Wednesday, August 7, 2013

American Painting Culture, 2013

 More than ever, the new medium of our imaginations is a screen. Glowing little pixels of light, repeated endlessly in a frame is what we spend a huge part of our lives looking at. Whether it be watching movies, TV, playing video games, or surfing the Internet, we're looking at what amounts to a glowing (sometimes moving) image in a frame. The screen is taking over. Certain seemingly traditional things are now frequently being done on screens—reading books, researching, as well as most movie special effects and animation (both created and watched on screens). With the advent and takeover of Iphones, most of us now walk everywhere with high performance screens in our pocket, connected to the Internet and with a camera, video games, social networking, texting and traditional phone talking capabilities.

Screens aren't only everywhere, with us almost all the time, they are also given high importance, a great deal of collective attention and are major status symbols. We aren't simply connected by screens because we now carry them around all the time and use them as our primary communication tool—lately the natural need to feel part of something, part of an in-group, is fed with technology. And people feel part of a community based of what screen-based technology they have. Our collective breath is constantly held over the next screen—the next screen gizmo, or the latest add-on (software, apps).

Painting is perhaps the oldest 'screen'. Images in a frame, or at least a square/rectangle format, have been part of culture for hundreds of years, not too far from a thousand. It was not that long ago in the history of Western civilization that the main practical way to depict was only by hand—using sculpture, painting, printmaking or drawing. For reasons of effectiveness and practicality, painting was the leader of these means of depiction.

In our age of photography, digital technology, instant information, and glowing screens, something like painting seems very archaic. It is essentially smearing colored goo onto a flat surface to make imagery. And it is simply not a new idea—it is a very old one. In our culture, new is almost always better than old.

So, in this environment is painting still alive? It is. In fact, more people are currently painting than at any other time in history. Not only that, but there are more acceptable styles of painting and techniques and approaches developed than in any time in the past. But that doesn't mean painting is in a healthy place.
For one thing, painting is not something deemed relevant by most of American society. Most people know little about it. Ignorance about painting is rampant. Most everyday Americans do not have the skills to decipher quality in painting. While it seems like every American is at least a casual movie and music fan and is likely to have opinions about these forms, they tend to be almost totally unfamiliar with painting. Their opinions tend to either be non-existent or very minimal and poorly informed. People generally feel no need to 'keep current' with what is going on in the fine arts in general, including painting.

This lack of painting being part of most Americans' everyday lives is fed by painting's general position in society. There is seemingly a contradiction here—painting is not held in high esteem by most of society, yet a small, elite group of wealthy people use painting as an expensive collecting hobby, a source of status symbols and as a market to invest in and manipulate as a pastime.

This contradiction is a bad mix. You could say 99% of people see painting as irrelevant. The other 1% aren't interested in painting for what are always the purest and most virtuous reasons. Any interest the 99% might be tempted to take in painting is often discouraged by the insider art culture that has been procured by the elite 1%, who are most active in art. Frankly, most American's confusion with current art and painting is only made worse by the way the ruling class most involved in the art world presents it. What they enjoy and encourage and their insider culture itself, not only looks confusing or silly to the rest of the population, it often telegraphs a message of exclusiveness.

The upside of this situation is that artists currently working have a choice—they can either cater and position their work to appeal to the elite art world, or work in relative obscurity. While one of these options sounds obviously grim and the other potentially appealing, perhaps the opposite is true in most cases. Those who choose the option of catering work to the trends of the art elite face long odds. Most customize their work to appeal to that upper market and completely fail to get a taste of it. On the other hand, those who do not cater to the elite and choose the type of art they want to do, based on heart's desire, have a variety of options. Small, slightly underground subcultures of various types of painting offer community and opportunities. These days, one can learn and find support in a huge variety of painting styles and techniques. It has never been easier to paint in so many different ways. One option is trying to win the lottery, while the other is trying to eek out a living, albeit trying within a variety of established styles of painting.

The general pluralism of painting and art in general today had its good points. Painters have many options, sources of inspiration, and techniques to draw on. Not only can artists simply choose any of these and adopt them as their chosen method, they can also mix and match these already existing art making types in limitless combinations.

And yet this pluralist, open-ended painting and art culture is much more limited than it may appear on the surface. While the pluralist culture alive at the bottom of the art world has influenced the art and culture styles at the elite top, there is a very limited set of styles and philosophies at the trend-setting top of the painting world.

Trend-setting painting today has a certain look to it. It is a myth that there us no style, no movement in current painting. Things are too shattered and hybridized to be boiled down to a simple movement, such as Abstract Expressionism, yet something that could be a movement is happening. If taken with some looseness, we are in the midst of a definite movement.

What are the attributes of current, 'elite' painting? The first, most general aspect is that current trend seeking art has a feel and look that hits the well traveled eye before the mind can grasp or define. It has an almost subconscious predictability. One gets the feeling and then searches for explanation and specifics. This isn't so different from other art movements in the past. But those tended to be aware they were movements which included and excluded based on a series of attributes. And they had a particular purpose—usually new ground that artists felt needed to be broken. The current style or aesthetic is more an ironic blend of recent painting history as well as other pop culture or consumer culture elements.

Though not steadfast and true across the board, there are some general aspects to the 'elite' aesthetic of current painting. Not all work contains all these elements or even any of them, but in general they are pervasive in 'elite' painting today.

Perhaps the first element to note is the openness to multiple mediums, collage elements, and installation elements in painting. Perhaps the second most important element to note is the very graphic look to 'elite' painting. It mixes painterly elements with hard edges, a sticker-like, floating, sudden edged feeling to objects in the painting. Part of this graphic look is due to the odd influence of illustration, cartoons, pop and advertising imagery and architectural renderings. Their influences seem to be pervasive whether the work is representational or abstract.

Either abstract or representational work is welcome, but both venues end up surprisingly similar in effect. Work of both types veers between (or includes both) very painterly and very graphic with hard edges. The painterly is not the elegant, paint-dancing of Abstract Expressionism, but messy, awkward or squalid looking. It brings to mind what's in a dumpster behind a convenience store, rather than the beauty of paint in motion. The purely abstract work tends to have a feminine feel to the color choice and shapes. Palettes are heavy on grays and gaudy colors—the subtly between tends to be left behind. I've started calling this the 'bubble gum palette.'

Beyond color and shapes, the feminine feel to this aesthetic is supported by frequent occurrence of pattern and things influenced by interior design (the housewares section of your local Target store has a surprisingly large amount in common with current 'elite' painting). Cloth patterns, weaves, designs and textures are often referenced.

Current 'elite' painting is also frequently ironic and cheeky. It references 'retro' things in a shallow, cute way, more for decoration than content. It seeks to be strange, funny and sometimes slightly creepy. Art is often strange, but our current obsession with strangeness stands out for its shallow, single-minded quest to be strange for the sake of strangeness.

Irony is often hinted at by depicting pretty things in ugly (or tacky) ways or things that, because of their plain, unromantic nature, have not been thought of as art subjects in the past. This idea took the main stage in the form of Pop art, a movement which started in the 1950's and took of in the early 1960's. In a way, more than fifty years later, a lot of painting is a new, more messy version of Pop art's 'consumer culture as subject'.
A large volume of the irony feel in current 'elite' painting comes from the aesthetic of ugly. Beauty is out, ugly is in. The volume is often turned up on this to the point of gaudiness. Painterly is now messy, clean lines now harken a dank, concrete parking garage.

This goes beyond simple aesthetic choices. Squalor and suburban decay is often a subject either indirectly or explicitly. Consumer culture and its extremely short half-life is often on the mind of the painters on some level.
As a cohesive whole, these current paintings make little effort to be the Renaissance 'window to a world.' The flatness of current paintings is made clear by a fondness for blank space that is beginning to border on cliché. Objects and brushwork often float on blank white surface or unfinished wood. It isn't simply the move of minimalists (often this occurs in crowded paintings) but rather an aggressively blunt way of showing the 'man behind the curtain.' There is no attempt at illusion or secret, the blank space not only proclaims the work as a graphic, but also spills the beans on what sort of surface the work is painted on. This perhaps goes along with the aesthetic of ugly. The ugly chic of these works demand extreme—compositions are either cluttered to the point of claustrophobia or left with blank space that almost seems unfinished or not thought about. Sometimes both extremes are employed in one painting. What is usually avoided is a beautiful, conventional sense of composition.

