American Gothic: a state visit to Britain for the first couple

‘The most famous painting in American art’: Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) .

‘The most famous painting in American art’: Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) . Photograph: The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

The US’s most famous, and most parodied painting is about to visit London for the first time. We examine the many interpretations of Grant Wood’s masterpiece

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American Gothic – the long-faced couple standing sentry before their wooden house in apron and overalls, pitchfork in hand – is the most famous painting in American art. It is instantly recognisable to millions of people from Oregon to Osaka who hardly know its name, still less that of the painter.

In its comparatively short life (it was made in 1930), Grant Wood’s masterpiecehas become one of those rare paintings that are constantly quoted in spoofs, advertisements, movies and cartoons, so familiar they can be readily invoked in a quick sketch or even just by one detail, such as the arched window. Even if we do not know its title, American Gothic is by now as proverbial as the Mona Lisa, The Starry Night and The Scream, a point not lost on parodists who have Photoshopped Van Gogh’s stars into the Iowan skies above that pointed roof, introduced Leonardo’s Lisa into the family romance and even married Grant Wood with Edvard Munch. A Gothic Scream flipbook is available – two for the price of one – that morphs the stern midwestern farmer into the Norwegian screecher.

But is he in fact a farmer, this man from whose powerful hand the pitchfork grows like a tree? It would be an understatement to say that opinions have differed over the years. For this stupendous image – apparently as plain and direct as the small-town Iowans it portrays, apparently as simple as the summer setting – turns out to be uniquely controversial and mysterious. Is it a celebration of these hardworking folk, upright in their moral values, steadfast against the terrible deprivations of the Great Depression, as so many Americans have believed; or is it slyly satirical? Is Wood painting a hymn of praise to his neighbours in Cedar Rapids, or sending up their strict narrow-mindedness? When the painting flies into this country, centrepiece of America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s at the Royal Academy, many British viewers will have their first chance to decide. For American Gothic lives mainly in reproduction, intensely memorable even to those who have never seen it in person. Its staying power is exceptional in every respect, for the painting has never before left the United States.

It is the clarity of the image that strikes first: neat as a pin, well made as the wooden house, pristine as the woman’s ironed pinny. Everything fits and everything is in perfect order. Flat, graphic, meticulously detailed, as rigidly frontal as a Renaissance portrait, each part so crisp and distinct, it is no wonder Wood’s painting lends itself so well to reproduction (and jigsaw).

Here is an American Eden of blue skies and plump trees, peopled by a pinched Eve and a work-hardened Adam, their labours rewarded by sheer survival, their virtue enshrined in the church-like facade behind them. It appears to be almost a primer of rural life. But some see the man as a hellfire preacher rather than a farmer, his pitchfork the prop for some pitiless sermon; others view him as a small-town clerk, home from work and out in his denims to hay the cows in the barn.

The woman is his supportive wife, stiff as her pioneer husband; or perhaps she is his maiden daughter, whose honour he is defending with that pitchfork (Robert Hughes’s goatish opinion). Perhaps, with her antique brooch and outmoded braid, she really believes in old-fashioned values; or maybe she is about to bolt from this prison, the telltale curl of hair escaping like a sign of the future.

From a Time magazine cover to a backdrop for Walter and Skyler White of TV’s Breaking Bad, American Gothic has inspired hundreds of parodies.
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From a Time magazine cover to a backdrop for Walter and Skyler White of TV’s Breaking Bad, American Gothic has inspired hundreds of parodies.

They are a sanctimonious pair, probably unforgiving Republicans, straitlaced as their clothes, with no music in their life; or they are the opposite: American heroes, prairie puritans carrying on the spirit of the founding fathers, living the hard life but never giving up – even during the disastrous drought of 1930, when there was practically no hay to pitch.

