Out of the Office

Just a quick note to tell you that I’m going to be gone all day tomorrow. I am off to the Antiques Roadshow, where I am most definitely not looking forward to standing in line most of the day. But it is a good opportunity.

There will, of course, be a birthday post in the morning. I know that, because I’ve already written it. I don’t expect to be back until very late, given that the show tomorrow is a two hour drive away. So I wouldn’t expect anything other than the birthday post tomorrow.

Normally, I would write a few other articles for tomorrow, but I’m much too busy with other things and I have to get up way too early. But if you get really bored, you know there are almost 4,000 articles on this site. Over 300 just on film. Another 100 on music. Roughly 150 on books and such. Over 2,000 on politics. And much else! Even I don’t know what I’ve written about. So dig in while I stand in line at the Antiques Roadshow.

Update 6 June 2014 (8:23 pm)

Wow, I wish I had more time to write. There are some great stories that I’d love to talk about. I assume this is about our out of control Drug War, Ex-Brooklyn DA Accused of Funneling a Whole Lot of Money to Political Consultant. And this is delicious and I actually have a lot to say about it, Sarah Palin Advises Bowe Bergdahl to Buy Rosetta Stone, Learn to Speak “KickAss.” Briefly: Palin has this typical conservative view that the way to win wars is to simply kill every person. I’ve heard this statement so many times, “They wouldn’t let us win the Vietnam War.” Yeah, I know. We could have “won” the war by dropping a hundred nukes on the country. That’s not the purpose of war. It’s sickening that people like Palin (And many more) think that it is.

David Brooks: Obama Was Right—Except

David BrooksNormally, I just pass by articles by David Brooks, because really, what is the point? But this one was pure click bait with the title, President Obama Was Right. It was, of course, about Sgt Bowe Bergdahl. And the middle of it is really quite good. It is an excellent example of why most liberals give Brooks way too much credit for being reasonable. He points out what almost no other Republican will: we are in a war with the Taliban—they are not terrorists; swapping troops is what we do, even when the troops are dead; it is not true that the deal makes Americans less safe. But he errors at the beginning and then especially the end of his column.

At the beginning, he talks about how all of the ostentatious acts of patriotism are necessary in this country because we are so diverse. Well, I guess the case can be made. But this is not what I think is going on. I think these acts of patriotism are part of divisiveness. I think it is mostly conservatives trying to make the case that they are the real Americans and we liberals are just America-hating interlopers. There are a few reasons I think this. One is how conservatives generally go apoplectic at the thought of taking out “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. Another is all the confederate flags I saw when I went to a NASCAR race. Another is how the people who think themselves most patriotic—the Cliven Bundy militia types—clearly hate the actual America and are only patriotic to some mythical America that seems mostly to involve keeping blacks in their place.

Bowe BergdahlBut most of all, I hate these ostentatious acts of patriotism because they remind me of Gertrude in Hamlet saying, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” I don’t think that the British find such displays embarrassing and avoid them in their own country because they are one people. I think they are just a lot more secure that they all stand together. Maybe it’s because of World War II. We haven’t really had a war here in the United States against another country for about 200 years. Regardless, all the chanting of “We’re number one!” just makes me think these people secretly fear that we aren’t. Personally, I think my kind of patriotism where I think we are and are not number one is the best. This is home, and I do love it—for good and bad. I don’t think all the flag waving proves people love the country and it certainly isn’t what binds us together. (Note: some of the biggest flag wavers want to secede from the union.)

Brooks started his column talking about this, so he could then complain that President Obama should have used the Bergdahl deal to bring the country together:

Most of all, the Obama administration can be faulted for not at least trying to use the language of communal solidarity to explain this decision. Apparently, we have become such a hyperindividualized culture that it is impossible to even develop an extended argument on how individual cases fit into the larger fabric of the common good.

Really Brooks?! Because I think that’s exactly what he did. He said, “We still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity—period—full stop.” I don’t see much television, and yet I’ve seen this a dozen times:

What is Brooks getting at? That the president should have held a press conference and laid it out, “To start with, we are one country. And the army is part of that country. So all together, the civilians and the army are one country. We are one. We have to stick together. Because, as I said, we are one. United we stand. Am I right?! So we had to get this prisoner of war—who is one of us—back from the enemy. Now you may have heard some things about this guy that you don’t like. Well, we have a couple of traditions David Brooksin this country. One is that you are allowed to think what you want. Another is that you are innocent until proven guilty. So just to summarize: we are one; Bergdahl is one of us; we got it back; God bless America!”

Is that what Brooks wanted? Does Brooks think that this would have made even the smallest change in the Republican reaction to the prisoner transfer? Of course not! This was just Brooks doing what all Republicans always do: he was complaining about Obama no matter what he does or says. But I will give Brooks credit for understanding that the Bergdahl deal is (1) a prisoner swap and (2) uncontroversial.

