Bob Schwartz

Category: Art

Return to the Four Freedoms

Four Freedoms

As we approach the holiday season, we might think about the big metaphorical American family gathering around the big metaphorical American table. One thing you notice, as with a lot of families and tables, is that there’s going to be a few disagreements, some pretty heated.

But at some point, in keeping with the spirit of the season, the family will be looking for common ground, those shared ideals that unite us. Unfortunately, we seem to be losing sight of those ideals because, to be honest, it isn’t always clear what they are.

In early 1941, while war was already raging in Europe, but almost a year before Pearl Harbor, FDR gave one of the most famous speeches of the era and of American history. It was the 1941 State of the Union address, but it will always be known as the Four Freedoms speech. To bolster American support for our almost inevitable involvement in the war, he enunciated the Four Freedoms we would be fighting for: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

Art turned out to play an important role in keeping these ideals front and center, especially as the prospect of American sacrifice became a reality. The most famous example may be a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell (above), who was then and maybe still the greatest American illustrator. The Library of Congress explains:

Taken from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech to Congress, the “Four Freedoms” –Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear–became a rallying point for the United States during WWII. Artist Norman Rockwell created four vignettes to illustrate the concepts. Rockwell intended to donate the paintings to the War Department, but after receiving no response, the painter offered them to the Saturday Evening Post, where they were first published on February 20, 1943. Popular reaction was overwhelming, and more than 25,000 readers requested full-color reproductions suitable for framing.

Some will say that these Four Freedoms are today “controversial” because we don’t seem to be able as a nation—as an American family—to agree on the strategies to maintain and attain those ideals. Those disagreements are undeniable, as are the related invective, disparagement, and even hatefulness that goes with them. But those disagreements can’t make us give up. On the contrary, they should send us back to the words of FDR, getting past the ideologies and labels, and really look within and at the family of Americans.

Do you really believe that these ideals are exclusive to you, and not shared by others of good will? Are your principles and affiliations so very important that you would sacrifice those ideals to be “right?” Or can we come to the table, dig deeper, and not leave until we have given up a little of our own self-importance and focused instead on getting a little closer to the country and world envisioned in the shared Four Freedoms? And maybe just a little closer to each other?

Record Store Day 2014

Record Store Day 2014
That’s not a record store:

Spotify

This is a record store:

Amoeba Records

Record Store Day
Saturday, April 19, 2014

“I think it’s high time the mentors, big brothers, big sisters, parents, Guardians, and neighborhood ne’er do wells, start taking younger people That look up to them To a real record store and show them what an important part of life music really is. I trust no one who hasn’t time for music. What a shame to Leave a child, or worse, a generation orphaned from one of life’s great beauties. And to the record stores, artists, labels, dj’s, and journalists; we’re all in this together. Show respect for the tangible music that you’ve dedicated your careers and lives to, and help It from becoming nothing more than disposable digital data.”
- Jack White

Oxford English Dictionary Names Selfie Word of the Year

Arbus Mapplethorpe Selfie
The Oxford English Dictionary has named “selfie” the Word of the Year. At least one journalist covering this issue spoke in praise of the selfie, offering a few rationales:

Selfies are in the centuries-old tradition of artists making self-portraits.

This is an age of memoirs and selfies are part of this phenomenon.

So for all those who do take cover in these explanations, be aware:

Above are self-portraits by two modern masters of photography, Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. Photography is blessedly democratic, easy and fun. But when looking at any of the millions of selfies, consider whether artistry applies.

As for modern memoirism, chronicling every moment, whether overshared or not, we might be looking at the range of those chronicles, from deeply examined reviews to diaries to nothing more than barely annotated calendars. Here are some questions:

Would you rather have your good, great and remarkable moments go unnoted and unrecorded?

Or would you rather have your ordinary, unremarkable moments go public and get attention?

Or is the point of modern sharing to elevate ordinary life to a special place where it has always belonged?

Smile.

Days of Holocaust Remembrance: Different Trains

Holocaust Train Car
Monday was Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance for victims and heroes of the Holocaust. In the United States, the entire week marks the National Days of Remembrance.