Every opposing interpretation has spawned a spoof, and even the spoofs have their imitations. American Gothic has become arguably the most parodied painting in history. Lyndon and Lady Bird, Ronald and Nancy, Bill and Hill, Barack and Michelle, Barbie and Ken, Homer and Marge, Kermit and Miss Piggy (the cameo brooch now showing a porker) have all stood in front of that facade, as Donald and Melania surely will if they haven’t already. The building is almost as famous as that other White House; the painting cannot resist partisan politics. And every time these spoofs appear, proposing the dour duo as representative Americans of one stripe or another, they communicate the beautiful lucidity of the painting, with its dovetailed composition, and yet the mystery of it too.

About its origins, and the painter, a great deal is known. Grant Wood was born in Anamosa, Iowa, in 1891. He was only 10 when his father died and his mother moved her small family to Cedar Rapids. Here he went to boarding school, laboured for dimes in a metal shop, and eventually managed to get himself into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1913. His early paintings of the rolling Iowan landscape are appealing, if anonymous, but in the 1920s he made four trips to Europe and was stunned by the northern European painters he saw there, particularly in Munich. He admired Dürer, Van Eyck and Hans Memling; his paintings learn from their stark frontality, intense precision and simplicity of form. He was even dubbed the Iowa Memling by the New York art writer Lincoln Kirstein…

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https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/feb/05/american-gothic-grant-wood-royal-academy-spoofs

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Walt Whitman on Donald Trump, How Literature Bolsters Democracy, and Why a Robust Society Is a Feminist Society

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“America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.”

In 1855, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) made his debut as a poet and self-published Leaves of Grass. Amid the disheartening initial reception of pervasive indifference pierced by a few shrieks of criticism, the young poet received an extraordinary letter of praise and encouragement from his idol — Ralph Waldo Emerson, the era’s most powerful literary tastemaker. This gesture of tremendous generosity was a creative life-straw for the dispirited artist, who soon became one of the nation’s most celebrated writers and went on to be remembered as America’s greatest poet.

In the late 1860, working as a federal clerk and approaching his fiftieth birthday, Whitman grew increasingly concerned that America’s then-young democracy had grown in danger of belying the existential essentials of the human spirit. He voiced his preoccupations in a masterful and lengthy essay titled Democratic Vistas, later included in the indispensable Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).

Both Whitman’s spirited critique of American democracy and his proposed solution — which calls for an original and ennobling national body of literature as the means to cultivating the people’s mentality, character, and ideals — ring remarkably true today, perhaps even truer amid our modern disenchantment and dearth of idealism, accentuated by the spectacle of an election season.

Literature, Whitman argues, constructs the scaffolding of society’s values and “has become the only general means of morally influencing the world” — its archetypal characters shape the moral character and political ideals of a culture. Long after the political structures of the ancient world have crumbled, he reminds us, what remains of Ancient Greece and Rome and the other great civilizations is their literature. He writes:

At all times, perhaps, the central point in any nation, and that whence it is itself really sway’d the most, and whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypal poems. Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance,) of American democracy. Few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.

[…]

In the civilization of to-day it is undeniable that, over all the arts, literature dominates, serves beyond all — shapes the character of church and school — or, at any rate, is capable of doing so. Including the literature of science, its scope is indeed unparallel’d.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

Lamenting the vacant materialism of consumer society, Whitman writes:

We had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in.

[…]

Our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results… In vain have we annex’d Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endow’d with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.

[…]

To take expression, to incarnate, to endow a literature with grand and archetypal models — to fill with pride and love the utmost capacity, and to achieve spiritual meanings, and suggest the future — these, and these only, satisfy the soul. We must not say one word against real materials; but the wise know that they do not become real till touched by emotions, the mind.

The savior of the nation’s soul, Whitman insists, is not the politician but the artist:

Should some two or three really original American poets, (perhaps artists or lecturers,) arise, mounting the horizon like planets, stars of the first magnitude, that, from their eminence, fusing contributions, races, far localities, &c., together they would give more compaction and more moral identity, (the quality to-day most needed,) to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties, and all its hitherto political, warlike, or materialistic experiences.

Art by Maurice Sendak from his 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, his darkest yet most hopeful book

In a sentiment that makes one shudder imagining what the poet would’ve made of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, Whitman writes:

I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.

