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Political Cartoons and Oliphant’s Lament

Is it just me, or have political cartoons lost their punch? One would expect that in our visually rich society we would be awash in popular cartooning. Animation is everywhere, to be sure, but political cartooning – or “editorial cartooning” as the professionals call it, does not seem as relevant.Oliphant- Betsy

It could be that shrinking influence of newspapers has undermined the access of political cartoon. The rise of corporate culture, too, has been cited as a corresponding deterrent to stinging political cartoons. But other factors are at play.

It was not always such. From Thomas Nast’s Tammany Tiger to Pat Oliphant’s caricatured Nixon, talented political cartoonists have been able to reduce complex political situations into easily recognized images.  When they get it right, their visuals are widely copied and repeated. Yet in 2013 there has been no viral cartoon and no one image that sums up last year’s presidential election.

After reading Oliphant’s Anthem, a companion book and website to the Library of Congress’s 1998 exhibition (note – the website is live and worth a gander), I believe that the underlying cause of the political cartoon’s wane reflects a broader shift in American popular culture. Oliphant, an Australian native who won a Pulitzer way back in 1966, is one of America’s most influential political cartoonists. His work is reproduced nationally and readily available. Along with MaNelly and the late Herblock, the trio were the most influential American political cartoonists of the last 50 years.

Most political cartoons, from the 1800s through the early 2000s, shared a common purpose: to shine a light on hypocrisy, to knock the pompous off their perch, to mock. Politicians are often the target, but not exclusively. Political cartoons’ energy derives from the difference between what is and what is proclaimed. That difference is all the easier to portray if our leaders access and utilize the language and imagery of the ideal, the preferred. The more ambitious the claims of a political leaders, the more energy available for a political cartoons. And ambitious assertions – especially moral testaments – are unusual in our ironic age.  When the proud fall, it is far too often medicalized and pathologized. Elliott Spitzer and Anthony Weiner serve as prime examples.

We have come to expect our leaders to cheat, to philander, to obfuscate, and to lie. We have low expectations for presidential candidates a lower expectations for Congress. Without much faith in the system or the people closest to it, we gain little pleasure or insight from the humor of political cartoons. We have been habitually disappointed too often – and there are few professing optimism.

Ironically, we need a little more idealism for political cartooning, with all its dark humor, to gain traction.

David Potash

No Shaming This Shrew

Alisa Valdes is a prolific journalist, blogger and author. Fearless when it comes to writing about herself and affairs of the heart, she has fashioned a career of being an outspoken feminist. Self-reflection and self-disclosure can take an author far. It takes an extraordinarily life or talent, however, to do more than describe.Feminist and the Cowboy

In the Feminist and the Cowboy, her latest book, Valdes recounts her turbulent relationship with a handsome New Mexico rancher of few words, a dominant personality, and a cleft chin. Part memoir and part polemic on gender roles and identity, the book is a first-hand account of a slow-moving train wreck of a relationship written by a passenger in first class. She’s a liberal feminists. He’s a libertarian Republican. She wears Uggs. He wears cowboy boots. Can they find love? It might be possible, but for the lovers’ respective problems and conflicts. Valdes is high-functioning and consistently self-destructive. The cowboy is controlling and damaged.

Shortly after the book was published, Valdes revealed that her romance with the cowboy had ended. She then briefly posted and quickly pulled down an account of abuse at the hands of the Cowboy. It was not rape, she later attested, but many in the blogosphere disagreed. In fact, the post-publication woes of Valdes generated a high-number of blogs, comments and articles (See here , here and here).

I have no desire to write about Valdes’ love life, past or present. If that interests you, read the book. I found it frustrating, entertaining, and shallow. It is neither profound nor substantial, and suffers from a “just written” feel. But Valdes’ talent is keeping the attention on her and the discussion about her going. In fact, her gift is an ability to turn self-absorption into a career. It may only be the knowledge that at the age of 40 she was living in her father’s house and dating a control freak that keeps one from jealousy.

Why do so many of us pay attention? Because Valdes’ open and trusting narrative, her raw emotions, her lightly edited vacillations, echo the language of an old friend. For a traditional memoir, unedited connotes sloppy. For a blogger/journalist/author, an unedited memoir means that nothing is held back. Valdes is definitely not discreet.