Maybe next week, Brooks can write a column about how Obama is right to love his kids, but that he really ought to be using that love to convince the Republican House to pass the Dream Act.

Bernard Frouchtben’s War Painting

Bernard FrouchtbenMy father is a construction contractor, but not the kind you probably think of when you hear the term. He actually built houses and small apartment buildings all alone, except for subcontractors for plumbing and electrical as well as the occasional helper (including me). And during a remodel of a very expensive house 15 years ago, the owner gave him a painting that had been sitting out in her carport. I don’t know why she gave it to my father other than that she didn’t want it. Maybe she thought he would like it because it does have to do with war and my father did fight in the Korean War. But my father took it and kept it in much better shape than the original owner had.

About five years ago, I discovered the painting and it fascinated me. It was so different from anything I had ever seen. I have even coined a term for it: idiosyncratic art. Artists can do a lot of things for us art lovers, but by far, the greatest thing they can do is provide us with an image of who they are. I would say that this is true of some of my favorite writers like William Burroughs and Cervantes. And that seems to be the case with the creator of this painting, Bernard Frouchtben.

There is not a lot of information around about Frouchtben, but all of it is quite positive for reasons that you will see. He was an amateur, listed as a cabinet maker, which is interesting given my father’s background. But he was part of what became something of a movement in the middle of the 20th century: self-taught art. Now it is usually referred to as American Primitive, mostly because of the huge success of Anna “Grandma” Moses, whose work is rightly celebrated for its charm. But I think there is something missing from her work: depth. It’s pleasant, but that’s all. It reminds me very much of amateur painting that was done around the time of the Revolutionary War. I think see deserves her reputation, but it bothers me that almost no one remembers Frouchtben whose work is so much more edifying.

Last month, I wrote an article about him, A Brief Intro to Bernard Frouchtben. In it, I presented a black and white copy of what is probably his most famous painting, Lonely Man on a Lonely Road. Here it is again:

Lonely Man on a Lonely Road

According to Sidney Janis in They Taught Themselves, “The mottled, light-filled, grey blue clouds descend to the horizon where the color deepens to blue, and, merging with the greens of the distant landscape, filters through the maze of trees in peacock colors.” I would love to see the painting in color! But I don’t think it would take away from the lonely feel of the painting.

Florence and Julius Laffal in American Self-Taught Art, described Frouchtben as, “Personal loss may have led him to painting. His style was representational, expressionistic. The artist’s subjects were daily life, history, nature, sadness, people.” John Fabian Kienitz noted in a review of Janis’ book, “In the case of Bernard Frouchtben, the ego appears worth knowing. Here is a man whose later background is one of tragic circumstance. He has rare ability. He is able to transfer his deep personal sorrow to words and oil with graphic and pictorial directness. Frouchtben is the sort of man for whom van Gogh painted his philosophy of beauty as healing force. He is a man worth saving. And it is in his calling our attention to such lost souls that Mr Janis makes his contribution to the literature of contemporary art.”

I am very interested in that sentence, “He is a man worth saving.” Because the painting my father has was so mistreated that it was very nearly lost. And it is in terrible condition now. Part of the canvas is torn and parts of the paint have cracked badly. Apparently, it can be restored properly to its original glory. Even a proper cleaning would show it to be a far more striking piece than it is now. But here it is, which I think provides perhaps a quarter of what you can get out of seeing the painting in person. And that in turn is at most a quarter of what it was originally. It is sad, but it is also a wonderful work of art, even in its current condition:

Bernard Frouchtben - War Painting

Tomorrow we go to the Antiques Roadshow. I’m not all that hopeful that anyone there will be able to tell me anything new about the painting or the artist. I give it a 20% chance. But you never know. Regardless, I will report on the experience here. We are taking three other interesting pieces: two paintings and a great pen and ink drawing by a somewhat famous artist. But it is Frouchtben that I most care about.

Ada Rehan, Shaw, and Shakespeare

Ada RehanLast night, I read a review of a production of As You Like It in 1897. It was written by George Bernard Shaw and the focus was on Ada Rehan in the part of Rosalind. He’s very fond her. I would even go so far as to say that he might have a bit of a crush on her. But much of the review is about how he doesn’t actually know if she can act. And the reason he doesn’t know if she can act is that he always sees her in the same part, just with a character of a different name in a different play.

He wrote of Rehan, “I must live in hope that some day she will come to the West End of London for a week or two, just as Rejane and Sarah Bernhardt do, with some work of sufficient novelty and importance to make good the provincial wear and tear of her artistic prestige.” This rather reminds me of William Goldman’s contention that the only thing that matters in a screenplay is structure. And before film, I think that was largely true of the theater. Thankfully today, the theater is more likely to produce actual interesting characters.

