Sunday, August 19, 2012

Falling Down

In GQ this month is an excerpt of a book about Joe Paterno by Joe Posnanski ("Joe Paterno's Last Season" in GQ) that totally rips your heart out.  In this media age where scandal becomes pablum for the baby-masses, Posnanski's excerpt does something to your system:  real feeling gets a chance at the tap-dance, and when that happens suddenly the world is askew.  In the midst of writing Paterno's authorized biography, Posnanski had access to the interior of Paterno's psyche and environment during the sturm and drang of last winter, when indictments were being handed out to Penn State elite concerning their willful ignorance when it came to pedophilia.  In other words, right when the Sandusky shit hits the fan, we are granted access to the sorrow and lack of pity as Papa Joe and his wife and kids and grandkids get put through the mill by media and politicians and more crushingly the members of the Penn State Board of Directors.  The narration is stone-cold realism.  Paterno comes across as a completely lost soul, wandering through the Museum of Himself his life has become.  Think King Lear with nothing to hand over to his descendants, quadrupling the tragedy and also making it seem absurdly unfair, even though Paterno probably did ignore evil.  It's as if Sandusky's actions polluted an entire universe, and got in through the Paterno home's pipes and vents.  At one point, Paterno is sobbing the day after his firing, walking around that modest Happy Valley home.  It makes you realize how fragile and fleeting everything is.  That's a cliche of course, but when it's conveyed in the flesh it alters the way you take everything in.  At 86, Paterno's whole world is wiped away, deservedly so perhaps, but Posnanki's writing doesn't pontificate -- just gives us a portrait of brokenness so astute and sad you marvel at how riotously and unassailably cruel fate is.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vonnegut's Ballerinas

Kurt Vonnegut wrote the short story "Harrison Bergeron" in 1961, but 51 years later it still has a sting. It's a cautionary tale about trying to make everyone "equal," and the story goes:

Harrison Bergeron is a handsome 7-foot-tall teenager who in the year 2081 is in prison because he is not handicapped enough. The dystopia of the story is one in which the federal government makes everyone "equal" by "handicapping" them. The chief administrator of this program is the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. The story is framed by Bergeron's parents, who are sitting and watching a ballet on TV in their home. Both are "handicapped" in different ways. Since Harrison's mother has average intelligence, she is not "handicapped," but Harrison's father, who is above normal, is: he has a little device in his brain that sends out electrical shocks if he thinks too much. Plus the father has a 48-pound bag of buckshot strapped to him to physically make him equal. On TV, the ballerinas are also handicapped in the same manner. They also have to wear masks, the uglier the mask, the more beautiful the ballerina. In the middle of their dance, Harrison escapes from his bondage, strips away all the impediments bestowed upon him by the Handicapper General on live TV, and proclaims himself emperor, taking one of the ballerinas as his empress. In the end, Harrison is shot by Diana Moon Glampers, right on TV, right between the eyes. And the story ends with Harrison's mom and dad seeing the execution, but then forgetting about it a few seconds later.

I haven't read Vonnegut in many years. The desire to revisit this story came to me as I was thinking about artists with disabilities, what "outsider art" means, and all the whole weird, unnecessary routes we take to describe how we value art and artists, as well as how we construct "disability."

Reading the story again I see that often good intentions, like ensuring that everyone is equal, and that "handicaps" don't "matter," can be an unproductive experiment, because in altering the playing field to make everyone the same, you also lose the main reason you are playing.

Viewing and consuming visual art, without judgment, without the construct of geniuses and amateurs, is a boring, sad endeavor: "Everything is beautiful in its own way," Ray Stevens once sang, and boy is that really not a great song. What Vonnegut's story seems to be getting at is the absurdity of even wanting to create a Utopia based on making everyone the same.

Schools and programs often try to do this when dealing with "disabilities." They try to create a fake level playing field through programs like Everybody Counts where kids are told to put on blindfolds to pretend to be blind, a pretty explicit example, but also through "political correctness" often dictating that "We are all the same." We aren't. And by pretending to be, or by trying to enforce some kind of equality based on "disabling" yourself, you lose the essence of what "disability" and "ability" mean.

In looking at art created by people with developmental disabilities, this means that there are geniuses and amateurs within that demographic (of course). In other words, not every person with a developmental disability who makes art is an "artist." Not every person with a developmental disability has a keen, instinctive visual instinct, or even an urge to create. 

Setting up "arts programs," then, for people with developmental disabilities, and setting up an art studio are two very different situations. If you don't make this initial distinction, this "discrimination," then you start "handicapping" the actual "artists" in any program by enforcing the program's vision: everyone is equal here.

Not true.

Sometimes art can be used as the great equalizer, but art never equalizes: it discriminates because it needs to. Without discrimination, pictures, sculptures, and other works of art lose their meaning, and all you end up with is a wall full of smudges, a free-for-all. Art constantly creates and re-creates its own rules, aesthetics, judgments, and definitions through constructing "inspiration" and valuing it. Once you try to eliminate those albeit made-up distinctions, art becomes anything you want it to be. At the end of the day, that is a very depressing notion to me.

Look at Vonnegut's ballerinas in "Harrison Bergeron." All of them masked and weighted down, dancing but not dancing, trying to make sure they are all doing the same thing in the same way. They don't want to end up hurting anyone's feelings.

True Bromance

Louis CK's TV show Louie (on FX Thursday nights) is a merging of all kinds of different worlds and sensibilities, a collage hodgepodge of moments captured in a cinema-verite' style that somehow transcends both movies and sitcoms.  As I watch each new episode I get the feeling Louis is referencing literature, not pop culture, and yet there's nothing starchy or explicit in those literary references.  He isn't doing Shakespeare, God knows, or even John Cheever, but there's a feeling inside each of his little 24-minute movies on Thursday nights that has the deft charm and seriousness of a really good short story written by someone who wants to both manufacture a masterpiece and also try to reconfigure what a "masterpiece" means in this really crazy and kind of creepy Reality-TV day and age.  