The phenomenon of the Holocaust has demanded the work of historians and others to record and chronicle. That mission moves ahead, and every year—more than seventy years later—adds new dimensions to the story. It has also demanded the work of activists, whose mission is transform the basest experiences into a brighter and more humane future.

But the artists are different kinds of workers and alchemists. They know that when we read or hear the details, or see the photos, we are apt put up a psychic wall, because we can take only so much. Enough: we are human, as were the victims and the masters of madness. Artists approach us, and the Holocaust, differently. Even if our psyches want to put up a wall, to give us some rest from the onslaught, we don’t know where to build it. So we are tricked into watching, listening, and learning in a different way with different senses.

Steve Reich is one of the masters of modern music. He composed a suite, Different Trains, inspired by the Holocaust. Each of the three movements represents the experience before, during and after the War.

Here is a YouTube video of a performance of the second movement, Different Trains – Europe-During the War. The composition features the recorded voices of Holocaust survivors.

If you are a Spotify user, you can listen to Different Trains.

At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., there is an actual train car used to transport Jews (above). This extraordinary museum contains artifacts and educational displays, the cumulative effect of which can be overwhelming. You might feel your spirit broken, tears in your eyes, and then, miraculously, your spirit begins to be healed, a little.

That’s why we have the historians, the activists and the artists. They are the doctors dedicated to healing the soul of a badly wounded world and trying to make sure it doesn’t get so sick, ever again.

The Postal Service Loves Modern Art

Postal Service - Modern Art
We are becoming inconstant cultural historians. History, cultural and otherwise, requires more than knowing what happened when, or even knowing its significance. Real history is about an overwhelming sense of appreciation for just how major something was, both in its time and as a precursor of today.

This trajectory is unwelcome but not surprising. We have never lived in a time when the trip from new to newer to newest is as breathtakingly fast, which means that the past exists as a distant dot, visited on a need to know, need to show basis.

One hundred years ago, an art exhibition was held in New York that changed America. The International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show, took place in February and March of 1913. It is the most important art exhibition in American history and an inspirational watershed for culture of all types.

Armory Show

The exhibition was organized to showcase the state of the art—the contemporary work that was being done by European and American artists, work that was well ahead of what most American audiences were familiar with and had yet seen. It would be years before a major American museum took up the mission: the Museum of Modern Art in New York did not open until 1929.

This is from the New York Sun newspaper in 1912, announcing the upcoming event:

Show of Advance Art Promises a Sensation

Futurists and Cubists Will Be Featured Here in February

Whole Room of Cezannes

Founder of Post Impressionism Is Hardly Known in New York

Cezanne is virtually unknown in America except by his name, and there will be great curiosity…

Matisse has been seen and shuddered at in the little New York gallery of Photo-Seresston…

Every art museum and art program should be giving at least a nod to this, if not a full-blown celebration. Some are, some aren’t.

Here comes the U.S. Postal Service to the cultural rescue. Ironic, because the Postal Service itself is in dire need of rescuing. But when it comes to celebrating modern art, and this particular moment, there it is.

On March 7, the Postal Service will issue a set of stamps called Modern Art in America 1913-1931. They explain, “In celebration of the triumph of modern art in America, the U.S. Postal Service commemorates 12 important modern artists and their works, 100 years after the groundbreaking Armory Show opened in New York in 1913.”  On the full sheet of stamps is a quote from Marcel Duchamp, one of the more than 300 artists who exhibited at the Armory Show: “American is the country of the art of the future.”

The set includes stunning reproductions of works by Stuart Davis (House and Street),  Charles Demuth (I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold), Aaron Douglas (The Prodigal Son), Arthur Dove (Fog Horns), Marcel Duchamp (Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2), Marsden Hartley (Painting, Number 5), John Marin (Sunset, Maine Coast), Gerald Murphy (Razor), Georgia O’Keeffe (Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II), Man Ray (Noire et Blanche), Charles Sheeler (American Landscape), Joseph Stella (Brooklyn Bridge).

