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THE RACE

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I have a lot more in common with Mitt Romney than with Barack Obama.

By that, I mean that if I were being interviewed, I’d sound like Mitt Romney, not Barack Obama. I’d have a hard time making a coherent point, and my syntax would be questionable, and I’d be using words like “severe” when I really meant “extreme.” This is not because I’m incapable of being articulate; it’s just that under the glare of national scrutiny, I’d come off looking more like a regular person reacting to extraordinary circumstances. Much as I’d want to, I’d never come off as extraordinary.

Like Romney, because I can’t make heads or tails of what’s happening in Syria or Libya or Iraq, I’d be apt to say something that belies my lack of expertise, even though I’d gamely insert names of foreign capitals and leaders in hopes of fooling some percentage of the electorate.

And this is sort of beside the point, but I’m not all that poised and have terrible taste in music, so am perfectly capable of having done something as odd as singing America the Beautiful for no particular reason. Though, to be fair, Romney has better pitch than I do.

I’d like to think that if I were running for President, I’d realize that a broad knowledge base and incisive linguistic skills and a tendency towards curiosity and reflection were helpful assets, but maybe not. If my political party had convinced me that the only thing that mattered was getting rid of the other guy–the one with the foreign name and the dark skin–and that becoming super rich is the worthiest of all American aspirations, maybe I, too, would have decided that with my pile of money, pretending to know things was plenty good enough.

I’d like to think that if a blusterous talk radio personality who holds my party hostage to a daily stream of nonsensical bile were to publicly refer to a private citizen as “slut,” that my response would be something viscerally decent, like “That’s just ignorance talking.”  But then again, if I, like everyone else in my party, feared being used as his punching bag for the next 2 months, maybe I’d think twice, too.

I know I’m not one bit like Barack Obama because my skin is simply not thick enough to have withstood the vitriol that’s been directed his way for four years. If I’d been victimized by a seething, irrational cauldron of resentment and jealousy and hatred, been vilified for my name and my birthplace, my mother and my father, my college grades and my preference in lettuce, and above all, my race–yes, we mustn’t forget race–I just know that at some point I would have just lost all composure and screamed back, “I’m President, dammit! What have YOU done lately?” I just know that the qualities he possesses–grace under pressure and humor in the face of lies and poise when being baited–would find a way to elude me.

When asked to weigh in on the death of an unarmed black teenager, my clumsy allusion to race would sound something like, “Of course, he was killed because he was black, who are we kidding?” I know I would be utterly incapable of a brief, eloquent, and altogether sorrowful statement like “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

And I know for a fact that I would never inspire a magazine cover as beautifully designed as the one above, or an award-winning political poster by a street artist, or even a pretty great logo.

For those of us who saw in Barack Obama a brand of idealism and conviction, talent and motivation, restraint and gravitas that we admired partly because we knew we didn’t possess these things ourselves, November 4, 2008 was a day of giddy validation–validation of the qualities we thought everyone ought to see as valuable in a President. For Obama’s detractors, though, it was more akin to having had a soft spot for the Berlin wall, and then being forced to stand and merely watch as the wall came down to global jubilation. To have a narrative wrested away so decisively, to be excluded from a collective, transcendent moment, leaves a bitter taste that lasts a long time–or, at the very least, four years.

I don’t want Mitt Romney to be my President. It’s true that we don’t share the same age or birthplace or religion or bank account or number of children, but that hardly matters. In ways that are vastly more important, he’s a lot like me–and that’s kind of depressing.

But the other guy–the one with the father he barely knew, and the mother who died too young, the iconoclast; the outsider with the hard-won, true American story, who, in ways that matter the most, is nothing at all like me–that’s the kind of guy I think should be President. And at least for four years, against the steepest odds imaginable, he was.

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MAGIC MAN

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A year ago, in the evening hours of October 5, I found myself doing something I’m rarely inclined to do: spending the remains of the day watching TV coverage of a single event. That event was, of course, the death of Steve Jobs, and I managed to turn away only long enough to count the number of Apple devices, past and current, that dotted the landscape of my household: 15.

That obscene number may or may not be a statement about American consumerism, but it most definitely is a testament to Steve Jobs’ penchant for making objects that appealed equally to the two occupants of my home–one of whom valued form above everything, and the other for whom function was all. Who, I thought, would ever be able to create a product, any product, that we both loved with this kind of ardor?

Steve Jobs was, not surprisingly, a complicated man, both great and awful, capable of incomparable vision and shocking lapses in judgement, who saw some things with singular clarity and others with no benefit whatsoever of wisdom. To have been his mother or wife or daughter, I’ll bet, was not much fun. But for the rest of us, Steve Jobs was nothing, if not fun.

The obsessions, quirks and eccentricities, maddening to those who knew him, were so artfully expressed in the things he gave us, things so magical in their purity, it’s no wonder we can’t bear to let them go even after obsolescence has set in. No wonder, as the eulogies came pouring in that night, we couldn’t bear to see him, too, go.