[…]

America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain’d nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dilettantes, and all who shirk their duty, who are not doing well… America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without…

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https://www.brainpickings.org/

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The Camera Technology That Turned Films Into Stories

John Wayne dressed as a cowboy directs the filming of "The Alamo" in 1960.

John Wayne directs during the filming of “The Alamo” in 1960

A modest invention that prevented celluloid from tearing helped make modern cinema. An Object Lesson.

by HENRY GIARDINA

In the late 19th century, filmmakers had a problem they couldn’t have anticipated: how to make a film that lasted more than a few seconds without tearing. In film’s earliest days, this had hardly been an issue. Film was a novelty, and brevity was part of the appeal. It offered spectacle, like glimpses of Annie Oakley shooting or prizefighters competing in the ring—sights people would never be able to see in person.

But after the initial shock wore off, the public wanted something more. They began to understand what it was film had to offer: The seeds of fiction were planted in these short, performed events.

Before film was art, it was machinery. It took years for film to get the kind of legal protection that the other, more prestigious arts enjoyed. In the early days, it was technology, protectable only by patent. As a result, film, as a product, was strange and vulnerable, subject to duping, sabotage, and all kinds of strange patent traps set by Thomas Edison to keep independent filmmakers from gaining power.

Edison hadn’t invented the technology behind the moving picture. In the 1880s, the photographer Edward Muybridge created a sequence of images that, if viewed together in rapid succession, simulated movement. The first functioning camera and projector likewise didn’t come from Edison, but the Lumière Brothers. Edison refined and commercialized their invention, turning film’s focus toward storytelling and away from documentary. He also thought globally. By the mid-1900s anyone with a camera could produce—or just copy—films. Distributing them was another matter. That, Edison knew, was where the money was.

* * *

Enter the Lathams—a father, Major Woodville (a Confederate) and his hard-living sons Otway and Gray. In their quest to film a boxing match and screen it for a paying audience, they invented the Latham Loop, a way of pulling film through the threading device of the camera gently enough not to tear the sprockets—and more importantly, a device that enabled the film to gently spool over from back to front, allowing for longer films. Their projector was called the Eidoloscope, and it had the instant advantage over Edison’s competing product.

From 1891 onward, Edison had tried to corner the new, lucrative market for films. By 1894, he turned to the Lathams, who had asked for financial help in creating a device allowing for longer pictures, with the aim of projecting filmed boxing matches for admission. In 1895, they were successful. In May of that year, as Dan Streible documents in his book Fight Pictures: Boxing and Early Cinema, the Lathams screened a fight between “Young Griffo” and Charles Barnett in New York City in a widescreen format.

The Lathams continued to screen spectacles for the public, until the money ran out. Edison’s protégé, W.K.L. Dickson, distanced himself from both the Lathams and Edison in 1895, just in time to form his own company. He’d call it Mutoscope, soon to be known as Biograph, the studio that would produce some of the most influential narrative films of the early century, among them Birth of a Nation in 1913.

Edison didn’t like competition. His nickelodeons, or “peep shows,” were all the rage in the early aughts, before the problems of screening films for large audiences had been fixed to anyone’s satisfaction. But when the competition started heating up, Edison turned to his patents to squeeze the market. He’d intimidated filmmakers out of competing against him in previous years, so much so that there were more French films on American screens from 1906 to 1909 than American ones.

Edison went further in 1908, by creating the Motion Picture Patents Company, or Film Trust. By joining forces with the other big studios of the day (Dickson’s Biograph excluded) he’d hoped to exert his power against burgeoning independent filmmakers by patenting every part of the film camera down to the sprocket holes. Independent filmmakers didn’t have much in the way of legal recourse against the Edison machine. The Sherman Antitrust Act had passed in 1890, before the earliest films had an audience. Copyright laws wouldn’t take motion pictures under protection until 1912.

But Edison had forgotten something: Dickson’s long-held grudge. Dickson side-swiped Edison, coming up against him with his ownership of the Latham Loop, which Edison, in his rush to power, had somehow forgotten about.