The transcendence and ambitiousness seems to emanate from the man himself.  A lumpy, embarrassed, middle-aged guy with a look of hope turning into hopelessness in his eyes at all times, Louis' character on the show is an avatar for the man himself of course, but it's not a docudrama or docucomedy by any means.  The show has a sloppy sense of continuity on purpose (different actors play the same characters sometimes in the same episode), but a strict sense of aesthetic purpose.  Louis always gets that 1970s Sidney-Lumet/Francis-Ford-Coppola light just right, and the romance of that smoky melancholic attention to detail gives the show a way out of itself.

The best episode I've seen so far this season details a trip Louie takes to Miami, in order to perform stand up.  The details pile up slowly and dreamily:  an anonymous hotel room facing a crowded beach, Louie overeating on a plush hotel bed, Louie adventuring out to the beach in black clothes, leaving his wallet and clothes on a beach-chair so he can go for a swim.  And then one of the staff taking the beach chair away while Louie is swimming.  Louie panics.  The lifeguard on duty thinks he's drowning.  The lifeguard in this case is a gorgeous, dreamy-eyed Cuban.  Louie and the lifeguard become fast friends in a breezy series of encounters that reminds you of those first friendships you make on playgrounds as a kid -- an intensity that far outweighs the significance of the acquaintance.  Louie basically falls in love with this guy.  The sexual implications aren't hilarious, in the way they might be on other sitcoms.  There are no easy jokes here, just easy access to human emotions.  By the end of the show, you totally understand how a straight middle-aged guy can fall in love with a young male lifeguard, and not because the older guy is horny or closeted, but because he feels all alone.  That might be one of the best examples of "gay" ever put on TV, dislocating static binaries, and providing enough space for actual feeling.

Louie is a TV show that somehow matters.  In a world overwhelmed with media and bull-shit and pundits, Louis CK has staked a claim to simple, effective, beautifully shot authenticity. 

Monday, August 13, 2012


Frank Ocean's Channel Orange is one of those albums that defines any space and time it's played in.  It has an atmospheric soul, and a sense of playfulness and seriousness that reminds me of Joni Mitchell's Hissing of Summer Lawns:  long, jazzy, sophisticated pop songs that linger among themselves like people inside a crowded beach-house party, sipping cocktails and relaxing and chatting, but also the whole she-bang layered with a communal understanding that all of it's a big beautiful dream. 

Music like this doesn't come along very often, and Ocean seems to know this rarity instinctively.  Each song has its own distinct sense of itself, as if every note has its own monogrammed towel, every melody its own golden bracelet.  Love songs kick into meditations, meditations turn themselves into flocks of birds.  One of the best songs on Orange is a low-down-gorgeous wake-up call called "Crack Rock."  Its energy comes from inside a glassy intelligence, like sunlight captured in a mirror.  Another great one is called "Sweet Life," a long lush ballad ensconced in a tricky, lacy rap that details the lives of a lost generation while also celebrating the sweet nothingness of it all.  "Pyramids" is a Prince- from-1999 centerpiece that has a heavy heart but a whimsical, ecstatic soul.

But it's not one song that seems to be the point:  it's an accumulation of words, music, atmospheres, tones, all of that providing a plush escape from the way soul and R&B music has been trapped inside itself for so long.

Ocean has discovered a new planet with this album.  Let's call it Oceania.  I want to live there.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ain't America Beautiful?

Artist Danny Evans photoshops the hell out of famous celebrities, turning them into people just like us.  It's an amazing and beautiful metamorphosis, each photo poignant in a way short stories in little magazines are poignant.  It's as if Bobbie Ann Mason and Andy Warhol had a baby.  There's a meditation in here somewhere about beauty/ugliness, but what the real kick is:  each celeb's "look," even when brought back down to earth, has a strange and hypnotic power because someone took an ugly stick to them.  Call it the Charlize Theron Monster Factor.  Evans isn't just making  superstars look like "regular people" here -- he's foregrounding class, and showing how we somehow "see" people in whole new ways when the context shifts and the joke melts away.  Its a gallery of grotesques he's made, but the grotesquery is ours, and ain't America beautiful?  

These stars now have majestic lower-middle-class others enjoying themselves at gun-and-knife shows, clocking in at their dead-end jobs, standing in line at Chick-Fil-A on Hate-the-Faggots Day.  But also look at their faces:  they're the same people before, during and after.  The transformation is fleeting; they morph in and out like strobe-lights. 

My fave is Gwyneth Paltrow.  I think she would be my friend.

I'm also thinking about Antonio Adams, my favorite artist, and his new show coming up at Thunder-Sky, Inc.  Antonio is doing the same cultural and aesthetic work Evans is doing, only instead of accessing software, he uses magic marker and a more authentic and spiritualized philosophy.  In "Unrealized and Unforeseen:  New Works," opening August 24, 2012 at Thunder-Sky, Antonio is showing a portfolio of extremely beautiful and eerily provocative paintings, photos and drawings about flipping the world of celebrity on its fucked-up head, and creating a sort of William-Blake-like paradise where all the stars slip through blackholes, and all the "regular people" he knows (folks Antonio works with at Frisch's Restaurant, family and other friends) go through customs and become Super Stars. 

Evans' photos are creepy, hilarious and stone-cold great, but there's also a sort of celebrity-crush still going on.  The anonymity of the people they become is just another way to glamorize what's been taken away.  Antonio does Evans one better in my book:  he's on the other side of celebrity, telling all of us there's no need for it.