Tying into all sorts of these aspects is a large reliance on a primitive aesthetic. Folk art and outsider art is very influential in the way many are now painting. Untrained, clumsy, and rough-hewn technique are in. Even paintings that rely on some type of formal virtuosity also have a countering naïve element. For instance, a painting with complex paint handling or photo-realistic elements may have a naïve or clumsy composition in which even the axis of the whole painting seems off kilter. Realism or highly polished formal skills are often used in small parts of a work dominated by more crude means. Reference to children's art is also common. All of our own history as artistic primitives, the way we made and saw art as children is highly influential, like African masks and art were to Picasso. The current turn to the primitive has a definite self-referential and pop flavor. When Picasso began to use the influence of African art in his work, it was confusing and even menacing. Part of this is because of the look of African art, part is because of how Picasso used this influence, but part of this was also because it was an exotic, strange thing to reference. Current painters reference a much more cozy world of every American's comfortable, suburban, pop culture soaked childhood. Growing up in a garish consumer culture, one that does not enlighten its youth in high culture well, is both a conscious and unconscious wellspring.

Part of the high level of current interest in a 'graphic' look is to ape surfaces in an illustrated way, rather than in a literal realist way. A common tool is to, for example, put in wood grain or metal as if it is a decal rather than an actual surface with light hitting it. 'This is wood' is most often said with wood paneling rather than painting an object so it looks like it is actually made of wood. This sort of material irony and humor is sometimes one of the main objectives of paintings these days.

Lastly, the conceptual nature of current 'elite' painting encourages artists to delve into certain subjects and ways of working. It is frequently self referential in a way that would make the self exploration of past artists look tame. Self-obsessed is a better term. It is common for current painters to have self history as their main subject, or at least a side subject. The history of self has become the topic of this generation of painters.

The way current 'elite' painters work has certain tendencies, too. Gimmickry is common and encouraged. Through most of art history, painters were expected to evolve and make clever variations on some bread and butter painting realities. Everything painters did was an image which appeared on canvas or panel in a square or rectangle. Now, painters seek to work outside the box by basing their work on a gimmick. This may not be a type of work that can be varied and explored for long without becoming tiresome. But if an artist is successful, they will stretch their gimmick without evolution as long as possible (or profitable). What is a gimmick? It is anything unconventional in the sphere of painting. It can be mixing of media, painting on a strange surface, working without paint but still calling oneself a painter, working in unusual scales, incorporating extreme conceptual practices in painting or presenting your work far from the normal way a painting is traditionally looked at. This often is in the format of artifact-making, that is, making a painting which is to be looked at as an artifact or reproduction of an object, and not a picture of an object or an illustration.

So why is such a long laundry list of general descriptions of current elite painting necessary? Why, if it takes so much to describe this new style, is it of any use to try to put current painting in a box? I'm not big on putting a definition on everything. But art is surprisingly non-inclusive now. The list of attributes of current, 'elite' painting might seem long, but if a painting is outside of too many of these tendencies, it is not considered by the 'elite' art world. In this environment, many of our greatest visual arts talents are ignored.

So what does this culture in 'elite' painting have to do with our screen-obsessed culture? The more I think about it, the more connected they seem. Screen culture is about being hip—haves and have nots. 'Have you seen this movie yet? Do you watch this show? Do you have this gizmo? Do you have this app for your gizmo? Did you hear about this event on your screen yet?' It is about being part of a community, one that is in the millions, and yet people desire to be elite. It is a world of one-uping your peers, for checking to make sure they are up to your tech standards.

Painting culture is picking up some of these elements. It is non-inclusive, but skill, talent and ideas are not the clear way to inclusion. Simply being hip to the tone of the of the current aesthetic is the biggest ticket to inclusion; a willingness to change or evolve what or how you paint until it matches the very specific guidelines of contemporary trends. And this very non-inclusive environment is hidden under the banner of pluralism. In a similar way our tech obsessed culture claims to be about faster, easier information and convenience, while it ends up being just as much about status and distraction. Both art and technology offer opportunities for elitism and these days both are being utilized for elitism frequently and in a surprisingly organized way. It is in tech company's interest to promote a culture of one-upmanship and perceived exclusiveness (never long lasting). In this way they sell more product more often and remain exclusive in our culture and collective attention. Elite art is also market based. More than art or even personality, the art world sells trends. Painting is often boiled down to a collectible, high-end trend. It is in the interest of the elite art market to be very exclusive—to make sure the work, and even artist personalities fit very specific trends and do not number too high. A product of limited availability and clear-cut attributes is worth the most and the easiest to control and sell.

On a less conceptual level, current elite painting is very much a result of our tech obsessed culture and from looking at screens. While movies and TV suggest the viewer step inside the frame, a modern resurrection of the Renaissance window to a world, small Iphone screens and most Internet activity occurs in a very flat world. The glass becomes a firm shield and we can't quite pull our imaginations into a different 3D world on the other side. We can see the results of this culture in the trends popular in 'elite' painting. The masses of white space mimic the flat world inside a screen. And the layout of a typical Internet page, with its white, blank space offset by areas plastered with busy ads and complex images are mimicked, too. In a general way this is the basic aesthetic of many paintings that are now considered trendy or being bought and sold in elite venues.

The pluralist appearance of 'elite' painting is a reflection of the high volume information culture we now have, thanks to our screens. You can find information about most anything instantly on a hand held device. Communication with friends and even acquaintances is an all day, instantaneous process. With this great power of information at our fingertips, we get an ego as a society. We think we know everything because we can look anything up. But we are limited by time and our own imagination and intelligence in this aspect. Also, while a great deal of information is online, many topics aren't or have little information available online. The reality is often as much about distraction as it is about knowledge and learning. And our ability to socialize constantly online with portable devices may make us seem more connected to each other, but in a way it distracts us from in-person interactions as well as entrenches us in a group we already know rather than encouraging meeting new people.

'Elite' painting has similarities. It might seem more inclusive than past movements. Is isn't about one thing (like pop art) or even called a specific name. Many mediums and approaches are acceptable. Crossing and blurring art mediums, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation etc. is often encouraged.
But that open-ended environment is tempered by a clique-based reality in the 'elite' painting world. Wildness and open-ended art making is welcome, so long as it fits into a fairly narrow aesthetic zone. The aimless feeling of this new aesthetic reflects a feast of choices. New work is not so much totally ground breaking as it is a mixture of past painting. It seems artists are paralyzed by the options presented to them by past developments in a similar way that our culture is overwhelmed by constant information and 24/7 access to it. But all this access to information, and in the case of painting, the access to a history of varied approaches, has given our current culture a bit of ego, which clouds perspective.

The age of constant Internet access and social networking outlets such as facebook, Twitter and youtube has created a culture, particularly among youth, of egotism. Sharing mundane details of everyday life constantly creates a sense of minor celebrity in people's mind, a sense that people they know are following their lives with interest. Easy picture taking and sharing results in people with large collections of their own image. In a way, everyone is their own celebrity, at least in their mind.

This matches with the large amount of self-referential work and personal archeology found in painting now. And when painters aren't aggressively referencing themselves in painting, they are referencing something. Usually work has some retro reference, either from past art or past culture. Pop culture is constantly referenced in work, either directly or indirectly. It seems our culture of self reference created by screens and technology has rubbed off on the popular set of painting styles.

