikely champion, he remained uncensored and biting in his narrative of black history, subjugation, injustice, and white dominance. 

 
















Incorporating iconography in his work: African masks, crowns, cars, cops, skyscrapers, etc., Basquiat consistently represented his own heritage and life experience in his work. In Eyes and Eggs (1983), measuring an impressive 9x10 feet, a black short order cook is dressed in a white cap and coat, he holds a frying pan with two eggs in it, mirroring his eyes, and he wears a name tag, which reads, "Joe." It is both cartoonish and sad - a nod to a generation of working class African-Americans who came before him, and a simultaneous spit in the eye to the collectors and agents of the art world who have reduced generations of hard-working people to fetishistic collectibles. Joe's mouth appears almost sealed with a diffused white swipe across the bottom side of his face - he's seen but not heard; in a position of servitude and voiceless. And if this cartoonish homage weren't enough to deliver a stern gut-punch, there are black sneaker treads all over the canvas, underscoring how an entire history has been walked on. 

Prolific in his few short years of work, Basquiat got darker and more self-reflective in his paintings, perhaps paralleling his descent into addiction; the later canvases less frenetic and politically accusatory - more contemplative. There are larger areas of negative space, less use of primary colors and more use of subtle hues and metallics. Still present are the triple tracks of toothy grins and the seemingly arbitrary dismembered body parts, but also transparent compartments in alien looking figures; an intricate constellation of goings-on where a lung would normally belong, for example. 
















Riding with Death (1988), is a striking departure from the busy-ness of his earlier works; a large almost empty canvas with a background awash in metallic silver/green supports a figure riding atop the suggestion of a minimal and deconstructed skeleton. It is plaintive and elegiac; a prescient treatise of ambition, drug addiction, money, and celebrity. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat had a lot to say, and he said it in exciting and never before seen ways that tore away boundaries between New York City nightlife, the art world, and the streets. I left the gallery space sorrowful and curious as to what we might have seen from a more calm and seasoned Basquiat - grieving the unrealized potential of what might have been had this wild and unbridled boy been allowed to mature and settle into adulthood without the pressures of fame, expectation, and drug addiction.

 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

don't cry for me argentina

In light of recent (and not so recent) sex and child abuse scandals, allegations of corruption, and a centuries long history of bloodshed and genocide, the Catholic Church might have considered a more contemporary public relations approach to its current predicament in order to present a more modern, progressive, gentler image to the world. But with the new Papal selection, the Catholic response seems to have been to grasp ever tighter to its conservative positions on social issues. We just saw the first resignation of a Pope in 600 years with Benedict (Ratzinger). Ratzinger (Benedict) entered his Papal career amid allegations of being a Nazi sympathizer and stepped down steeped in allegations of corruption, with knowledge of (and apparently playing an active role in) covering the tracks of predatory priests accused of child abuse. Now, we're seeing the introduction of Francis, who seems to have a problematic and questionable past of his own. 

Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Francis) is the first non-European in 1200 years and also the first Jesuit ever chosen to be the Bishop of Rome and the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. That Bergoglio hails from Latin America is a promising development, especially considering that more than a third of the world's Catholic population lives in Latin America. Also, his being a Jesuit, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church known for their work in education (founding schools, colleges, universities and seminaries), intellectual research, and cultural pursuits is encouraging. This choice would seem to imply that the Church is at once attempting to embolden education while at the same time reaching across the ocean to the Americas in order to help develop a more modern Catholic Church, which might better represent the impending global needs of the 21st century. A prospect that might prove difficult to maintain for long considering the new Pontiff has only one lung and is 76 years old.

Particularly in light of the allegations that Ratzinger came (and left) with, it's somewhat surprising that Bergoglio doesn't come with a squeaky clean record. His positions on same-sex marriage, gay adoption, abortion, women in the clergy, celibacy, and contraception are, not surprisingly rigidly conservative. He's called gay marriage "the destructive attempt to end God's plan." And has referred to adoption by gay couples as "the envy of the devil." Argentine President Cristina Fernandez once compared Bergoglio's stands on abortion and gay rights to "medieval times and the Inquisition." So if you had any hopes that the Catholic Church was going to hop on the gay marriage bandwagon anytime soon, get ready to be gravely disappointed. 