By 1908, the Loop was integral to any film projector and camera—as it remains today. It had been patented by 1902 by Woodville Latham, only to be then sold on the cheap to Ansco (Anthony and Scoville Co.) when the Lathams were running low on money. In 1908, Dickson and Biograph bought up the patent and used it to beat Edison and the MPPC at its own game.

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https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/01/latham-loop/512687/

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Mesmerizing GIFs Illustrate the Art of Traditional Japanese Wood Joinery — All Done Without Screws, Nails, or Glue

Traditional Japanese carpentry, whether used to build a dinner table or the entire house containing it, doesn’t use screws, nails, adhesives, or any other kind of non-wooden fastener. So how do its constructions hold together? How have all those thousands of wooden houses, tables, and countless other objects and structures stood up for dozens and even hundreds of years, and so solidly at that? The secret lies in the art of joinery and its elaborate cutting techniques refined, since its origin in the seventh century, through generations and generations of steadily increasing mastery — albeit by a steadily dwindling number of masters.

“Even until recent times when carpentry books began to be published, mastery of these woodworking techniques remained the fiercely guarded secret of family carpentry guilds,” writes Spoon & Tamago’s Johnny Strategy. If you find it difficult to grasp how simply cutting two pieces of wood in a certain way could unite them as if they’d grown together in the first place, have a look at a Twitter feed called The Joinery, run by a young enthusiast who has collected a great many of these carpentry books. He’s used them, in combination with mechanical design software skills presumably honed in his career in the auto industry, to create elegantly animated visual explanations of Japanese carpentry’s tried-and-true joinery methods.

Archdaily points to the work of architect Shigeru Ban as one example of how this “uniquely Japanese wood aesthetic” has survived into the modern day, but the man behind The Joinery imagines even more ambitious possibilities: “3D printing and woodworking machinery has enabled us to create complicated forms fairly easily,” he tells Spoon & Tamago. “I want to organize all the joinery techniques and create a catalog of them all,” so that anyone with the tools might potentially make use of their beauty and sturdiness in hitherto unimagined new contexts. And so another traditional Japanese craft that has looked doomed to outmoded oblivion, what with all the more advanced and efficient fabrication and construction techniques developed over the past 1400 years, may well thrive in the future. To learn more about the art of joinery, you’ll want to explore this 1995 book, The Complete Japanese Joinery.

梨くずしの逆組み継ぎ Nashi-kuzushi-no-gyaku-kumitsugi

via ArchDaily

http://www.openculture.com/2017/01/mesmerizing-gifs-illustrate-the-art-of-traditional-japanese-wood-joinery.html

 

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Art to inspire: Ali Smith, Alain de Botton and others on the works they love

Untitled (c1995) by Etel Adnan.
Adnan is now in her early 90s, but her art remains among the best work being created in the world today’ … Untitled (c1995) by Etel Adnan. Photograph: Michel Nguyen/Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Hamburg/Beirut

Got the January blues? To kick off a series dedicated to culture that can uplift us in 2017, six writers and creators from the worlds of music, philosophy, fiction and art choose the works they can rely on to replenish their energy for life

Gilles stands there in his bright white clown suit wearing shoes with pink ribbons. He’s looking ahead, not smiling, but not running away either. He has a job to do, a life to live, a person to be. And, whatever he may be feeling inside, he presents himself to the world, ready for whatever life is about to throw at him, with his straw hat tilted back, hands at his sides. There he is, an ordinary hero, in the moment before the rotten eggs hit his spotless suit.

I call him Gilles, the name by which he has long been known, although the Louvre, which owns this painting by Antoine Watteau, now simply calls it Pierrot, the clownish character from the Commedia dell’arte. Other characters from this stylised form of Italian theatre gather behind Gilles, who is raised on a kind of earthen stage. It adds to the sense that Gilles is on his own, separated from the crowd by his sensitivity and self-consciousness.

If you want inspirational art, I could show you paintings that call for revolution, or promise a new heaven and a new earth, or even raise the dead. If you want a utopia, try Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, the spiralling, Tower of Babel-like structure he unveiled in 1920 to symbolise revolutionary hope. Or there are Christian visions of renewal and eternal life such as Mattias Grunewald’s Resurrection, with its revelatory burst of colour that looks both psychedelic and somehow psychotic. And for the ultimate image of success against all the odds, there is Caravaggio’s Raising of Lazarus.

Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles, by Antoine Watteau.
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An ordinary hero … Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles, by Antoine Watteau. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

Yet I find art’s more extreme images of belief and hope not so much inspiring as terrifying. Gilles moves me precisely because he is not a zealot, nor a warrior on horseback, nor a martyr dying in agony, nor any of the other images of murder and suicide that have been offered as “inspirations” by artists in the service of state or church. He is just a person trying to be himself, whoever that is, and his delicate mixture of placidity and soulfulness, confusion and calm, is an image of how to be human in the actual world we inhabit with all its mystery, play-acting and comedy.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a song, a film, a poem or a painting. All works of art have the power – if they are soulful or profound or just very funny – to fill you with energy, optimism, hope and zest. Aristotle, the first person to think seriously about art’s purpose, claimed that watching a tragedy was a “cleansing”, a catharsis that purified your soul. So seeing the stage covered in bodies at the end of Hamlet is the best emotional detox you can have.

This is what makes art so much more valuable than some inspirational video or self-help book. It does not feed us fake remedies for life’s ills. Instead, it speaks to our innermost selves in a way we recognise as true. What it tells us is that other people feel like we do, that we are not alone. “He was despised and rejected of men,” goes the line in Handel’s Messiah, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” It is one of the most inspiring of all musical uplifts – and it works by accepting and transcending pain, rather than denying it. All kinds of art can provide the inspiration we need, and it is a sustenance like no other. It might be Leonard Cohen’s singing about tea and oranges in Suzanne. It might be the catharsis of Ramsay the sadist getting eaten by his own dogs in Game of Thrones. Or it might be a rococo painting of an introspective clown.

Watteau did not paint this oddly inspiring image by chance. It reflects his belief that clowns and lovers are the true heroes of life. This spectacularly gifted artist was born in 1684 in the France of Louis XIV. His early paintings are sombre records of the suffering caused by the wars The Sun King fought to assert his glory. The art favoured by Louis was grandiose and serious. Watteau led a rebellion against this pomp, creating a fantasy world that is the opposite of pious or militaristic. Instead of battles, he depicted picnics: his art says life is meant to be enjoyed. In this, Watteau looked ahead to the 18th century and the Enlightenment, which rejected religion and put its faith in science and reason.

In 1776, the ideals of the Enlightenment were enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, entitling everyone to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Watteau was dead by then, but his paintings of young men and women seducing each other in sensually soft woodlands are manifestos for these rights.

He even painted a utopia, to stand against all art’s Last Judgments. The Embarkation for Cythera shows the start of a pilgrimage of love. On a green shore fluffed by delicate foliage, lovers holding flowery staffs are pairing off and heading for a boat to take them to the island of the sex god Venus. These pilgrims do not worship God, and the sea in the background is like a lake of perfume, swathed in clouds of candy-floss mist. If you know what life is worth, Watteau is saying, you will look for heaven on earth. Gilles may not be much of a fighter, but he stands up for one thing: his right to be himself.

‘This taught me to value the everyday’

Philosopher Alain de Botton on Chardin’s Woman Taking Tea

Woman Taking Tea by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.
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Art can show us the merit of life as we are forced to lead it. … Woman Taking Tea by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Photograph: Bridgeman

If images in advertising carry a lot of the blame for instilling a kind of sickness in our souls, then the work created by artists can reconcile us with reality and reawaken us to the genuine – but too easily forgotten – value of our lives. Consider Chardin’s painting Woman Taking Tea. The sitter’s dress might be a bit more elaborate than is normal today, but the painted table, teapot, chair, spoon and cup could all be picked up at a flea market. The room is studiously plain. And yet the picture is glamorous – it makes this ordinary occasion and the simple furnishings seductive. It invites the beholder to go home and create their own live version. The glamour is not a false sheen that pretends something lovely is going on when it isn’t. Chardin recognises the worth of a modest moment and marshals his genius to bring its qualities to our notice…

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https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jan/01/art-to-inspire-ali-smith-alain-de-botton-and-others-on-the-works-they-love

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The Polar Bear: An Empathic Illustrated Invitation into the World of One of Our Planet’s Most Vulnerable Creatures

thepolarbear_jennidesmond6A largehearted celebration of the science behind the life and times of the Arctic’s furry monarch.