In simple terms, both our culture at large and our 'elite' painting culture have been affected by our tech obsession. While these new tools have the potential for great uses, they are often used for petty purposes. They also have a destructive tendency—the power technology bestows on us also comes with responsibility and temptations to keep at bay. Art culture has been adversely affected by these tech trends. But perhaps a larger danger to both our culture at large and our art and painting culture is elitism. When too small a group holds too much of the power, much danger lurks. And this is the current situation in America in general, and in the microcosm of painting.  

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Vivaldi and Bach

Though they never met, as far as history has recorded, Vivaldi and Bach are tied together as much as any two great composers. The basis for this connection is the fact that Bach transcribed some of Vivaldi's concertos in his early career for keyboard (either harpsichord, organ, or in one case four harpsichords and string orchestra). This connection point, along with the popularity and greatness of both composers' music, has lead to constant comparisons.

In some ways, two composers from the same age could not be less suited for comparison. Vivaldi, during his life, was an international figure, while Bach remained a provincial composer. Bach arranged Vivaldi's works like a student might to learn from great Italian music, yet his greater reputation in later ages has reversed this role: Some see his transcriptions of Vivaldi as improvements, or at least as another chapter of evidence touting Bach's superiority. Vivaldi was from Italy, and in their times the Italian style was the leading international style. It was considered the most modern, the setter of trends and the most desirable approach. Later, scholars and musicians of Classical music would look back on this with doubt---many saw the Northern styles, particularly those in what is now Germany as superior in a modern and 'ideally Baroque' sense. The national tastes were different. Germany had more complex part writing, with a thicker sound. They used woodwinds more often, and with more freedom than the Italians and the practice of orchestral winds and brass took root there. In Italy streamlined simplicity was valued. Clarity and directness were the basis for musical vocabulary. Formal innovations such as the invention of now staple genres like the solo concerto, the orchestral concerto (which would develop into the symphony) and da capo aria began there. At the time, the Northerners looked down on their own strengths often, and it was common for patrons to bring in Italian talent (on up to Mozart's day). This was not much of a two way street. Italians coming into Germany were rarely influenced by the thick part writing or counterputal footholds. Vivaldi, for instance, wrote for the Dresden court at times in his career. His style was little effected by his travels, though. The main German influence was allowing him to write for orchestras with more woodwind players and the adjustment seems to have been a natural and happy one. For what it is worth, Bach absorbed a variety of formal and stylistic cues from the Italians (which he was openly fond of) without giving an inch to his own personal style and tendencies.

Perhaps a good way to start comparing two tough comparisons is to speak in terms of 'national' styles. To be a bit overly simple, Bach was greatest exponent of the German style and Vivaldi was the greatest exponent of the Italian style. In a way they were polar about it---Vivaldi takes the values of the Italians to an extreme---he was wildly inventive, trail blazed forms, wrote emotive music, and valued boldness and clarity. Bach also takes the 'old-fashioned' stereotype of Germany at the time to an extreme. While his music is timeless and modern in many ways, even his fellow Germans saw him as unusually out of date. Perhaps a better way to put it is that Bach valued things that were no longer fashionable while most of his fellow countrymen (Telemann is a great example) were going to great lengths to absorb or even imitate the Italian approach.

In this simple context, Vivaldi and Bach were Baroque opposites. Bach obsessed over complex part writing, full of motivic variation, and references between parts. It is rare for counterpoint to not at least influence the way Bach creates a passage. Variation and counterpoint and references of these two ideals show up everywhere in Bach's music. To Bach, music was an intellectual pursuit and the evidence of God that resided for him in music was strongest when his works were full of rich references and clever working out of material.

Vivaldi was actually quite adept at counterpoint and the kind of motivic working that Bach used, but he did not value it in the same way Bach did. For him it was just another musical tool, one to be used rarely at that. Vivaldi did not work out an intellectual score as Bach did. He was concerned with how a work sounded, and with expressing vivid emotions. Textures and shapes were the tools of Vivaldi---not texture in the music theory sense of homophony, monophony and polyphony, but in the general artistic sense. His music strives to convey different textures of aural surfaces. To Vivaldi, music was emotional and artistic and the evidence of God that resided for him in music was strongest when his works stirred the emotions of his fellow men.

For two so totally different musicians, there might seem to be little common ground, but they actually share many characteristics. Perhaps the most obvious is that they both write in a style that is instantly recognizable. One gets the feeling that, even though they had no interest in hiding their artistic identity, neither would be able to keep their strong musical identities under wraps even if they tired. Bach, in particular would often get caught up in the experience of composing, and the result would be longer and larger scale pieces than were generally written at the time. Both men had a formal knack which put their contemporaries to shame. Vivaldi's formal conception of the concerto in the first fifteen years of the 1700's was far ahead of any of his contemporaries. He also had a modern, striking musical language that was head and shoulders above his fellow Italians at this time, and the mix of the two made his music internationally renowned. While Bach can't claim to be quite the creator and nurturer of forms that Vivaldi was, he always looked at formal aspects of music in a way beyond what his fellow men were intellectually capable of. This allowed him to write at a top level in any form he chose and to add small additions of his own to forms that would later be admired and noticed. He also did make smaller contributions to form in the way Vivaldi did with the concerto. Bach was one of the first to compose sonatas for solo instrument and keyboard that were not solo/accompaniment so much as an even pairing between a 'melody' instrument and a keyboard instrument. This format fit his style and nature well.

Striking little similarities also occur. Both men were fond of passages that are rhythmically repetitive, embedded in more varied material, in which harmonic progression was the main interest, and which create a hypnotic effect. This device which is hard to describe, but instantly recognizable was used constantly by both. Bach certainly took the idea of orchestral unison (examples come from Brandenburg Concertos #3 and 2) from Vivaldi. Bach may also have taken from Vivaldi the idea of inserting cantabile material into a fast movement. Vivaldi's striking and elaborate use of this concept in the 3rd movement from his opus 3 no. 8 concerto is perhaps the first appearance of the idea in music history. Bach's use of this device in the 3rd movement of his 5th Brandenburg Concerto may be a direct reference to Vivaldi's opus 3 no. 8 (although it lacks Vivaldi's melodic luster). Both passages are marked cantabile in the score.

Another similarity is that during their lives, both men had perhaps acquired greatest fame for their mastery of their home instruments. Bach was best loved by his contemporaries as an incomparable organist. His improvisations were talked of far and wide. Vivaldi became internationally known as a composer, but his most profuse fame may have come from his violin playing. As early as 1712 he was playing in positions beyond the fingerboard of almost any contemporary violin.

Perhaps a good way to look at these composers is through the 'interaction' that connected to them, and the perceptions that have developed as a result. One becomes instantly impressed by Bach's open mind and humility when one looks at the Vivaldi (and other Italian) transcriptions. Clearly, he never intended to write music that would be like their's, but he sought to learn everything he could from them and use what he valued in their approach. This sort of humility and attention would be commendable in a run of the mill student, but in a man with the massive abilities of Bach, it seems like a small miracle. On the other hand, Bach seems to have missed the point at times with the transcriptions. They are not literal, and he often takes liberties to 'Bach them up'. This most often means filling out the parts with small canons, references, or rapid bass passages to fill out the texture. Often this process dispenses with the strengths of the original---boldness, clarity and emotional directness. Bach may have seen these changes as required by the switch of instrumentation---from string orchestra to either organ or harpsichord. Adding to the challenge is early Vivaldi's almost schizophrenic range of approaches. Two of the pieces Bach arranged could hardly take more varied approaches. Vivaldi writes a fugue in his opus 3 no. 11 that is one of the few works to come out of Italy in Bach's counterpuntal realm. On the other hand his opus 3 no.12 is, orchestrally, limited to simple three part writing (often only 2 real parts) in the first movement. Ironically, the less Bachian work (no. 12) seems to come off better---it has it's own charm as a piece that makes both compositions viable. The grand Organ transcription of opus 3 no. 11 is enjoyable, but dead sounding when compared to the original. Vivaldi's counterpoint is so good in it that Bach made very few additions or changes. The non-counterputal sections seem muddy compared to the original. Perhaps Bach's greatest sin in the transcriptions is his version of Vivaldi's opus 7 no. 11 (Il Grosso Mogul), which he transcribed for organ. This work is unapologetically violinistic. Any transcription to keyboard would be risky, because Vivaldi's version relies on the expressive touch available to violin articulation (and not available to mechanical keyboard instruments, for all intents and purposes). But Bach's choice of organ, with it's muddy articulation, makes the work hard to bear.