Bergoglio has had a long clerical career in Argentina where he's had the opportunity to work closely with President Fernandez. And while their relationship has sometimes been argumentative, this should indicate that he knows what it means to work with and have respect for a strong woman in a position of power. He also knows what it means to work with the poor and impoverished in terms of healthcare and education. 

Perhaps most troubling, and surprising in light of Ratzinger's Nazi allegations, are the allegations that Borgoglio was involved with the abductions and kidnappings of liberal priests during a military junta in 1976. 

As events unfold, it becomes clear that the unfortunate truth about the institutional behemoth that is the Catholic Church is that its primary motivation is to uphold its institutional power and position. The Church, as an institution, appears to be more concerned with doctrinal dogmaticism and the retaining of its power, rather than any practical application of the teachings of Christ.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

seneca falls, selma, stonewall

Barack Obama's Presidency has been problematic for any number of reasons. For me, it has been a highly-charged and paradoxical jumble of hope and disappointment. As a left-leaning, arugula-eating homo, of course, I've been thrilled with the strides that have been made by this administration's acknowledgment and support of LGBT issues. Unfortunately, I've been equally distressed by a great many other issues that either pass under the radar or go unreported by the majority of media outlets: drone strikes, the continuation of the Bush era anti-terror policies (wire taps, indefinite detainment, etc.), the continuation of tax cuts and corporate loopholes, and the refusal to acknowledge an unjust prison industrial complex that decimates African-American, Latino, and poor communities while nefarious Wall Street fat cats walk free. I also have an incessant disenchantment (that occasionally fluctuates to anger) with this administration's general inability to stand up against the radical right-wing tyrants who've managed to hold the nation hostage these past four years simply out of spite

That said, yesterday as I watched the second inauguration of President Obama, I felt hope, pride of country, respect, and true change. Yesterday, when the President addressed climate change, my heart skipped a beat thinking that maybe, just maybe this second term will reveal a man with so steely and determined a core that he will stand up to the imperious, truculent fringe who are more concerned with self-promotion than serving their constituents or their country. I am old enough to have seen friends, strong young men, whither with disease and die needlessly partly because President Reagan refused to even say the word AIDS. Standing in front of the nation and the world, President Obama said, "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall..." and I felt something expand in my chest; something more than pride, more than respect or patriotism, or even hope; I felt recognized.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

twenty thirteen

Forgive me; I feel that I've been neglecting you, dear blog. We are already more than one week into the new year and I haven't written anything here since before Christmas. I have, however, been keeping busy posting birthdays of celebrities and other interesting persons of note on Facebook. This has become an enjoyable, and oftentimes educational morning activity for me. I go online to see what historical figures have been born on that particular day in history, and then google them while drinking my coffee. Often I discover interesting people I hadn't been aware of before, and occasionally I'll uncover little-known and interesting facts about personalities with whom I've already been acquainted.

For example, two days ago it would have been gorgeous French model and actress, Capucine's 85th birthday, and while I clearly remember her as Barbara Stanwyck's sultry and Sapphic plaything in Walk on the Wild Side, I had no idea that she suffered from extreme depression, or that she tragically threw herself to her death from her eighth story window in 1990.  I've also recently read extensively about Lillian Roth, Tom Mix, ZaSu Pitts, Jeanne d'Arc, Zora Neale Hurston, George Reeves, and Lucretia Mott. 

Perhaps the most intriguing celebrity I've become aware of recently is Lucia Zarate. Lucia Zarate, often billed as "The Mexican Lilliputian," or "The Puppet Woman," was born in San Carlos, Mexico. She was entered into the Guinness World Records as "the lightest recorded adult," weighing 4.7 pounds at age 17 (smaller than a cat)! Lucia stood at 20 inches tall. Unlike dwarves, she was normal in every other way, and was described as bright and animated company. She first came to the US at 12 years old to tour with the Barnum Circus, and was one of the highest-paid small people of all time. Zarate died tragically in 1890 at age 26 from hypothermia when the train she was traveling on to an engagement in San Francisco became stalled by a blizzard in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. This past Wednesday was her 149th birthday.