So many of us work too hard, run around too much, and simply lack the time and opportunity for sustained interaction with friends. Humans are social animals, though – there is no denying our nature – and we want friendship and trust. Valdes offers her story couched in the familiar language, structure and genre of a friend.She trusts, she cajoles, she argues and she explains. You can almost hear the pauses in the text where she waits for us to nod, to ask a question (“you did what!?”), and to console. Valdes is well-practiced in the perfect genre for an age with few rules protecting privacy and no meaningful understanding of intimacy.

David Potash

Ann Hamilton – Hanging By A Chain

Thread 1Since 2006 the Park Avenue Armory in NYC has been a mecca for performances and site-specific art installations. It is a difficult commission, for the building has a history and scale that competes for attention and can easily overwhelm.

Ann Hamilton’s Event of a Thread at the Armory was a complex “multisensory affair” featuring 42 swings connected to a large flowing curtain bisecting the Drill Hall, and a conglomeration of creative ephemera: caged pigeons, newspaper-wrapped radios, a daily song captured in vinyl (which was played back the following day), and some somber looking functionaries, dressed like extras in a Margaret Atwood dystopia, focused on various tasks with great seriousness.

Hamilton very cleverly coupled the swings, each of which could seat two comfortably, in the ceiling. This dampened their arcs and made for some Thread 2very interesting patterns in the curtain, which moved in relationship to the swings. Part steam punk, part Stevie Nix, the exhibit was both an invitation to play and a challenge to experience. What do you look at? And what do you take seriously?

New York State built many armories after the Civil War when wide-scale street violence was a near memory. Armories were military training grounds, repositories of weapons, club houses for militia, and visible reminders of the power of the National Guard to maintain domestic tranquility. The wealth of the NYC’s upper East Side insured that the Park Avenue Armory was much more than a very large military shed. Some of the period’s most successful designers contributed to the Armory’s lush and elegant social spaces. Its drill hall is enormous with 55,000 square feet unobstructed space. As a point of contrast, Tate Modern’s famous Turbine Hall in London is significantly smaller at only 36,600 square feet. The sheer size of the Drill Hall infantilizes most pieces. It is indifferent to the largest of objects.

The swings in Hamilton’s exhibit kept me busy for the better part of an hour. The swings, playful and childlike, belonged.  There was not question about their purpose or integrity. As for the extras, pigeons and the prose, I have not a clue. The complexity of the work rendered it inaccessible. The disparate activities may be related by some common reference, a shared thread of meaning. Or they may not.

Sustained engagement is a necessary but not necessarily sufficient criteria for art to succeed. Hamilton’s simple was far more effective holding attention than her complex. Isn’t it interesting how often that turns out to be true?

Lovely Cities

If we are now in an age of cities, P.D. Smith’s City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age  is the self-proclaimed resource for 2013. A richly illustrated compendium of history, biography, urban studies, anecdote and travel guide. Smith is an unabashed enthusiast for urban life and living. The chapters are arranged thematically (“Arrival,” “Where to City - Guidebook for Urban AgeStay,” “Money,” “Getting Around”) and jump from city to city across the globe. Less a travel book and more a considered reflection on all things urban, Smith’s work highlights the incredibly complexity that makes cities such important features. It is beautiful, thought-provoking, enjoyable, and interestingly, not quite right.

I was a frequent visitor to New York City as a child. My parents would take our family into the Village to eat, to midtown to hear music and see theater, and to the Bronx to visit my father’s relatives. The City  was always tremendously exciting for me. It usually was great fun, but not necessarily comfortable. It consistently surprised me. I loved being in the city but I did not love the city – I did not know it.

Demographers and planners consistently debate the relative impact of urban areas versus suburban areas. Most Americans live in suburbs, but recently population growth in cities has been faster than in suburbs.  Around the world, more and more people are living in cities, with a projected 75% of all humanity slated to live in metropolitan areas by 2050.  The overall vitality and strength the greater metropolitan area (that’s when you add suburbs to the city) are what matters, too; metropolitan areas are sites of energy, wealth and opportunity.

I grew up in Madison, New Jersey – the “Rose City.”  Located twenty-five miles from New York City, Madison was and remains very much a small-town suburb with 15,000 or so inhabitants. Most of the borough consists of single family homes and a small downtown with locally owned shops defines Madison’s shopping district. Understanding Madison is impossible without paying attention to its role and relationship with New York City. Some jobs in Madison require commuting, but also many other jobs depend upon the corporate headquarters and back offices that have sprung up in Morris County as part of the larger “edge city.”