But a failure of this type is often written off as being a defect in Vivaldi exposed, by modern audiences. The idea that Bach was 'improving' the works may be an offshoot of these modern attitudes. Though Bach's versions are more Northern sounding, it could be argued that most of his changes are to make the crossing of mediums bearable. Knowing Bach's own musical personality---at once a man of unimaginable discipline, yet one to give in to his hunches or get swept away by the act of composing easily---I can read many moments in his transcriptions where he simply could not resist putting in his own idea or reworking something in his own way. And this brings up an important difference between the two men. Logically, one would expect the emotive Vivaldi to be less disciplined than the intellectual Bach. In many ways Bach was as disciplined as any composer in history. But he also got swept up in process in a way that was more romantic or modern than Baroque. He could not resist a good idea if it came to him. This has the effect of pushing his luck with the attention span of the audience. Perhaps no composer who ever lived could work extremely simple ideas with clever variation the way Bach could—working the material. And that is the approach he preferred. He would set simple ideas up and build off and vary those. With this way of working Bach has wowed countless people, yet his approach has its limits, even for perhaps history's greatest composer. Bach often squeezes every drop he can out of a small amount of initial material. He enjoys this process, and perhaps its challenge, and it gives his works total unity within a movement. But his lack of new material and how long he is willing to (cleverly) stretch the material, sometimes into ten minute movements, based on the same material and employing mostly thick textures, can weary a listener, whether people admit it or not. In this way he demands a lot from his audience.

Vivaldi, on the other hand, was careful to not push the listener in such ways. He is careful to introduce new material when needed, vary the texture (this is perhaps why he enjoyed the concerto so much) and never have a piece last longer that the material could support. While some might accuse Vivaldi of lacking ambition at times, he simply wrote with a fear of overextending the material, and the audience's patience. Audience psychology was always on his mind. One sometimes gets the feeling that Vivaldi cut things off when he still had valuable ideas because he felt he was pushing a work past certain ideals he had in his head about audience psychology. Vivaldi is never afraid to appear banal at first glance---he knew he'd win over listeners in time. He also wrote music of consistent quality, but was willing to compose some pieces to be miniature and light, lacking huge demands, and seeking quick charm. Some concertos for string orchestra (without soloist) by him run a total well under five minutes. On the other hand he wrote concertos with soloist that ran beyond sixteen minutes.

Momentum was important to both men. Both use sequences often. Vivaldi's tend to be longer and less camouflaged with part writing detail. Bach's heavier parts tended to muddy his momentum, so he gained more kinetic energy from passing material around the parts and having a restless energy resulting from rapid passage work in all parts. But the rhythmic drive and pure forward push of the music of Vivaldi is unequaled. This points to another difference from a similarity---Vivaldi is perhaps the composer of the greatest rhythmic vitality of all time, while Bach is perhaps the most harmonically thorough and perfect composer of all time. In this respect Vivaldi and Bach are mirror images of each other. Vivaldi's rhythmic vitality is made possible by a surprisingly advanced sense of harmony, although his effects are often achieved with simplified harmonic tools. Bach's harmonic variety and mastery is put into relief by his strong sense of rhythm. He is always careful to set up his basic material to be full of Vivaldian rhythmic vitality of a sort.

Perhaps what sets Bach apart from all other composers is his adventurous yet logical harmony. No other composer could get to the harmonic places Bach travels without leaving logic behind. For Bach it is almost as natural as breathing. In this respect Bach has been wowing people for hundreds of years. It is an obvious technical prowess he can hold over every other composer in history. It makes people claim he's the greatest composer of all time, and it makes it hard to logically argue against such assertions. Vivaldi, in contrast, has no counter that is so obvious. He's a great melodist, has a great sense of harmony, great rhythm and a great sense of form. But in none of these single aspects can he do things that no other man has been able to. For Vivaldi, it is about what you get when you put all those tools together in the hands of a man with a great gift for communicating pathos and a sense of creative adventure rarely seen in music. While Bach's harmony can be a measure of all other composers', it is his over all product and how it stands above his contemporaries that has passed his music on to us in a timeless manner. Vivaldi is similar. No other composer has combined the gifts that he had with the almost frightening urge to create. His quality is likewise head and shoulders above his contemporaries. He was an innovator, in form and in musical language. He was on the basement floor of the creation of the concerto. Perhaps the concerto would not have caught on enough to stick as long as it has without Vivaldi. Yet, though he was one of the first composers to write concertos and in the ritornello form, he adapted and evolved subsequent approaches so that his music was as up to date and ambitious as contemporaries of two generations below him. While Bach was a steady island, whose quality was naturally invariable, Vivaldi proved over and over he could match any young composer coming up.

Both Vivaldi and Bach were very prolific composers. Vivaldi is often chastised for being too prolific, as though he did not take care when writing. Numerous corrections in his scores suggest otherwise. Bach is simply a slight variation of this---he is very prolific to, but in a different way. Both men were compulsive composers. Vivaldi comes from the Mozart school of composing, in that his mind worked faster than he could dictate. Inspiration flowed like a gushing spring, and composing was more a matter of capturing that energy and putting it in the context of proper forms. Bach's prolificy comes from hard work, immense competence, and playing or working with a limited amount of initial material. He tinkered with his scores, bending and shaping the original material to suit the larger piece, and pulled the material through a full harmonic journey. This might sound like a slower means of composing, but for Bach it was a simple formula in which he could write any piece and make it fresh and original. A man with Bach's particular gifts could compose in this manner at a very quick rate. Both composers lived in an era where massive prolificy was expected. And neither had any problem with such cultural demands. Strange as it may seem, the culture they lived in asked for this much music because the apatite for new music was very large. People did not devote time to preforming past composers. The result of this was a throwaway consumer-like culture when it came to music. Vivaldi and Bach were expected to provide many compositions where they worked. They may have been philosophically uncomfortable with this culture, but they were able to work well in it. Both men kept an archive of old works and reworked them later for different purposes. This may have been due to pressure to come up with music fast, but it may have also been a form of reflection over past compositions, almost out of nostalgia or at least fondness. So perhaps to the composers themselves, music was not so easily disposed of. But most of the music was written for one performance, a short period of performances or at best a work that an amateur patron would plan to play until he mastered it and wanted to try something new. After this, the works collected dust unless the rare instance of reuse by the composers came up. This culture is at odds with the sheer quality of both composers' music. From an audience psychology perspective, it is easy to listen to most of Vivaldi's and Bach's works many times without being bored or restless. This freshness, oddly, is sometimes less apparent in the music of later periods, even though this throwaway music culture began to subside.

But what tries one person's patience may be a rich experience for the next person. And that fundamental difference of experience is alive in both listeners' minds and Vivaldi and Bach's different approaches. For Bach, music was an ideal and a craft. It was an idea of intellectual perfection, a balance of various elements of music all held to lofty structural standards. Music, to Bach, needs to look good and full-bodied when written down. How the music sounds is important to him, but perhaps secondary to meeting a standard of construction forged from density and working clever, seemingly limitless ideas out of the simplest building blocks. Bach strove to construct something beautiful with his music, with the resources at hand---as much a beautiful idea as beautiful sound. He was a craftsman and approached his music in a practical manner, where logic always dictated the role of his emotion and creativity. He built with the most modest tools, focusing on quality and structural integrity. His harmony is immaculate and thorough. He almost looked at it as wasteful to move on to new material or ideas if he had not yet worked out every variant that was worthy from the original motifs. While not ignoring emotion, large structure, instrumentation, orchestration, and genre, his main focus in every piece he approached was harmony and dense integration of the musical ideas. It was about constructing something beautiful, almost solid, like architecture of sound and mind.

