Sunday, April 26, 2009

New portfolio site "live"

Christopher Reiger
"There, Suspended"
Watercolor, gouache, marker and pen on Arches paper
12 x 12 inches

I designed my original portfolio website five years ago and, possessing only a rudimentary knowledge of .html, the result was plain to the point of blandness. I'm therefore happy to announce that has undergone a rather dramatic transformation!

The City Mouse designed the new site, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for his hard work, great suggestions and good nature. A lot of folks tell me that website redesign is a headache; TCM made it a very pleasant affair.

The site also formally announces my charitable sales model. I'm pleased that interest in this approach to art sales has already been strong, and I hope that the website's launch will introduce the idea to still more people. As I write on the site, "If the sales model is a success, I plan to invite other artists to join an expanding network of professionals dedicated to making the art market work for the environmental and social causes that are most important to us."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Of ideologues and pragmatists

Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson

A few months after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, many one-time "Yes we can" cheerleaders are grumbling and casting skeptical glances at Washington. Indeed, I've been disappointed by some of our new president's decisions, but I also accept his maneuvering as an unfortunate political reality.

Unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama realizes that the President of the United States should not operate as an ideologue. Of course, he (and some election year soon, she) could choose to embrace ideology over pragmatism but, in doing so, the Commander-in-Chief risks aligning himself with the sort of tyrannical autocracy that our leaders rhetorically (and routinely) condemn.

But political reality doesn't temper the poor reviews that Obama receives from many on the political left. Considering their critique of Obama's centrism, I recalled an earlier HH post. In "The Whiteness of the Whale," I wrote:
"Craig Nelson's recent biography of Thomas Paine serves as my subway reading these days, [and] I find the following observation relevant.
'Beginning with Franklin and Washington, every successful American leader would balance the pragmatic with the Utopian. Where Franklin the master politician would be almost entirely pragmatic, Paine would be too fervidly Utopian in ways that would not just damage him financially, but imperil him physically... Paine would...always be too ardent with his religion of the lights, a Savonarola of reason and liberty, and as inept a political operator as any fervid Christian saint...The success or failure of any leader in U.S. history can be judged through his or her successes or failures at reaching the pragmatic Utopian paradox that remains at the heart of the American experiment.'
Nelson's words ring true. 'The pragmatic Utopian paradox' is not uniquely American, but it is central to our American experience. For confirmation, we need look no further than the glut of contemporary, progressive American politicians striving to develop a decidedly centrist track record, even if they contradict themselves (and their conscience) in doing so. By contrast, it's easy to discard compromise and contradiction if you are a committed revolutionary or a monkish loner operating in an intellectual and philosophical vacuum."
Barack Obama qualifies as one of the "contemporary, progressive American politicians" I criticize in that excerpt. Yet, as I suggest in the same post, "outside the D.C. beltway, ideologues are a dime a dozen, but exceptionally gifted rhetoricians like Paine or King, Jr. emerge (and make [a legitimate political] impact) only rarely."

Yet even if the political impact of fringe ideology is negligible, those voices must be heard. Indeed, unpopular opinions are sometimes the most vital in a just democracy. There's a reason, after all, that liberals wring their hands when contemplating the censorship of bigoted hate speech. If you believe in the democratic fray, you're obligated to let all of society's individuals speak.

In a recent episode of the "The Thomas Jefferson Hour," historian and Jefferson impersonator Clay Jenkinson read and responded to the following Paine quotation.
'He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.'
"This is how Paine would react to the Bush Administration for the past seven-and-a-half years. This is an answer to the Patriot Act, to the surveillances, to Guantanamo, to Abu Ghraib!"
Jenkinson's right. In fact, a great many of Paine's sentiments are as pertinent today as they were in the late 18th century, his abolitionist and proto-feminist writing especially so.

He may have made many political enemies in his day but, two hundred years after the turmoil of our nation's early ideological disputes, Thomas Paine's unwavering moralism aligns more closely with contemporary progressive attitudes than does Thomas Jefferson's political pragmatism. Compared to the public attitudes of the slave-owning and patriarchal Jefferson, Paine strikes the 21st century citizen as the more modern thinker and the more conscientious man.

Does it matter that Jefferson, in his private correspondence, agreed with Paine's abolitionist argument? From our vantage point (one of comfortable remove), no, it doesn't. What we consider, above all, is that Jefferson was a slave owner and that Paine was an outspoken abolitionist. 'Deeds, not creeds,' as the saying goes. But it's noteworthy that Paine was poor and unlanded, and therefore never in a position to own slaves. (Indeed, Paine was never in a position to give up slavery, power, or riches; essentially, his social standing cloistered him from temptation.) Nor was Paine a political figure; he could be strident because he didn't have to consider popular opinion or the practical effect of enacting reform.