Park Slope - 5th Ave and 9th StreetHealthy cities are never in stasis. Cities are inevitably changing, growing, realigning and shifting.

 As a toddler on one trip to Manhattan, pausing before a construction site, I had my parents in stitches when I asked if the city was every going to be “done.”

Cities defy omnipotent narratives and perspectives. Panoramic images may sell books – and Smith has plenty of these – but they are unhelpful fictions when it comes to understanding cities or why they are the future of mankind. Cities reveal themselves to observant participants, glance by glance, and only through multiples lenses – be it race, class, gender, time, space or mood. Pick a city block. It will never be the same block to a commuter, a tourist, or a resident. It is not the same block at 3:00 pm and 3:00 am. Rarely are two glimpses of a city the same. Smith misses this, amid all the photos, the walks and interviews. He writes that a city is its people, but never quite conveys the elusiveness of phenomenological meaning-making in an urban environment.

Last week we revisited Park Slope, Brooklyn , where we used to live. Walking well-traveled blocks and pointing to the children the entrances to buildings and houses where we once lived, it was familiar and not-familiar, same and different. Chance encounters with friends confirmed the vibrancy of the neighborhood, its constant state of flux, and the joy living in a city as dynamic and unknowable as New York City. 

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll

Ian Dury‘s lyric’s continue “very good indeed.” For that male musician, and for most male rockers, they are all of a piece. Music matters, to be sure, but so, too, does the lifestyle. It is what motivates pimply young men across the globe to pick up guitars and craft love songs, anthems and ditties.

Why do women rock musicians pursue the dream? The question drove me to pick up Kicking and Dreaming: a Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll. the joint autobiography of Ann and Nancy Wilson, the creative force behind Heart.  Did they do it for love? Did they do it for money? It turns out that they did it because they really liked making music together.

It is one of the oddities of the book, a strange mixture of wild tales and bourgeois sentiment. The sisters were raised in a Marine household, moving regularly but always remaining disciplined. The eldest sister rebelled, giving space for the two to explore music and eventually join in a band. The toured, they paid their dues, and then thanks to Dreamboat Annie and Magazine, they found commercial success. Accompanying the popularity were all the expected problems – relationships, drugs, personalities, and the loss of the values that propelled them to stardom.

Unusually, however, Heart did not go away. They reformed, started working with other song smiths, and then found renewed commercial success. The use of someone’s else’s work was somewhat challenging, the sister’s tells us, but not overwhelmingly so.

Heart’s commercial popularity was significantly aided by the sisters’ sex appeal. They were well aware of their appearance (and the challenges posed by Ann’s weight), and they used it to their advantage. They also clearly resent the rampant sexism of the music scene. “Barracuda” – perhaps one of their most aggressive tunes – was driven by their record company’s rumor mongering that the sisters had a lesbian affair. Yet a decade later the two were unabashedly promoting their videos, the sister’s tell us, through imagery of their breasts. It was, of course, the record company’s idea. But what was Heart’s idea?

As much I enjoy Heart – and love Magazine – the sister’s book was surprisingly pedestrian. Sure there were wild anecdotes, and yes, they truly come across as nice people, but there is little in the book that gets into their perspective, their talent, or their passion with any depth.  The process by which they create music is treated relatively lightly.  The sisters do not talk about any creative differences and their focus, through much of the book is what happens to them – and less about what they did. Sure they did – and that’s there, but they tend to see it more as a matter of fact, a matter of record.

The two did struggle – with addictions and with destructive relationships – and happily they emerged as authors in a much better place.

It is a must, however, for Heart fans and aficianatos of 70s and 80s popular culture. Nevertheless, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the next rock autobiography I come across has more substance to it.

With A Little Wine, Please

For me to write about Eric LeMay’s Immortal Milk, Adventures in Cheese, a snack was essential. I rustled about in the fridge. There was a little bit of waxy gouda left from a stop at Whole Foods. It was fine, but not really enough to warrant much prose. The havarti had gone bad, but tucked behind some pepperoni was a chunk of super sharp cheddar. A bit pedestrian, perhaps, for it was not organic and from New Zealand. I limit my Whole Foods silly cheeses. The cheddar still had a bite that enthused me.