Vivaldi was not interested in an intellectual ideal, although structure was important to him. His music, first an foremost was about sound, aural appeal and textures. Through sound and momentum, created with rhythmic vitality and constant sequential variation, he intended to take the listener on a journey. There is a sense of movement, of travel in his music. Vivaldi also wanted to convey emotion directly through music. While much emotion lies in Bach's music, there is not the obvious range of moods, from tempest to tender, from joy to depression in his music. The emotions of Bach must be patiently unlocked, and when they are revealed, they are deep and subtle, but without the extreme relief which Vivaldi's emotional world stands in. In a way, Bach's texture can become overwhelming--- in the big picture very consistently dense. Vivaldi, has a lighter overall texture, but with much attention to variations in texture of all kinds. His music becomes a display for a variety of musical surfaces. This approach not only does not require Bach-like thickness, it requires a thinner, more malleable textural average. It also requires some 'breathing room' in the score to offer musicians the chance to add their own ideas and improvisations. Within this world of scene painting and textures, Vivaldi also has bursts of melody. His slow movements are full of lyricism and melody, but this leaks into the fast movements at times. People overlook this fact, because Vivaldi had other resources he focused on, rather than relying on constant pure melody, as later composers tended to. Vivaldi will surprise the listener with a memorable tune out of nowhere, and he is constantly using catchy melodic cells to construct his music. An example of a melody bursting fourth out of his music is the already discussed cantabile melody from the third movement of opus 3 no. 8. Of this, the musicologist Alfred Einstein had this remark: “It is as if the windows and doors of a stately baroque hall had been opened to welcome in Nature's freedom: a superb pathetic grandeur such as the seventeenth century had not know; a cosmopolitan's cry to the world. It is worth remembering that such must have been known to Bach, and that he, wrapped up in himself, never ventured into this open country.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

American Regrets

Lately, I've been interested in antiquing. It sounds like something old ladies meet up to do, not something a thirty year old guy would be caught dead doing, but I enjoy it. I like seeing things from the past. I've developed a simple thesis that the average person seems to be a stranger too: Not everything that is current is best. In other words, people tend to think the present is always the peak of how far civilization has come and that we do everything better now than in the past. That is false. Exhibit A is pop bottles. That's one of my favorite old things to look at and collect. They used to be made for repeated uses, out of thick glass (much more environmentally friendly). The writing and imagery was another kind of glass applied as a paste to a bottle and then baked on. In addition to the materials being better and the bottles being built to last, old bottles are designed better, aesthetically. In fact they are brilliant in that regard. When did we loose our way so completely in regard to design in this country? Everything is overly complex and underly clever now. A simple field of color with text of another can be so evocative, and yet this simple fact seems to be ignored totally in current design. And that's just one concept that seems lost in design today.

Which brings me to a new 'reality' show on the history channel called American pickers. It is about two guys who run an antique shop and search the countryside looking for neat old stuff to sell. I should love it, right? I don't---in fact really rubs me the wrong way, but I still watch it sometimes because the actual stuff they find interests me. For one thing, both these guys, Mike and Frank, seem to be rather unlikeable, especially Mike. They are loud mouthed, yet rarely have anything to say, and seem to have a less than encyclopedic knowledge of antiques. They are not clever or fun. They also overlook many neat objects in favor of a very narrow scope of items, such as bikes, motorcycles and oil cans. Further, they lie about values to make every 'pick' on their show seem not only wise, but like a major money-maker. They both have a patronizing attitude towards the people they 'pick' and also rip off many of these people value-wise. They both seem to be trying to appear as cool as possible, and desperately project that they are no longer the looser nerds of their high school. As part of this they are very lingo-heavy. Picking and pikers is lingo for what they do and who they are, professionally. The term itself is crude sounding in general, but also implies that they are picking through mounds of useless crap looking for the 'diamond in the rough'. While this may be true from a money making point of view, the things that the people Mike and Frank visit collect are important to them.

Beyond the fact that Mike and Frank seem like less than TV ready personalities, or maybe part of it, is the 'reality' shown in the program. The show is about guys trying to buy stuff for an antique store. Yet, we don't see the store itself in operation ever. What is it like? Who comes in and buys things? And most importantly, how do they stay in business? None of these questions can be answered by watching the show. Clearly, the value they put on their 'picks' is on average quite high in relation to reality. Even if it was not, antiques move very slow, especially big ticket antiques, and we never get a feel for what they need to collect to stay open. From what is shown on TV, they tend to buy mostly mid range to big ticket items, rarely 'picking' any bread and butter lower price items such as, not to be biased, bottles. In the end, I walk away feeling that only two things keep the store afloat; Danielle the assistant and the History Channel.

Over the course of watching the show, I've come to actually hate Mike. Neither of the pair seem like bright enough people to pull off a brick and mortar store and they seem like poor candidates to build a show around. But Mike makes being unlikeable an art form, while Frank just merely struggles with being likable because of a lack of certain gifts. One must from time to time wonder what people in the antiques industry think of the show and these two fellows. I imagine people who work in antiques around the country are turned off by Mike and Frank as people and perhaps even their tactics. I also imagine they see a lot of money left on the floor of the 'picking' locations just from what we are shown on camera in an episode. The show is getting hard to watch and it is part of a new trend of seemingly simple 'reality' shows that in actuality greatly bend reality and star unlikeable, semi-professional egotists.

Pretty good rant, but I have to eat my words here a little. The other night I was watching an episode where Mike and Frank went to an old bearded man's place who goes by Hobo Joe. He lived on a wooded area with creeks running through it and several buildings. Most of the buildings were filled with stuff and the land itself was covered with small, tarp covered piles of things. After a particularly fruitful 'pick' there Mike did one of his little talks to the camera. He said, and I'm paraphrasing here because I don't have the show recorded, “They should take buses of kids out here [Hobo Joe's land] to see all this great stuff. To remind them of when America made things. To show them that America used to make things too, not just be consumers.” I was stunned. I still am. Occasionally Mike or Frank says something I like or relate to because they like old stuff and so do I. They make efforts to chase down neat old things and so do I. In fact they take it to a pretty high extreme, so they have to say some things I agree with or that sound semi-intelligent. But usually it is rare, and I've come to respect them less and less as time has gone on. So I was surprised to my bones when Mike said one of my mantras, creatively articulately and with true passion. His short enthusiastic rant covers the spectrum of aesthetics to politics.

For one thing, one has to wonder what kids understand of aesthetics and the visual arts these days. They are brought up on Xbox video games, CGI movies and a sense of commercial design that is both hyperactive and dull, that takes no risk and has no ideas other than to layer more crap, plaster more pattern and shade more objects. Just take a look at the cereal isle at a local grocery store and then try to find some old images of cereal boxes from the 50's-70's. You'll see what has happened to them and design in general---but not just design, also aesthetics and our cultural values.

In a country that is struggling as ours is, not just economically, but with its identity, arts education should be highly valued. Instead it is the first thing to be chopped. At very least, what happened to our pride as Americans. We used to want to be on the top of everything---including arts. We were the best-looking, best run, richest country in the world and we knew it and no intention of giving it up. Now we seem to be willing to sell all of it off, piece by piece, to the cheapest bidder. Which brings me to the political side of Mike's rant. If you antique or just pay attention to old stuff, you start to notice something. America used to make a lot of stuff, and it was good. We don't make that much stuff anymore, but we consume more than ever. Perhaps beyond the point is quality---we may never get the care and attention out of the items we consume that we once had because those days are gone everywhere and as expensive to rehabilitate. But how can we expect to have a stable, fruitful economy, let alone the best one in the world if we don't make anything but consume more than ever? While some people might be shocked by our economic problems another more logical view might be to ask what took so long? Our lack of manufacturing and heavy reliance on service industries is only one of many issues that have led to our trouble, but all the factors were relatively apparent. What Wall street, George W. Bush and banks and lenders were doing was clearly was trouble for the future. And our corporation dominated, richness and fame doting culture have created weak minds and a helpless underclass in a country founded on equality.