Through its stamps, the Postal Service has served for decades as a chronicler of culture, well-known and less-known. This year alone we have muscle cars, Johnny Cash, Rosa Parks, Grand Central Terminal and Lydia Mendoza (one of the greatest stars of Tejano music). And, of course, the Armory Show.

 

Marchel Duchamp - Nude Descending A Staircase

Celebrate the Armory Show this month. Revel in art, its past and its present. Visit galleries. Buy some art. Visit an art museum. Join an art museum. And then go to the post office (yes, there are still post offices). Buy a couple of sheets of the Modern Art in America stamps ($5.20). Keep one, and maybe frame it and hang it on a wall. Use the other stamps on letters or even bill payments. It’s an easy way to make the world more beautiful and interesting, and to show that art still and always matters.

Howard Finster on the Day after Washington’s Fake Birthday

Howard Finster - George Washington in Another World

This is about Howard Finster, “Man of Visions”, not strictly about George Washington. But Finster, America’s greatest modern folk/self-taught artist, loved Washington and frequently pictured him (above is Washington in Another World, where Finster believed he would meet the great man one day).

Finster also liked Abraham Lincoln, and some of the artist’s more than 10,000 works featured that former President.

Howard Finster - Abraham from a Penny

Knowing Finster’s biography and back story is interesting and helpful, but looking at his pictures (and there are plenty to be found online) is much more enlightening and uplifting. This is from Artnet:

Howard Finster (American, December 2, 1916–October 22, 2001) was a Modern Folk artist from Summerville, GA. He was one of 13 children raised on a farm, and he attended school only until the sixth grade. Finster’s interest in the gospel began at a Baptist revival when he was just 13 years old. A preacher at age 16, he wrote articles for the local newspaper while giving sermons in churches. In the late 1940s, Finster built his first garden park museum, featuring the exhibit The Inventions of Mankind.

The exhibit was intended to be a representation of all the inventions ever created, and it included a duck pond and a flock of pigeons. In 1961, Finster ran out of space and decided to purchase four additional acres of land in Pennville, GA. This is where he envisioned the Plant Farm Museum, a collection of Garden of Eden-like creations featuring attractions such as The Mirror House, Bible House, and the Folk Art Chapel. Scattered throughout were signs containing Bible verses, because Finster believed that “They stuck in people’s heads better that way.”

Finster did not learn how to paint in a university; instead he was self-taught, and most of his work was inspired by visions. He believed he was sent to Earth to spread the word of God, and he retired from preaching in 1965 to improve his Plant Farm Museum. This lasted until 1976, when he was inspired to paint only sacred art of religious inspiration that was intended to uplift and inspire. These images ranged from Pop icons to religious figures, such as his interpretation of John the Baptist. A year earlier, Finster was featured in Esquire magazine, and was eventually asked to create four paintings for the Library of Congress in 1977, one of which was titled He Could Not Be Hid.

Finster often created images on flat picture planes with Bible verses squeezed in. Each one also included a number because, under God’s direction, he felt he had to generate a total of 5,000 paintings. Finster finished this feat in 1985, but continued to paint until his death in 2001. By then, he had created over 10,000 works of art.

You can think real hard about how we celebrate Washington’s birthday on a day that isn’t his birthday, and how some people mistakenly call it President’s Day, and how we don’t celebrate Lincoln’s birthday at all, despite the fact that he might win an Oscar this year.

Save yourself the trouble. Immerse yourself in the visions of Howard Finster, and everything will make sense to you.

 

Assault Weapons: The Art of the Art of the Possible

Bushmaster ACR
Watching Joe Biden back off the primacy of an assault weapons ban in the curbing of gun violence—following Senator Diane Feinstein’s introduction of exactly that legislation—is discouraging. And it brings to mind Picasso and Pollock, among others.

Politics is said to be the art of the possible. The motto is roughly “we fight the fights we can win.” Very pragmatic, and there is something to commend pragmatism. That won’t be much comfort, though, when well-meaning politicians have to show up at the next inevitable massacre and solemnly announce that they aimed at the possible, and even then settled for half.