Enthusiasm is the correct sentiment, too, for rarely have I read a short book about anything that is so completely run through with enthusiasm. LeMay does not babble and he does not go on and on and on. He does, though, incisively and with great humor, walk us through a series of adventures in and with cheeses. Fromage in all its variations is a passion that he and his wife share. They celebrate cheese and cheese making. They are humbled and exalted, and all for immortal milk, cheese.

The couple visits cheese makers, cheese fairs, cheese mongers and the cheese obsessed. Cheesophilics, I believe they are called. They taste aromatic cheeses and cheeses that make them gag. They learn a bit along the way, but this is not a didactic book. The goal is simply about enjoying and learning more about the endlessly complex world of cheese.

How does one recommend such a book? If you only read one book about dairy products . . . .  Looking for something out of the ordinary about food? . . .  Have I got a cheese book for you!

The book is worthy of a hearty recommended, too, and not just for the cheese. It is very much about love and care. LeMay conveys curiosity and good will in a manner that just makes you know that he is earnest without being a bore, a good man to share a drink and a piece of cheese. He’s also very adroit with language.

Come to think of it, it’s been some time since I’ve shopped at Murray’s. They always had a good suggestion or two.  Enjoy.

David Potash

Film, Movie or Cinema, S’il Vous Plait

Mainstream Hollywood is stale. Why see one movie over another? With downloads, streaming and a decent television, we face an overwhelming number of choices of similar items. They are distinct identities, thanks to marketing, but they are very much the same. After being sorted into recognizable categories: Action, Romantic Comedy, Sci-Fi, Drama – with a little reflection we know what each film within the category will offer. The straight jacket of genre offers endless variations on what we, at deeper level, know all too well. Why do to the two cops bicker before realizing that they are deeply bonded? Why must the aspiring lover run to the object of their love five to eight minutes before the final credits? If the scientists get excited about the prospects of their innovation, why do we know that it will go terribly wrong? After so many models of basically the same thing, can a movie do more than deliver the expected?

The one category that defies categorization is foreign, for foreign films are more than different. It takes effort to explore foreign films, above and beyond language, for the films do not fit our understanding of genres and categories. They are unfamiliar in every sense of the word. I am curious, but a mixture of wariness and contrariness limits my exploration, for a surefire way of making me cringe internally is to order me to see a movie. There’s absolutely no good reason to burden watching a film with an obligation.

Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, understands this all too well. His disappointment with the familiar, however, is tempered with a deep enthusiasm for foreign films, especially the movies of France. He wants to be a guide, but he does not hector. In his latest book, The Beauty of the Real, LaSalle walks us through contemporary French cinema by focusing upon actresses. Subtitled “What Hollywood Can Learn From Contemporary French Actresses,” the book chronicles the roles and films of twenty some actresses, mixing reviews with interviews and broader social commentary. It is a fascinating read, not only for what we learn of French cinema, but for what it reveals about Hollywood. Sometimes contrast is the fastest way to understanding.

LaSalle highlights the wide range of roles that women have in French cinema with energy and passion, but not without his critical eye. He does not claim that these are necessarily good or great films, but he makes a compelling case that they are interesting. It is the role of women, LaSalle argues, that highlights the difference of genre in the two cinemas. Beyond the American career arc (ingenue to lover to district attorney to matron), French actresses play roles that reflect broader choices in life. Stories may not resolve into moral messages. Old women may have sex. Young women may not find love. And within this wide array of lower budget cinemas, a wealth of different kinds of films blossom.

Finding French movies is a challenge. Distribution is spotty and once you locate a film, there is no guarantee that it will meet expectations. LaSalle has convinced me, though, that it is well worth the effort. Bonne chance.


Gotham Locavores Rejoice

Robin Shulman’s Eat the City is a cheerful account of the idiosyncratic passions that allow for the making of food in New York City. Lightly mixing history with contemporary interviews, Shulman makes it clear that the city has always been a place where some make, find, grow or catch their food. Further, while many of us no longer thing of New York City as no longer playing that role, it is.

Broken into chapters by food group – bees and honey, meat, wine, sugar, vegetables, fish and beer – the books nimbly covers the geography and history of the city. Shulman is more interested in people and tastes than production or society. Restaurants rarely rate a mention and it is mighty difficult to find a recipe in the pages. It is difficult to tell is Shulman is motivated by curiosity or a deeper love of food. I would have wished for the latter, even at a price of her professionalism. Her subjects all display a singular passion for their pursuits, be they ale or smoked pig from a Queens farm.