Writing in his philosophical memoir An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God, Erik Reece succinctly describes the democratic ideal to which I subscribe.
"Like [Walt] Whitman, John Dewey thought of the ideal American democracy as an 'organism,' a whole that is reflected in each of its parts - that is to say, in each individual citizen. ...As cells work together within an organism, Dewey believed individuals worked together within a good society to achieve 'a unity of will.' ...And because democracy is a social idea, it is also ethical by its very nature. Ethics, after all, begins with the realization that one is a social being and therefore part of a larger whole. A man living alone on an island requires no ethic. An aristocracy or a dictatorship could be run by only a few of its members. But the democratic organism needs all of its cells. And those cells must act simultaneously in their own interest and in the interest of the larger organism."
But Dewey was a pragmatist. Surely he realized that the democratic organism's ability to fight off infection of the malignant variety is not nuanced; the democratic immune system, if you will, acts to extinguish all radical cells. In other words, this organism is just as likely to rise up against outspoken abolitionists as it is against outspoken racists. And, indeed, history stands as a testament to this action.

Thomas Paine found an American and French populace eager to absorb his revolutionary and populist manifestos Common Sense and Rights of Man, but he was eventually ruined by his rational dismissal of Christian doctrine, The Age of Reason. His New York Citizen obituary read, "He had lived long, did some good and much harm." Much harm? Paine's progressive opinions about slavery and feminism didn't win him sustained popularity.

Jefferson, too, was a lightening rod in his day, provoking as much disdain as he did praise (especially from the Federalists and, in particular, Alexander Hamilton). But Jefferson was a savvy political operator, a master of Nelson's pragmatic Utopian paradox. Although he shared many of Paine's opinions, Jefferson did not draft legislation addressing those issues or even, because of his deism, allow his private correspondence to be made publicly available in his lifetime. Our third president carefully considered what the demos were and weren't ready to accept. Paine, the ideologue, simply didn't care.

So what will it be? Should an independent, liberal leaning citizen like myself wish for a revolutionary president, a Paine-like Obama less concerned with centrist politics, an Obama driven by moral conviction? Can I believe that such a president's radical agenda won't be consumed by the fires of reaction?

For my part, I trust that Obama is striving to foment as much progress as he safely can in our flawed, anti-intellectual democracy. I express my few disappointments by signing petitions for ads calling on Obama to address some of what I see as missteps but, above all, I'm proud of our country for electing an intelligent, disciplined and thoughtful man to the nation's highest office...and I remain optimistic.

Image credits: Thomas Paine portrait ripped from American History Guide and Thomas Jefferson portrait ripped from The World Union of Deists

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

Studebaker; Eastern Shore of Virginia

In time, all things - pants, refrigerators, Studebakers - succumb. The extinction of human civilization is likewise inevitable.

But one of the most wondrous faculties of the human animal is its capacity for heightened compassion. Working as a conscientious society, we strive to conserve the ecology we appreciate not simply because we have the means to do so, but because we recognize that doing so is just.

Photo credit: ShoreRebel

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bring out your dead!

Walking to work this morning, I noticed for the first time that the Department of Sanitation New York City (DSNYC) logo features the caduceus, a symbol that depicts two snakes entwined about a staff. The DSNYC website explains that the caduceus, "the traditional medical symbol," is incorporated "to promote the idea that sanitation can affect the health of the City."

Indeed, sanitation is one of the most revolutionary inventions of mankind, but somebody at the DSNYC didn't do their homework. The "traditional medical symbol" is not the caduceus, but the rod of Aesculapius, an image that features just one snake wrapped around a staff or branch.

As I wrote here (almost exactly) four years ago,
"No bastardization of a symbol, however, is so glaring as the misuse of the caduceus by medical professionals. The familiar image of two snakes entwined about a winged staff is used by a slight majority of medical practitioners and groups. The caduceus, though, has nothing to do with medicine! It is the staff of Hermes.

'…Hermes was also considered to be the god of commerce and wealth, which in turn implies a sense of personal self-interest along with the possibility of stretching the truth to meet one’s own needs. Hermes was known as the patron god of thieves due to his many tricks and lies. The quality of dishonesty is not one that most people want to see in their physician, therefore a symbol that is traced back to representing trickery and deceit should not be used to represent a profession as highly regarded in trust as medicine. Additionally, Hermes is also said to have used his caduceus staff to lead the souls of those who passed away to the underworld, which is the opposite idea than that stated in the Hippocratic Oath that a physician is charged with.'

The symbol of medicine is actually Aesculapius’s staff...Aesculapius, appropriately, was the God of Medicine.

'The son of Apollo, god of health, Aesculapius is said to have been pulled from the womb as his mortal mother was dying, which came to symbolize a physician’s ability to turn death into life. Throughout his life, Aesculapius used medicinal herbs and surgical procedures to heal the sick and dying, with his culmination of the art being the ability to bring the dead back to life. In one episode of mythology, Aesculapius was said to have been inside a temple when a serpent came to him and wound itself up and around his walking staff. He killed the serpent, only to have a second slither in and use an herb to bring its dead comrade back to life. This brings forth the explanation for the revered symbol of Aesculapius’s staff, with this herb being the major discovery of his life. The snake was seen as a servant to Aesculapius in his healing, and was worshiped as such.'