One of my biggest complaints about the way people idolize Shakespeare is that they will gush about the great characters that he created. To this, I always respond, “And what characters would those be? I would certainly like to know.” Yeah, in some of the tragedies there are some characters that begin to be something other than standard parts going back to the ancient Greeks. But in the comedies? Come now!

Shaw loved Shakespeare (As do I!) but he wasn’t blind his many weaknesses. In his discussion of Rehan, he wrote:

But when I think of those plays in which our William anticipated modern dramatic art by making serious attempts to hold the mirror up to nature—All’s Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and so on—I must limit the tribute to Shakespeare’s popular style. Rosalind is not a complete human being: she is simply an extension into five acts of the most affectionate, fortunate, delightful five minutes in the life of a charming woman. And all the other figures in the play are cognate impostures. Orlando, Adam, Jacques, Touchstone, the banished Duke and the rest play each the same tune all through. This is not human nature or dramatic character: it is juvenile lead, first old man, heavy lead, heavy father, principal comedian and leading lady, transfigured by magical word-music. The Shakespearolators who are taken in by it do not know drama in the classical sense from “drama” in the technical Adelphi sense. You have only to compare Orlando and Rosalind [As You Like It] with Bertram and Helena [All’s Well That Ends Well], the Duke and Touchstone [As You Like It again] with Leontes and Autolycus [The Winter’s Tale], to learn the difference from Shakespeare himself. Therefore I cannot judge from Miss Rehan’s enchanting Rosalind whether she is a great Shakespearean actress or not: there is even a sense in which I cannot tell whether she can act at all or not.

Yesterday, I was listening to an interview with Stephen Sondheim about Sweeney Todd, and he talked about how for over a hundred years, the title character was just this evil man. It wasn’t until 1970 when the British playwright Christopher Bond took the character and provided him with motivation. In other words, he turned it into a revenge play. The revenge play was around in Shakespeare’s time, of course. That’s what Titus Andronicus is, after all. But Shakespeare’s plays do an especially bad job of providing motivation for female characters, who are basically just four types: passive youth, quick witted youth, whore, and old hag. And as much as I love the dialog that Shakespeare wrote for Beatrice, once in love, she is not much different than Hero.

Above all, I hate the idea of Shakespeare as theatrical or literary broccoli. My impression is that most people who claim to like Shakespeare don’t appreciate it enough to much enjoy it. And fundamentally, we keep seeing the plays and movies because the performers love them. And it is true now if it wasn’t in Shaw’s time: actors commonly turn standard parts into something much greater. Certainly, Kenneth Branagh did that for Iago in Othello. But even Ian McKellen couldn’t overcome the Snidely Whiplash depth of his character in Richard III. It’s all still very much enjoyable. But great and edifying? Rarely.

Nathan Hale’s One Life

Nathan HaleYou may remember back a couple of years that Eric Cantor celebrated Labor Day by tweeting out, “Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.” It really was a shocking thing, but it tells you everything you need to know about the modern Republican Party: they just hate workers. They are the royalist party, if you will. John Adams would be so pleased. Bearing this in mind, it is Cantor’s birthday, so let me just say: today, we celebrate those who have taken an intellectual risk, worked hard, did something important with their lives, and earned their own success rather than being born into the upper class like Eric Cantor.

On this day in 1755, the American soldier and spy Nathan Hale was born. In September of 1776, shortly after the Continental Congress finally got around to declaring war, Hale volunteered to go into New York, behind enemy lines to find out what the Brits were up to. Within a week, he was captured by the British because someone ratted him out. I’m most fond of the story of him being tricked by a British soldier into revealing himself. Hale was, after all, only 21. And one of the hardest lessons that I learned in life is that you really can’t trust people who you don’t have a very long history with. People will use the smallest advantage against you; and sometimes they will harm you when it does them no good at all. So it’s a cautionary tell, young readers: a week after his capture, Hale was hanged by the British.

He is best remembered for his comportment before his hanging. It is now widely claimed that he said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” A British officer wrote at the time, “He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.” That is interesting, given that his assignment was not an order; he volunteered for the job.

But there is something I don’t especially like about that comment: the idea that any order ought to be obeyed. It’s not surprising that the Nazis used this same excuse for many of the terrible things that they did. But the truth is that this is more or less what all soldiers are expected to do. I know they are now given certain exceptions that they shouldn’t commit war crimes and such, but none of that would stop them from being court-martialed for not following orders. Chelsea Manning, famously tried to work inside the military system and was ignored. And now she is doing 35 years in prison.

It has been suggested that Hale actually quoted Joseph Addison’s play, Cato:

How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.

That strikes me as very much like Horace, “Dulce et decorum est propatria mori.” Still, I’m not going to fault any young man who goes to his death with such dignity. Even if his death was, as a practical matter, pointless.

Happy birthday Nathan Hale!