Exactly what kind of art is politics?

Here’s a style of art, the kind everybody finds acceptable and can endorse. Who is going to argue about Rembrandt?

Rembrandt - Self Portrait
Then again, over time there were a number who wanted to argue about and with Rembrandt. By the time the twentieth century rolled around, artists wondered why they had to pay slavish homage to ideas that no longer suited the times. They determined that new ways were not only possible, but that they must be possible.

And so Picasso

Picasso - Les Demoiselles D'Avignon

and Jackson Pollock

Pollock - No. 5
Maybe every progressive politician who is wavering on support for an assault weapons ban needs to visit some museums with modern art; there are plenty in Washington. Then maybe they will discover what real courageous progress is. The possible is limited only by our imagination, spirit and will. That’s the real art.

Beautiful Quantum Scribbles


In Robert Wise’s classic sci-fi movie The Day The Earth Stood Still, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a visitor from distant space, has come to earth to warn world leaders that their conflicts endanger universal order and must end. To enlist the help of the smartest scientist, Dr. Barnhardt (a fictionalized Albert Einstein played by Sam Jaffe), Klaatu visits the professor’s house. He finds an unsolved problem in celestial mechanics on the blackboard, and quickly corrects the equations. He is interrupted by the housekeeper Hilda:

HILDA
How dare you write on that blackboard! Do you realize the Professor has been working on that problem for weeks?

KLAATU
He’ll catch on to it in no time now.

HILDA
How did you get in here? And what do you want?

KLAATU
We came to see Professor Barnhardt.

HILDA
Well, he’s not here. And he won’t be back till this evening.
(Klaatu scribbles a note and hands it to Hilda.)

KLAATU
You might keep this. I think the professor will want to get in touch with me.

Hilda’s glance wanders to the blackboard and she picks up an eraser, debating whether to erase Klaatu’s corrections.

KLAATU
I wouldn’t erase that. The Professor needs it very badly.

Even if you are not a physicist, and are simply intrigued by the arcana that only geniuses and space aliens understand, this is a memorable moment.

People who are comfortable living in the old high school classroom picture of a determinate universe full of atoms and their constituent protons, neutrons and electrons have another think coming. In the quantum world beyond simple particles, anything is possible and nothing is certain, if certainty itself exists. In the view of some, in quantum physics are hints of rough sketches of the face of God, as well solutions to practical matters such as how to teleport information across the universe beyond light speed. Those of us of lesser minds struggle to grasp even the most basic concepts, while the greater minds solve puzzles beautiful in their incomprehensibility.

Spanish artist Alejandro Guijarro has combined two things at polar ends of research and education. On one end he has taken detailed photos of blackboards, a thinking and teaching tool so primitive that some are surprised to find them still around, and others have never seen one. On the far end, these particular blackboards belong to some of the world’s leading quantum thinkers. Guijarro traveled to institutes and laboratories around the world to record the smudged, chalk-streaked evidence of some of the world’s most sublime calculations…and erasures.

The Art of the Lock Screen


If you are a smartphone user, you look at the lock screen—the opening screen you swipe to get into your phone—maybe a hundred times a day. Just a second at a time, but seconds add up to a real experience and impression.

The pre-loaded images on lock screens are pretty banal, meant to show off the screen’s high-resolution capability without offending or overexciting anyone. The state-of-the-art Samsung Galaxy S3, for example, out-of-the-box displays a close-up of a dandelion. It can be changed out, but the few stock alternatives are not any better—beautiful, color-rich, but not much else. There is a cool effect that when swiped, the lock screen image ripples like water and fades, but a rippling and fading dandelion is still a dandelion.

As noted, it can be changed out, to any image at all. Outside the parameter of its being a vertical rectangle, the possibilities are infinite.

That’s how Jackson Pollock came to this lock screen.

It wasn’t an easy choice, but the road to it was a fascinating journey in art.