Which brings me back to Mike the picker. Does all of this mean I now like the guy? No. Or even respect him? For the most part , no. But it brings an important idea into play: If even the idiot cries foul, there are changes that need to be made.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

1950's Rock Guitar Greats

Here's a list of my top guitarists of 1950's Rock 'n' Roll. I don't have enough courage to list things in order---there is too much taste involved. I'm rating them on style, technique, influence and their ability to promote the use of electric guitar. In the 50's Rock 'n' Roll itself was precarious, and it was far from a certain thing that electric guitar would even be used in rock songs.

Carl Perkins----Carl brought the guitar strong on every song he played. With his smash #2 Blue Suede Shoes from 1956 he even had the audacity to include two guitar solos. Carl had a unique scene of rhythm and a sharp attack on the instrument that made for an inimitable style. His total comfort while playing, the feeling that the guitar is just part of his body, brings to mind later guitar gods such as Eric Clapton (nick-named slow finger because of this ease). The rhythm and blues element was very strong in his playing even though his songwriting heart always leaned country. That being said, that mix is what made Rock 'n' Roll, and he was always a honky tonk virtuoso on the guitar, too. Carl had tough career luck, but was always was respected as a founding father of rock. It is unfortunate that his later life was not in the spotlight because he just kept picking up more and more guitar tricks as time went on. Bonus points for any artist that sings and writes songs, too.

Chuck Berry----According to many, Chuck taught Rock 'n' Roll guitar to the 60's. This is true to an extent; I would rate him as one of the two most influential guitarist of the 50's. Several Beach Boys songs lift a simple and rather stiff Chuck Berry solo almost verbatim. Others such as George Harrison of the Beatles are under his constant influence. But in another way, Chuck played in a style of souped-up blues that no one else could pull off. Perhaps his greatest influence is popularizing the instrument. Who didn't want to play guitar in a band after hearing a Berry song? He probably had more guitar per minute than any major 50's rock artist and was thus constantly promoting the instrument. Honestly, Chuck was not always at his best and most original, but when he was he created a sound that no one else has before or since. The guitar in the opening of the solo in Too Much Monkey Business sounds like a spaceship landing. Again, bonus points for writing and singing, too.

Buddy Holly----When people think of Buddy, they think of one of the great vocal stylists in all of rock, but he was a fantastic and original guitarist and songwriter, too. In fact I rate him as one of the two most influential rock guitarists of the 50's. Buddy basically invented the foundation of rock guitar that all subsequent acts stand on---Rock 'n' Roll rhythm guitar. Buddy played great leads solos, but often played something called rhythm-lead. This created a driving momentum to his music, not heard in rock music before. Sometimes he mixed lead and rhythm elements in a solo such as the immortal guitar work in That'll Be the Day. The flip side of that release, I'm Looking for Someone to Love, includes a song with two solos and some of the best pure rockabilly lead guitar of the 50's. Buddy lead the way in other guitar respects. He invented the idea of lead guitar throughout an entire song, as can be heard on Words of Love. He also promoted what would become the king guitar of rock, the Fender Stratocaster, and was the 1st major rocker to use it. Although the stereotype is that Buddy's songs leaned to the sweet, nerdy style of Rock 'n' Roll, the fact is that his original guitar style made for a driving backdrop. Few guitarists of the 50's were as 'heavy' as Buddy, and his modular, driving approach to the instrument became the status quo in rock ever since.

Eddie Cochran---Eddie was the master of the 50's riff and some of his songs were, from a guitar standpoint, nothing but a riff over and over. This could be said of two of his biggest hits, Summertime Blues and C'mon Everybody. But don't let such modesty fool you----Eddie was one of the true virtuoso's of early rock guitar. He came from a remarkably similar background to that of Buddy Holly, starting in country and easing into Rockabilly until he brewed his own style of rock. But his guitar style was more urban than Buddy's with true blues elements. His influence beyond the riff was not so much on record, but from his tours. His tour of Britain introduced many up and coming rockers to blues guitar and the art of bends. Once again, bonus points for songwriting and singing.

Cliff Gallup---In a brief run as the lead guitarist for Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, Cliff was able to create a nervous, detailed and jazzy rockabilly guitar style that would influence many lead-oriented guitarists of the 60's and beyond. All this while working in 1956, in the first year rock really took over. He quit early to become a family man, but remains a guitar legend.

Scotty Moore---Elvis only rocked when he was working with this fellow. Scotty exemplifies the early, classic Rockabilly sound more than anyone, with it's circular way of picking chords and gentlemanly country gestures. But Scotty could also play in a very high octane manner, pouring in blues and jazz touches and never letting Elvis' antics eclipse him. Just appearing on Elvis' best records as the lead guitarist makes him one of the most influential of 50's guitarists. But this also has the tendency to exaggerate his abilities and mystique.

James Burton---Similar to Scotty, but less legendary, do to the fact that he didn't work with Elvis in his early heyday, James created a career spanning decades based on 1950's style country-rock guitar. While working with Ricky Nelson he developed classic rockabilly guitar into country-rock guitar, which would be exploited in the 60's and 70's, by mixing rockabilly guitar with country and pop styles of picking. Check out his immortal playing on 1958's Suzie Q.

Johnny Meeks----When Cliff Gallup left Gene Vincent's band, Gene found another guitarist plucked from the mid-southern countryside. Although Cliff is on Gene's biggest hits and has the fame, Johnny is every bit the guitarist that Cliff is. He certainly fit the greasy persona of the Blue Caps better. His guitar style is fluent and audacious. While Cliff could feel cold and bogged down in the technical side of playing, Johnny's blood was always hot. But that doesn't mean he was a technical slouch---his guitar work is as complex as any guitar man from the 50's. This is one guitarist I wish I could hear more of.

Luther Perkins---Johnny Cash was at his best when he did songs in his 'rockabilly-country' style, and he was best able to do this with Luther playing guitar. Luther's style might be too simple and too country for some people to put him on a Rock 'n' Roll list, but I think his style can be considered country leaning rockabilly. Either way, his understated talents added to the thick atmosphere of Cash's early (and best) style. Once you've heard the solo to Folsom Prison Blues, it is in your head for life.

Tommy Allsup---I recently saw Tommy at the Kato Ballroom for the 50th aniversery of the Winter Dance Party tour. At 78 he can still play guitar with the best---in fact Paul McCartney has said he's one of the finest guitarists in the world. Tommy's style relies on touch and detail. He's down here at the bottom because he has a very slim Rock 'n' Roll resume. His home base as a guitarist is texas swing, and he was only majorly involved in rock in 1958. Buddy Holly heard about him through his producer and was so thrilled by his guitar work when he heard it that he granted Tommy lead guitar on a number of songs, most famously, It's So Easy, Heartbeat, Lonesome Tears, and the Everly-style demos Wishing and Love's Made a Fool of you. His guitar style on these cuts is so modern, compelling and unique that it cemented his reputation as a great rock guitarist forever, even if he'd prefer to play Bob Wills and country blues.

Danny Cendrone----While Cliff Gallup took an early exit from rock in 1956, Danny one-uped him by dieing before he saw 1955. Like Tommy Allsup he was a bit old for the rock scene and a guitarist that grew up playing Texas swing. With it's genre bending array of influences, Texas swing was an ideal place for detail oriented lead guitarist to spring up from for rock purposes. Danny was not a member of Bill Haley's Comets, but cut the lead work on Rock Around the Clock and Thirteen Women in 1954. Within a number of days after the session he died. Some have called his solo in Rock Around the Clock one of the greats in all of rock music. I agree. His eerie guitar work on the flip side, Thirteen Women is not to be missed, either. The solo from Rock Around the Clock was actually lifted from Rock the Joint, an earlier Bill Haley number with Danny on guitar. He didn't have time to come up with something new, due to short notice. The Clock version of the solo is better, with superior phrasing. His style was so modern that it still sounds intergalactic today. Despite his tiny output, Danny showed the great skill and mischief that could go into rock guitar from it's earliest days, and thus is an important founder of the rock guitar style.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tea Party Trouble

Here is my attempt at a political essay. I feel the media coverage of the Tea Party movement has been lacking depth and decided to try my hand at analyzing the movement.