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THE EQUALIZER

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This isn’t the first time the great illustrator Bob Staake has used architecture to symbolize a watershed moment in American politics. His 2008 image for The New Yorker’s post-election issue (below) was one of the most memorable covers of any year.

Fittingly, this week’s cover trades the gravitas of that year’s transcendent moment, for a touch of pitch-perfect whimsy. “I don’t especially like those rainbow colors, but…I had to use them,” he says. Of course–and to such pleasing effect.

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CROSSING PATHS

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My only brush with celebrity stalking begins and ends with the great Spanish artist, Antoni Tàpies, who died last night at the age of 88.

It began one afternoon, many years ago, when, armed with a map and an address, I set out alone on the perfectly unfamiliar streets of Barcelona to find Tàpies.  That it didn’t, in fact, end with a Tàpies meeting was, in retrospect, fortuitous, for the fact that I hadn’t given much thought to what exactly I’d say were I to find myself in the same room with him. But on that sunny, spring day, the quest to find Tapies seemed, to me, the only reason to be in Barcelona.

Antoni Tàpies had mastered every medium that I’d wanly flirted with–drawing, painting, printmaking, graphic design, poetry–and that, I thought inexplicably, was something he should know.

My determination brought me, circuitously, to a massively imposing, unmarked wooden door on a fairly desolate narrow street, one that I sheepishly knocked on, only to be greeted by a smiling woman who said, yes, this was Tàpies’ studio, and no, he wasn’t there; and, then, in a gesture unthinkable to a New Yorker, invited me in for a tour.

A back room was lined with flat files in which scores of Tàpies’ prints were stored, and she asked me if I’d like to see some of them.  There were immaculately organized lithographs and etchings, heart-stoppingly gorgeous embossings, richly colored, overlaid with Catalan scribbles–and there were crosses, of course, his famous crosses. Some prints were recently made, yet to be exhibited anywhere, and she removed them from their files, one at a time, carefully placing them on a table for me. Just for me.

I may have been there for an hour, maybe more. I thanked her for her kindness. She apologized for Tàpies’ absence. I left, as dusk approached, not quite sure of the way back to my hotel. I was leaving the next day, or was it two days? I couldn’t remember just then, and it didn’t matter much.  I had come to Barcelona.  I had come to find Tàpies. And, in a way I could scarcely have imagined, I had.

 

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PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE

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In the late 1980’s, American political indifference met its match in the unbridled anger of the New York City activist/artist group, Gran Fury, which countered official dithering over how to address the AIDS epidemic with graphic messaging that still startles decades later.

Gran Fury–which took its name from a car model used by New York City’s police force–launched a blistering propaganda campaign that snatched the AIDS narrative away from an ineffective local and national establishment, and reframed the crisis in terms that could no longer be ignored.

But shock value wasn’t Gran Fury’s only weapon.  More thought-provoking pieces, like 1989’s four-page New York Crimes, smartly and effectively outlined the city’s willful disregard for the suffering of a marginalized community.

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ENABLING

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The burden of age, injury, or a simple twist of fate is rarely lightened by designers. Tools and devices created to aid the temporarily weak or permanently compromised are rarely assigned any of the aesthetically redeeming qualities industrial designers strive so hard to ascribe to their newest objects of desire.  Like the poor, those with physical disabilities, are assumed to be too busy with the business of simply navigating through a hostile world to bother with the more superficial business of beauty.

Kudos, then, to the Danish design team at Omhu, who, through careful observation and personal experience, have made it their business to inject some much-needed levity and style into objects with low sex appeal quotients, usually banished from display.  Omhu, translated from Danish, means “great care,” and this award-winning cane design–with its combination of high performance materials, graceful profile, and joyful gloss of color–embodies that sentiment impressively.

Innovation, it is said, isn’t always about being the first. Sometimes, being the best can count for just as much.

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STRAIGHT FACED

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When Frank Gehry’s gleaming, swirling Guggenheim Bilbao opened in 1997, it was hailed as a miracle or modern architecture, and why not? It was, after all, like nothing we had ever seen.

Since then, though, we have seen it over and over again, and not just at the hands of Gehry. There are so many celebrated buildings that resemble twisting masses of metal, one may be forgiven for thinking architects have forgotten how to draw a straight line.

Maybe that’s why the soon-to-open Matthew Marks Gallery in West Hollywood, looks like so much freshness.  The unassuming–even humble–all-white stucco structure has but a single brilliant flourish:  an Ellsworth Kelly-commissioned black bar, standing out in relief at the top of the gallery’s facade–echoing two works from Kelly’s own oeuvre.

“The outside seems like the simplest possible design, and I imagine people walking down the street will not know what it is, at least not at first. But I hope they will take a second look and realize that it’s something special.”

In a post-Postmodern age, it’s possible for the mantra of old-fashioned Modernism to still ring true.