Clearly, the two symbols became confused at some point. Kim Scott wrote a short history of the confusion, 'The History and Confusion of the Caduceus symbol and the Staff of Aesculapius in Medicine,' from which the above selections [in italics] are drawn. Scott dates the initial mix-up to circa 1500. Apparently, the symbolic SNAFU led to twentieth century medical [professionals regularly using the wrong staff.]"
And the DSNYC, too, made the same mistake.

But perhaps I'm too quick to condemn the DSNYC decision to adopt the caduceus? Maybe the folks behind the logo intended to reference the popular maxim, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." With that in mind, the DSNYC workers might be understood as Hermetic treasure thieves. Or, if that's too much of a stretch, we can consider Hermes' role as a conveyor of the dead to Hades. NYC's trashmen, then, can be thought of as leading the souls of the discarded to the Underworld. The latter interpretation gets my vote!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Corey Arnold's Sea

Corey Arnold
"Gulf Crossing, Bering Sea, Alaska"
Chromira C-print

Curiously, Sara Tecchia Roma's press release for Corey Arnold's solo exhibition, "Fish Work," describes the artist as "an Alaskan crab fisherman animated by a life long artistic project." I wonder, does Arnold identify as a fisherman first and a photographer second? Or perhaps the two occupations are inextricably tangled? Whichever designation Arnold prefers, his pictures evidence a daring spirit - an attribute I associate with Bering Sea fisherman, but rarely with fine art photographers - and an expert eye.

Arnold's photographs capture northern ocean landscapes and document the lives of men that harvest its depths. Most of his working fishermen pictures are handsome records of an uncommon life style, but they are undistinguished as works of art. Not so for Arnold's strongest images; when the photographer turns his lens on the water, he provides viewers with a glimpse of sublime wonder. His pictures humble us.

As the gallery press release states, viewers are reminded "not only of the beauty but also of the undeniable power that Nature holds against mankind." I'd amend that statement slightly. Nature doesn't work against mankind; its staggering violence is ambivalent, and humanity is a vital part of it.

Corey Arnold
"Bering Sea Birthday, Bering Sea, Alaska"
Chromira C-print

Monday, April 13, 2009

Being Prey

"The bank now presented a high, steep face of slippery mud. The only obvious avenue of escape was a paper bark tree near the muddy bank wall. I made the split second decision to leap into its lower branches and climb to safety. I steered [the canoe] to the tree and stood up to jump. At the same instant, the crocodile rushed up alongside the canoe, and its beautiful, flecked golden eyes looked straight into mine.

Perhaps I could bluff it, drive it away, as I had read of British tiger hunters doing. I waved my arms and shouted, 'Go away!' The golden eyes glinted with interest. I tensed for the jump and leapt. Before my foot even tripped the first branch, I had a blurred, incredulous vision of great toothed jaws bursting from the water. Then I was seized between the legs in a red-hot pincer grip and whirled into the suffocating wet darkness."
Val Plumwood, an Australian feminist and environmental activist who died last year, describes a nearly fatal attack by a saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) in her 2000 essay "Being Prey."

In 1985, in Australia's Kakadu National Park, Plumwood's canoe was repeatedly struck by the crocodile until, capsize imminent, she attempted escape into an overhanging tree. Her attempt failed; the croc took Plumwood underwater and "death rolled" her three times. Incredibly, Plumwood survived the attack. Once she'd managed to surmount the steep bank, her injuries forced her to crawl almost two miles before a park ranger found her.

The terrifying experience inspired Plumwood to ponder the frayed relationship between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom. In the course of doing so, she questioned the usual motivation for adopting a vegetarian diet.
"Although I had been a vegetarian for some ten years before the encounter with the crocodile and remain one today, this knowledge makes me wary of the kind of uncontextualized foundation for vegetarianism that suggests that predation is either a negligible anomaly or an unredeemable ethical deficiency in the ecosystem. The presentation of the food chain as a (potentially) peaceful order ideally subject to nonviolent reconfiguration leads ultimately toward the thoroughly anti-ecological position that the earth is ethically improved by the elimination of predation."
I couldn't agree more. Similar thinking inspired me, five years ago, to become a vegetarian unless I kill or catch the animal myself. Predation is natural, even when we are the prey.

Photo credit: ripped from Virgin Media

Monday, April 06, 2009

A Simple Idea

View of the Catskills from Mohonk Preserve, NY; March 2009
"Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed...We need wilderness preserved-- as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds-- because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simple because it is there -- important, that is, simply as idea."
-Wallace Stegner, 1960
Even those of us who struggle to accept romantic notions of wilderness are moved by appeals such as Stegner's. And with good reason.

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2009