If you need evidence that America is on the wrong track, look no further than the Tea Partiers. This is an indicator on two counts. First, the fact that a large group of Americans are dissatisfied enough to rise up in groupings and voice their grievances in various forums speaks to the trouble we are in. You could call this a credit that I give to the Tea Partiers—almost anyone can agree things are not going great in America. The second count is darker. In essence, the loudest mouthpiece of American dissatisfaction is the Tea Partiers, and they don't represent us well.

First off, perhaps out right dissent is not the best way to handle the kind of challenges America faces now. The spirit of cooperation emphasized by the Obama administration should be the spirit of the whole country. The only way to get out of the current mess is by working together. Obama's leadership in setting a tone of cooperation is outstanding, in fact, he even pushes it too far. One could argue that a major tactical error that Obama has made so far is using so much energy in vein just to show the right he is willing to cooperate. The unfortunate truth is that the right that he strives to hold his hand out to are not interested in working with him. They would rather refuse any cooperation just to make a point and wait it out until they have full power.

The Tea Partiers are a bizzaro version of the Hippies in this respect. The Hippies and 60's left worked hard on their agenda, and when it failed over and over, the Hippies began to 'drop out'. They gave up and followed their own track in a separatist sort of way. Eventually, this got tiresome and they dropped back in. The Tea Partiers also seem bent on 'dropping out' in their own way. To them, all Washington is rotten and they aren't interested in forming their own political party—they hate political parties. Oddly, many Tea Partiers are disinterested in a third party. Most probably think Ross Perot was a wacko, while they've taken his banner and infused it with a less logical, articulate and practical bend.

One thing Tea Partiers all hate is 'big government,' but that is how the country has always been run. They think it tramples personal freedoms, while in reality, for the most part, it allows them. Their main solution to big government is to move power to a more local level. While having power at the local level is healthy and efficient, moving things traditionally run at the federal level to state and local government wouldn't work. In fact, it would be a disaster, and it is at best innocent to think that localizing government is a solution to anything. So, in a way the Tea Partiers are pulling back, refusing to participate fully in government as it is, while failing to offer a single viable alternative idea. While rising up, they are also 'dropping out' in their own way.

While many Americans may cheer on or even join the Tea Partiers, a whole other segment of America is disgusted by them. Their mentality as a unit is like that of a spoiled child. A common Tea Party ailment is irony deprivation. Isn't it obvious that there is an irony to complaining about existing political parties while refusing to start your own? There is a certain irony also to aligning yourself with our founding fathers protesting the control of an imperialist government, while you are protesting your own government which you have representation in. A Tea Partier would probably refute that such representation exists for them and their views, but in reality that representation is just one vote away.

The term Tea Party can be mistaken for a double meaning—for being an allusion to their fondness of referencing the founding fathers and the Boston Tea Party, and as an official title—the designation of party. The truth is far from that. As mentioned before, many Tea Partiers are uninterested in creating a new political party. But even if that was the movement's main purpose, such a reality would be far off. The Tea 'Party' has little large scale organization, no official representatives and a great diversity of views. Most of them lean heavy to the right, while some insist that their disgust is equally spread between right and left. This is probably an image-serving lie, but even if it is not, it is a defeatist point of view. Obviously, one party is more responsible for our trouble than the other. I could name names, but I won't just yet. Sufficient to say, it is illogical to assume both parties share exactly equal fault.

Tea Partiers do agree on a few things. They don't like 'big government', they dislike taxes with every bone in their bodies, and most of all they hate the bailouts. In fact, their movement probably began with the bailouts. Perhaps these aren't the most original bullet points. Everyone dislikes taxes, most people want to keep government on a short leash, and no one liked the bailouts. This leads to another characteristic of the Tea Partiers—gross over-simplification of the issues. They tend to simplify things to a cartoon in times that call for exactitude. The most obvious example is bailouts. For those who oppose them, not on principal, but absolutely, put yourself in Obama's shoes. In theory he could have let Wall street, the banks and Detroit automakers fail, which they deserve. Perhaps America would be okay and we would climb out of our tough times quickly. Much more likely is a collapse on par or perhaps beyond the Great Depression. In short, it is not a gamble that any president, conservative or liberal, could take, Obama included. So to not merely complain about the fact that the bailouts had to be made, but instead blame Obama for issuing them is ignorant and not constructive. All parties, real or imagined, would have to avoid gambling with America's future.

The Tea Partier's timing is curious. Not so much because of the tough times we are in, but because of their reactionary nature. While it is understandable that people are speaking out now, because of the desperate feel of our times, politically, Tea Party timing raises questions. Don't like 'big government'? Where were you during the George W. Bush years? Don't like deficits? Where were you during the Bush years? Don't like taxes? Unless you are very well off Obama's tax burden is no worse than Bush's. In a larger sense, all the trouble that we are in now that inspired the Tea Partiers was caused by the Bush administration. While many negative trends have been evolving for a while, like deficit budgets, (Ronald Regan is their modern father) the often outright reckless governing of the Bush administration put us where we are today. It seems very odd that the Tea Partiers were silent until a new president took office. This could be a coincidence—that the times only got bad enough after Bush left to inspire protest—but it is clear from talking to Tea Partiers or just reading their signs, that they blame Obama and his policies even though he has only been in office a year. Certainly, Bush's inarticulate tone, looseness with the facts, and ideological perspective has more in common with the Partiers than Obama's intellectual tone, exactitude and pleas to work together. Still, it is clear that Obama is a very bright and ambitious man, which is what one would hope for in times of trouble and the Tea Party hatred of him is bizarre.

The Tea Partier's lack of organization not only keeps them from developing into a real party with an official platform, but it also, as a result, causes them to include aspects that diminish their credibility. You could call some of this the 'loony fringe,' groups most often from the very far right. These groups include people who believe Obama was not born in the U.S. and other conspiracies. Aside from tastelessly hard edge beliefs on small (or no?) government, taxes (or lack thereof) and anti-immigration, there is a lack of class to the movement. The anti Obama rhetoric goes from intense, to disrespectful, to borderline racist in a flash. Not only was this sort of opposition weak during the Bush years, but such tone would have been condemned as disrespectful and unpatriotic. Why is it okay now? An offensive fog of over simplification, lack of respect, racism, and lack of tolerance hangs over the movement. As of yet, no leader has emerged to try to clean the movement up—perhaps because the dirt is at the core.

While no leaders that are true Tea Partiers have emerged, who the movement attaches itself to as heroes is telling. Most odd, but perhaps least surprising, is Sarah Palin. Her overly simple rhetoric that is loose with facts and heavy on outrage, the victim complex, match with Tea Party tone. But these are surface features. Palin is fairly inexperienced politically and ultimately has little in the way of direction and ideas. Her gift for connecting with a certain segment of 'everyday Americans' is overshadowed by her frankly shocking lack of knowledge and political intellect. Even if her views were articulated and matched the Tea Partiers perfectly, she is a bad powerful representative of the movement. The fact that she quit as governor early and her extremely polarizing personality make her unelectable to national office. Her lack of smarts may also factor into this, but also makes her a dangerous mouthpiece. Will what she says be in the best interest of the Tea Party, or will she just sound off? Her puerile brand of bicker politics brings focus off of political issues which the Tea Partiers need to focus on and define. While she complains about Obama reading speeches from a teleprompter (which every president from our time has) the country continues to fall apart. In short, no single voice adopted by the movement seems to put the movement in a practical or positive light.