The book’s structure reflects the long shadows of John McPhee, for narrative description, and Michael Pollan, for argumentation and structure. But this is no polemic. Shulman’s text is grounded in close observation. A practicing journalist who has spent extensive time overseas, Shulman has an eye for detail. Implicit in the work is an ideological agenda, however, these people are doing something important and interesting. But that raises questions. Are the locavores merely characters? Hipsters?  Or do they represent something larger or something more important?  I would argue that they do, but Shulman shies away from bigger arguments. She could have – but reading this one has the sense that she never really settled down with a clear of idea of what she wanted the book to say.

It is, however, a tasty read – particularly the chapters on bees and meat. And a welcome addition to the study of the world’s most interesting city.

A City And The Clever Folks Who Live There

“Rollicking” is a word for the page. It is read, not spoken, and it invariably paired with “good fun.” No one has rollicking misery, rollicking shingles, or a rollicking breakfast – though good company, a delicious omelette and fine coffee are very good fun. Boris Johnson, mayor of London, shameless promoter of the city and of all things Boris Johnson, is an accomplished man. Author of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, journalism and countless posts and articles, he recently penned Johnson’s Life of London, The People Who Made The City That Made The World. It is, at least for its first half, a rollicking good read.

In love with the city he leads, Johnson’s pseudo-history is a panegyric to London through short biographic study of approximately two dozen Londoners. Johnson’s prose is a delightful mixture of erudition and the corporeal, if not scatological. It is not surprising, for example, to read about the invention of the flush toilet or the sex life of J.M.W. Turner. Johnson admires ambition and those that live hard, work hard and play hard. His admiration for Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Hooke and Winston Churchill leaps from the page.

Johnson’s history is not history, though. It is dinner party chatter, enjoyable anecdote and observation. Enthusiasm and humor drive the stories. It is a book that was dashed off from an erudite brain and energetic personality. It is charming, as I’m sure Boris Johnson would be in person. That doesn’t mean that he would necessarily have my vote.

When Running Away Makes Sense

Carissa Phelps’ memoir, Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand At A Time, recounts a horrific childhood and adolescence. Born into poverty and growing up in central California, Carissa was sexually exploited by the age of twelve. She was living on and off the streets of Fresno by the time she was thirteen. Raped repeatedly, sold for sex and trapped in a culture of drugs, violence and abuse, Carissa repeatedly ran away. She ran from home, from the juvenile detention centers she was sent, and from the men and women who hurt and used her.

Always smart, always good with numbers, Carissa did not stay in school, either, until her mid-teens. With the ongoing support of a teacher and a counselor, Carissa slowly started putting her life together. She graduated from Cal State Fresno, and then later a JD and an MBA from UCLA. It was never an easy journey. Even as she began to succeed educationally and professionally, difficult choices and decisions troubled her. Steady relationships, trust and “normal” relationships with others challenged her. It is understandable, too. How does one reconcile such a life and move on?

Now an advocate, attorney and speaker, Carissa Phelps tells her story and works to help young men and women. She is a vocal presence warning of the horrors of human trafficking and childhood abuse. She is using her story to give help and hope to others.

I would like to say that the book is uplifting or optimistic, but it is not. Written in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, Runaway Girl has the bluntness of a police report. It is difficult to see how it could be otherwise. Phelps’ uses language and the narrative to both share and hide. She cannot explain. It is impossible to do so. All that she can do for most of the book is describe. The cumulative effect is one of great sorrow.

Ms. Phelps’ strength is that of a survivor. Like a boxer who is able who is beaten round after round but remains standing, Ms. Phelps’ determination is admirable. But there is no joy in taking the beating.

Though not a feminist text, the book is a primer in misogyny. Carissa is a recurring site of exploitation and hatred. The moments in the text when she describes others treating her humanely, valuing her as a person, stand out.

At a larger level, the book makes clear the dystopian culture of poverty, drugs, abuse and indifference in our culture. The streets for many of our young are Hobbesian camps of power and exploitation. With sex and drugs are the prime economic drivers, other values stand little chance of gaining a toe-hold. The memoir also demonstrates the colossal ineffectiveness of our “system” to address adolescents who get into trouble. Happenstance is what helped Phelps survive, not planning, not thoughtful care, and most definitely not a system.

A story of success on one level, the book is also a story of many failures, many lives lost and ruined. It is, in many ways, a nightmare, a vision of what many young people must see as a life without hope or love.