Culture: May 2010 Archives

Louise Bourgeois I do 2010 archival dyes on cloth with embroidery

Louise Bourgeois died this morning. I had hoped, and fully expected to see this magnificent, (can I say ballsy?) artist, and extraordinary human being continue well into her second century, but although she almost made it, it was not to be.

Her art is likely to go on forever however; her legend had already begun years ago.

"I do", an edition of an image of two flowers joined on a single stem designed for the Freedom to Marry campaign, was to be one of her last activist contributions to the world blessed by her presence.

I think I first became aware of her generosity and her personal activism in the early 90's when she agreed to contribute to the ACT UP Art Box (those balls again).

This site includes some wonderful images of both the artist and the artist's work.

[image from eyeteeth]

looking at the light cast from the west toward the stones to the east

As I prepared to leave the apartment this evening to go to the market, Barry reminded me that the phenomenon known as Manhattanhenge was about to light up our east-west street in its semiannual visitation. He said he'd heard on Twitter that it would take place precisely at 8:17. At that moment it was only 8:05, but as I didn't know exactly what I would see when I got outside, I immediately headed out the door.

There I found that our doorman already knew all about our modest urban astronomical occasion, just as he always seems to know everything that goes on inside the building and anywhere in its proximity, so I didn't have the satisfaction of inducting a new member into the cult. I then learned that, if anything, I may have been a moment too late rather than too early. The sun seemed to have already hidden itself somewhere in the Hudson River, but its corona was centered on the street axis and was still able to impede a direct glance.

I turned around to see what the eastern axis of the street might look like, stepped into the middle of the holiday-emptied six-lane thoroughfare, and snapped the picture above. Just as I got to the corner of Seventh Avenue (it was now 8:17 exactly), where the traffic signal was momentarily arresting the progress of the few east-west vehicles, a dozen or so pedestrians suddenly appeared in the crosswalk out of nowhere. Everyone seemed to have a camera and was snapping pictures of the setting sun, all the while totally ignoring the rich golden light momentarily transforming everything behind them, even to the white lane-dividing lines on the pavement.

I'm thinking the original stone-age celebrants on the Salisbury Plain would also have been more interested what the stones made of the sun's rays running east, but there's no way to know for sure. As I told my friend at the front desk, nobody stayed around to tell us.

and looking at the sun positioned in the portal between the western stones

but where's the gray, and, for that matter, the colors of our countless other fallen foes?

And it's not for generals.

It seems Memorial Day is not supposed to be just about hot dogs, the Indianapolis 500, or summer whites. In fact the holiday formerly known as Decoration Day (the official name by Federal law until 1967) wasn't even originally owned by war veterans. While today it commemorates Americans who died in any war throughout our extraordinarily-aggressive, warlike history, it was first enacted in response to the horrors of a civil war. The date itself, now established as the last Monday of May, was originally determined by the month of the final surrenders which marked the conclusion of the American Civil War.

But its disjointed history is actually far from the tidy story which an official declaration might seem to suggest.

What became Decoration Day, and eventually Memorial Day, had many separate origins. Towns in both the North and the South were already memorializing their recent war dead, and "decorating" their newly-dug graves, in spontaneous observances in the years before the 1868 official proclamation by General John Logan, the last national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his "General Orders No.11".

The holiday the general created was first observed on May 30, 1868. Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. That cemetery, incidentally, was located on land the U.S. government had appropriated from Robert E. Lee at the beginning of the war, a development likely to have made an significant impression on the defeated South as much as on the Lee family itself.

Within two decades or so all of the northern states were observing the new holiday, but the South refused to acknowledge it. This should not have surprised anyone, either then or since. Even though the date May 30 had been picked precisely because it was not associated with any battle or anniversary, the observance itself was tainted by its association with the victorious and hated Union.

The various states of the old Confederacy continued to honor their own dead, on separate days, until after World War I, when the holiday was broadened to include not just those who died fighting in the Civil War but Americans who died in any war. Even then, most of the states of the old South still maintained separate days for their own dead, and do so to this day, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

I checked into this history yesterday when I was trying to decide whether I could honorably display the antique 48-star flag I've had for almost 40 years (antique in fact when I acquired it). I had kept it in a Chinese camphor-wood trunk for decades because our flag had come to be associated almost entirely with American jingoism; it had been hijacked by the crazies on the Right. Although I still had my doubts about the direction of this country even after Obama's 2008 victory, I pulled the old banner out and hung it in the apartment last year, on the day of his inauguration, and again a few months later on July 4th.