The media portrayal of the Tea Partiers is interesting. The coverage of the movement is everywhere, which helps fan the flames. On the other hand, their attitude toward the movement is patronizing. This may frustrate the Tea Partiers and their opposition alike. While the odd sensation that the media (though obsessed with them) do not take the Tea Partiers serious might paint them in an unkind light, it also lets them off the hook for their sins. In effect, while the Tea Partiers may not enjoy being taken lightly, the opposition might feel that the dangerous pitfalls of the movement go unreported and uncondemned. In addition to serving no side well, the media's attitude also leaves questions of our age unanswered. If the Tea Partiers are right on par with many Americans, the majority are confused by them. What do they stand for? Why protest the way things are being done only now? Why is their rhetoric so disrespectful? What ideas to fix things does this movement offer? While the answer to these questions may not satisfy most people, they must be asked, and the media's lack of willingness to look into these matters makes the movement seem inexplicable and even dark. If nothing else, the movement is a good litmus test for the times, and the media seems to feel that both going into depth about the moment and going out on a limb to criticize them is not worth the price.

All the questions that crop up when one looks into the Tea Party movement seem troubling. It is clear that while the movement may politically disagree with Obama, their idea that our problems now are his fault is factually wrong. It is not possible that all these problems could have been created in a year and change. This basic premise of the movement is an error—and the does not speak well of how informed the American people are. Is this because of extreme ignorance or extreme ideology, or some mix? Also clear is the fact that the media, while patronizing to the movement, bend over backwards to not offend that demographic—thus while rarely given full respect, the Tea Partiers are also rarely asked any tough questions that need to be asked. Both these are symptoms of a sick society. In reality, the only thing that can rescue America from the problems that inspired the Tea Partiers is to become more informed and less idealogical—to embrace the intellect and to cooperate toward common goals.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Minnesota State Fair

Two of the Fair's classic attractions, the Giant Slide and the Space Tower as seen from the Grandstand ramp.

This wooden 'flower train' is in front of the Heritage Square entrance to the grounds. Heritage Square's nostalgia seems to be spilling out of it's borders.

Fair ground. The typical filthy ground people at the fair walk on all day. Most grass is dead, and some areas are worn down to dirt and dust.

This is a vintage seed bag from a display in the Agriculture/Horticulture building.

Looking down Liggett Ave. toward the barns. Crowds can be up to 200,000 on a record day!

Creature illustrating an old circus car, Heritage Square.

Inside the small and dingy transportation and racing museum for the fair at Heritage Square. There was a large display of primitive paintings featuring transportation devices of fairs past. I was drawn to the dirigible!

Wagons made of steel. I once owned an album named that. This photo features an old pioneer wagon in Heritage Square with its modern equivalent in the nearby parking lot.

This wall is near the entrance on Liggett ave. It is a WPA project made from local limestone that is rarely used as a masonry material today.

Jacuzzi Falls. This is one of many Jacuzzi stands at the fair. This one is in the Grandstand (which has merchandise in its bowels). A cheesy wonderland!

A random CBS eye logo painted on the floor of the Grandstand. It still functions as seating for pay concerts and events at the fair. I know it only as a strange mercantile.

An oldies band playing, as seen from the Grandstand ramp. Note the skyride to the upper right. Oddly enough, as I shot this photo there was a drum solo.

Spin art stand. It is a relatively cheap aesthetic pleasure (3$ or 2 for 5$). Recently Frisbees were added.

Local anchor Amellia Santinello is depicted on this mural at the WCCO TV building.

A candid back-side shot of one of the famous french fry stands at the fair. Those sacks at the left are potatoes.

Looking down my favorite fair alley toward the Space Tower.

My favorite ride at the fair is Ye Old Mill, a boat ride through a pitch black tunnel with occasional dioramas. It was built in 1913. This wheel powers the whole ride.

A view of the meticulously organized Republican Party building. Note the odd red vests of the volunteers---Wal-Martian?

Located on a secluded alley (relatively speaking) near the Horse barns, Steichen's is an old fashioned convenience store that caters to fair workers and participators, not fair goers. It looks so old I felt like the food would all be spoiled. That stuffed animal is a mangy version of 'Fairchild' the gopher, the fair mascot.

The front of Steichen's store. Note the great old-fashioned signage.

Fish in the DNR pond. This pond displays Minnesota's native fish.

Another view of the DNR pond. The water is 4 feet deep.

This is a street scene on Liggett ave. looking down the alley that Steichen's is located in. At the end is a Barn.

The derelict Frog pond--A forgotten project that I have a soft spot for.

This animitroic feller is the mascot for Quality Bag's stand in the Coliseum (or Hippodrome as I call it).

Cattle entering the Hippodrome from the cattle barn way. Yes, this is bad photography, but is captures the excitement of the animals and people as their paths cross on the Hippodrome walkway.

Cattle waiting judging, midway between the cattle barn and Hippodrome. This picture reminds me of a Rembrandt scene.

In an alley, behind an unfriendly fence lies this private parkland with the serpentine shape of Ye Old Mill. Note the extra boat.

A 'Snozzle' firetruck with the DES Dinning Hall in the background. For the faint of stomach there are several church-style dinning halls at the fair.

Here you can watch your corndog fry in lava hot oil.

At the dog building live surgeries are preformed throughout the day.

Live demos of products are in many buildings at the fair. This is one of at least three Sham Wow! stands.

A display of arts and crafts at the educational building. As a child my dream was to have work displayed here.

A giant cigarette butt outside of the health building. One year they made paper 'butt out' hats available featuring a large cigarette butt above the forehead.

A rare lone eater inside the beer garden building.

The Minnesota State Fair is a tradition in my family, like it is for many others. It is all about fun, but mostly what the fair consists of is walking around as a family through shuffling crowds looking at food stands and schlocky merchandise. Over many years there is a lot of change at the fair, but from year to year or even five years to five years things are the same down to the last inch. Many merchandise stands have been in the same location for over 20 years (and it seems like they never leave the fairgrounds, just sitting there year round). Things that were novel in the late 70's or 80's thrive--spin art, personality analysis 'computers', computer portrait art (dot matrix!) airbrush art. A stand or booth changing locations can get quite disconcerting!

With all this baseless repetition, the fair can seem like a forced march through a collective memory. My family has to look at a day's worth of certain things, just because. There is no logic to most of is. The stands seem random, because almost any stand could turn a profit at the fair, but many are not particularly swell ideas. Here is capitalism mixed with monarchism on display--if you get a stand into the fair, your family gets grandfathered into a profitable buisness, almost regardless of what you sell. It can be a very odd and trying sensation at times to walk through this same landscape of shilling over and over.

It certainly seems like America incarnate and in microcosim. But there is one big difference I notice between the real America and fair America. Tradition, no matter how cheesey or empty-headed is valued greatly at the fair. The real America is always on to the next thing, racing to erase evidence of a potentially embarassing past. Nostalgia is ok, but chest-beating patriotism that is part of America doesn't rely on pride in the past, excepting milestones. But at the fair, even a change of venue or a disappearing stand is a slight outrage. Nostagia is everywhere--of all kinds, from all eras of Minnesota. A whole section of the fair is called Heritage Square and has a pioneer/historical theme. It features an creepily old-fashioned (and simply old) State Fair museum housed in a train car.

All that is old fashioned Minnesota is celebrated at the fair. Pioneers, family farms, unique Minnesota products (and totally non-unique ones), free-moving livestock, old cars, old buildings old benches, old rides (Ye Ole Mill was built in 1913)--things done right, done the old-fashioned way. Tradition is paramount. Here history isn't relegated to empty county history museums, it is a living, valued aspect of the fair itself. Because the fair is all about Minnesota pride, in a way people at the fair are collectively saying, 'the past is great and our history matters,' as they stuff their faces.

This photo essay is not a planned hunt for certain sites. It features things I snapped a shot of as I randomly wandered around a landscape of American exess, burned into my memory. This hardly represnts a comprehensive cross-section of the fair, but rather is colored by my family's own history and tendencies and what I spotaneously came across and enjoyed at the moment.