The first decision was to steer clear of the figurative. Even if a work was found that could properly fit the dimensions of the screen, or it was cropped to fit, people and things didn’t seem so appealing. There was also the issue of having typed words—time, date, etc.—and maybe icons on top of those figures.

That left thousands of variously abstract works of art. To narrow it down to a manageable, shorter-than-a-lifetime task (this is, after all, a phone, not the Getty), the online collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate were reviewed.

And so, for a couple of hours, an intensive search. Surprisingly, the functional nature of the application wasn’t a drawback. It wasn’t like the derisive cliche about an interior decorator picking paintings on the basis of whether they match a planned color scheme. Instead, it was like speed dating art in a museum—in a good way. Every image had a chance to speak, but instantly, because that is exactly how it was going to be seen from now on.

A few styles were rejected. Pure monochromatic paintings may be important as works of art, but on a phone screen just look like a single color background. Op art seemed like it might work, but in that confined space, the screen seemed overbusy and dizzy, and a little jarring.

The finalists were Ad Reinhardt and Jackson Pollock. From Reinhardt, his blocks of color were especially inviting, including this version of Abstract Painting (Blue) (1952):

In the end, Pollock’s Full Fathom Five (1947) is the art of this lock screen. Here’s a description from the Museum of Modern Art:

Full Fathom Five is one of Pollock’s earliest “drip” paintings. While its lacelike top layers consist of poured skeins of house paint, Pollock built up the underlayer using a brush and palette knife. A close look reveals an assortment of objects embedded in the surface, including cigarette butts, nails, thumbtacks, buttons, coins, and a key. Though many of these items are obscured by paint, they contribute to the work’s dense and encrusted appearance. The title, suggested by a neighbor, comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in which the character Ariel describes a death by shipwreck: “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes.”

All along, before the search started, there was something about putting Pollock on the phone, just as there is something about putting him on the wall. People mocked abstract expressionism—and Pollock as its most famous artist—as some kind of cultural con game. “Anybody can do that, hell, my five-year-old can do that.”

Well, no. If you want evidence that this is art, check out the few square inches of screen above. Even if the screen says “swipe,” even if you’re in a hurry to get to a call or an app, just linger and look for a few extra seconds. What is going on there reaches out sixty-five years, from a time when pocket phones and pocket computers were glints in the eyes of scientists, madmen and mad scientists. And now Jackson Pollock lives there.

No dandelions. Just pure digital cool.

The Art Of The Perfect Game


It looks like nothing. A string of zeros. But when you show this picture of a line score to a baseball fan, the pulse races.

Yesterday Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners pitched a perfect game. None of the batters who came to the plate reached first base. It was only the 23rd perfect game in major league history, and the very first for the Seattle Mariners.

Baseball fans, who are notoriously but justifiably obsessed with statistics, have variously calculated the odds of this happening. Variously, because over 113 years, the game and the rules have changed. This calculation also depends on whether you base it on the number of games ever played (something on the order of 200,000) or on the number of opportunities to pitch a perfect game (twice that, since every game includes two starting pitchers). For those who aren’t already lost for lack of interest, and for very rough and illustrative purposes, let’s say the odds are 1 in 20,000.

You have a much better chance of pitching a perfect game than winning the lottery or beating the house at any Las Vegas casino—if you happen to be one of the most skilled and clever athletes on the planet. Standing at a convenience store counter and handing over two bucks doesn’t take much of anything; standing on the mound, and calculating and executing every pitch without fail, takes everything.

Besides expanding the realm of statistics, baseball has also done wonders for language. This includes both great literature and the invention of words and phrases. One of those phrases is “painting the strike zone,” which means the ability to pitch the baseball 60 feet and have it move precisely how you want and place it precisely where you want. Yesterday Felix Hernandez painted the strike zone like one of the old masters.

Museums and art afficianados are sometimes mocked for making a big deal about paintings that for all appearances are mere canvases of a single solid color, big rectangles of all black or all white.

“I could do that,” people say. No you couldn’t. To the unsophisticated eye it may look like nothing. To those who know, it looks like perfection.