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote 150 years ago in his ode to the spirit of sauntering. But in a world increasingly unwild, where we are in touch with nature only occasionally and only in fragments, how are we to nurture the preservation of our Pale Blue Dot?

That’s what London-based illustrator and Sendak Fellow Jenni Desmond explores in The Polar Bear(public library) — the follow-up to Desmond’s serenade to the science and life of Earth’s largest-hearted creature, The Blue Whale, which was among the best science books of 2015.

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The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the science behind it — its love of solitude, the black skin that hides beneath its yellowish-white fur, the built-in sunglasses protecting its eyes from the harsh Arctic light, why it evolved to have an unusually long neck and slightly inward paws, how it maintains the same temperature as us despite living in such extreme cold, why it doesn’t hibernate.

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As in Desmond’s previous book, the protagonist moves through the story wearing a crown reminiscent of Max’s in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are — whether conscious or not, a delightfully apt allusion.

Beyond its sheer loveliness, the book is suddenly imbued with a new layer of urgency as we witness the nightmarish absurdity of a new president who is vowing to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form,” beginning by appointing a science-denier as its chief administrator — an agency built on the wings of Rachel Carson’s tireless advocacy, nurtured for generations, and responsible for whatever environmental consciousness America does have. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls on solely on parents and educators. Desmond’s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection…

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https://www.brainpickings.org/

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There Is a Crack in Everything, That’s How the Light Gets In: Leonard Cohen on Democracy and Its Redemptions

Art by Leonard Cohen from Fifteen PoemsSelf-portrait by Leonard Cohen from Fifteen Poems

A generous reminder that we must aim for “a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.”

Trained as a poet and ordained as a Buddhist monk,Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 10, 2016) is our patron saint of sorrow and redemption. He wrote songs partway between philosophy and prayer — songs radiating the kind of prayerfulness which Simone Weil celebrated as “the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

One of his most beloved lyric lines, from the song “Anthem” — a song that took Cohen a decade to write — remains what is perhaps the most meaningful message for our troubled and troubling times: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” It springs from a central concern of Cohen’s life and work, one which he revisited in various guises across various songs — including in “Suzanne”, where he writes “look among the garbage and the flowers / there are heroes in the seaweed,” and in the iconic “Hallelujah”: “There’s a blaze of light / In every word / It doesn’t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah”.

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen

Nowhere is this interplay of darkness and light more nuanced, nor more prescient, than in Cohen’s song “Democracy.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western world was ablaze with the euphoria of a blind faith that democracy was coming to the East. I was there — that’s not what happened. Cohen, too, saw things differently. Ever the enchanter of nuance, he foresaw the complexity and darkness that this reach for light would unravel, and he captured it in this iconic and astonishingly timely song. It begins:

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s coming through a crack in the wall

In his 1991 conversation with journalist Paul Zollo, found in Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — the source of Cohen’s wisdom on inspiration and work ethic, and his most illuminating interview — Cohen pulls back the curtain on his creative process and discusses the nature of democracy, how he wrote the song, and why he chose to leave out certain verses, even though he considered them lyrically good.

Today, as the world’s greatest superpower elects a bigoted bully with fascist tendencies for president, many of the lines Cohen left out pierce with their pertinence — lines like “Concentration camp behind a smile” and “Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay? / Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?”

A quarter century ago, Cohen speaks to our time with astonishing prescience — for any great artist is at bottom a seer in dialogue with eternal human problems — and tells Zollo:

I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song. It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy. So I wanted to have that feeling in the song, too.

Using songwriting itself as a laboratory for democratic discourse, Cohen wrote several verses he chose to leave out of the final song. He gives as an example a verse in which he explored the relationship between black and Jewish people:…

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https://www.brainpickings.org/

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