Bush's wars have now become Obama's wars, and my very tentative interest in flag-waving, even flag-hanging, has (please excuse the choice of word) sort of flagged, although I still find things to love about this increasingly dysfunctional country.

When do we get a holiday celebrating the peacemakers? Of course that's entirely a rhetorical question, coming from a citizen of a country which has almost never not been at war somewhere.

I went to Wikipedia in my search for a quick answer to my question about the original significance of the day we celebrate today mostly as just another excuse for a long weekend. There I learned that one time the holiday many originally associated with uncomplicated patriotic sacrifice did not mean the same thing for everyone, even in the 1860's. In the Wikipedia entry for "Memorial Day: History", I found this very moving and evocative window onto an America which was cursed to know war far better, and was far more weary of and horrified by it than our own:

At the end of the Civil War, communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war or as a memorial to those who had died. Some of the places creating an early memorial day include Sharpsburg, Maryland, located near Antietam Battlefield; Charleston, South Carolina; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, Mississippi; many communities in Vermont; and some two dozen other cities and towns. These observances coalesced around Decoration Day, honoring the Confederate dead, and the several Confederate Memorial Days.

According to Professor David Blight of the Yale University History Department, the first memorial day was observed by formerly enslaved black people at the Washington Race Course (today the location of Hampton Park) in Charleston, South Carolina. The race course had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp for captured Union soldiers in 1865, as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, formerly enslaved people exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them properly with individual graves. They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. The work was completed in only ten days. On May 1, 1865, the Charleston newspaper reported that a crowd of up to ten thousand, mainly black residents, including 2800 children, proceeded to the location for included sermons, singing, and a picnic on the grounds, thereby creating the first Decoration Day

So, the real meaning? I don't think we have agreement even now, and for myself I haven't yet decided whether to pull that faded old cloth from the trunk tonight.

[image of pre-WWI Decoration Day postcard from vintagepostacards]


Barry and I went by Momenta Art last Thursday to preview the raffle and auction artworks available in their annual benefit Wednesday evening, May 26. We'll be there because we want to help a great institution. We're also going because we know we will be taking home a terrific piece, even though right now we have no idea right now what it will look like. Our confidence comes from the space's great curating of donated work, from our own experience in every previous year, and from seeing the entire selection of some 150 works first hand.

It's one of our favorite non-profit arts organizations in the New York area, and we have a number of great pieces in our own collection from earlier benefits. This artist-run non-profit space based in Williamsburg is absolutely as good as they come; they totally deserve and definitely can use our support.

I've put up images from their site of just a few of the over 150 raffle artworks; the next opportunity we'll have to see the entire assemblage (and put together an exciting list) will be at White Columns on West 13th Street beginning at noon on Wednesday. The event itself starts at six, with a performance you won't want to miss soon after that by Guy Richards Smit. Tickets are only $225, and as I'm writing this there it appears there are some still available. Please join us that night.

[images from Momenta]

Man reading Barry's Manchurian Candidate tweet

UPDATE: the artist speaks for himself

As I'm writing this Man Bartlett is in the third hour of his contribution to P.P.O.W. Gallery's Hostess Project, "#24hEcho".

The artist has vowed that for 24 hours he will repeat, into a webcam, whatever we tell him to. "I will be present in repeating your words. I will be your puppet, your sounding board, your refuge. Otherwise, I will be silent."

If you want to part of the performance go to Bartlett's website for further directions.

Barry and I were at the gallery at 7 o'clock tonight, just as he had arranged himself behind his computer, and the tweeting half of our partnership communicated this from his iPhone, an homage to a bit of the history we share:

William Powhida is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life.

The artist will be present until 7 o'clock tomorrow night, and, as they used to say in the darker ages, the lines will be open throughout the night. Help keep the guy company, and see if you can inspire a conversation with strangers.

This page is an archive of entries in the Culture category from May 2010.

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