I recently saw the Paul McCarthy installation, “White Snow” at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. I have long been a fan of his installation, performance and videos that use fairy tales and pop culture as jumping off points for a broad based skepticism and outright antagonism towards America’s consumerism, individualism, its hyped up reverence of artistic genius, its hypocrisy, denial and sexual repression. In this latest piece, McCarthy has an even larger canvas than usual in the immense old and beautiful 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall—reminiscent of 19th-century European train stations, to demonstrate why he is one of our generation’s great dystopian artists. Roberta Smith of the NY Times calls him our Hieronymus Bosch. Criticized as being ‘childish’, scatological as well as for his gratuitous violence and sexuality, McCarthy, in my opinion, has taken his artistic cues from others who have peeled back our culture’s smiling façade and revealed something quite darker. McCarthy, Paul Krasner and his fornicating Disney characters, the underground comic artist S. Clay Wilson and Bruce Nauman’s clown videos all seem to share the same dark comic stage with the great clown teacher Jacque LeCoque’s buffoon, an outcast adept at mocking the established order in ways bordering on the fetid and insane.
Please cross your fingers, eyes, whatever. We’ve submitted our National Endowment for the Humanities Media Makers Production Grant. If awarded, we will produce 13 new shows and 52 podcast beginning September of this year all around the topic Utopian/Dystopian. Our thanks to an incredible team of writers, scholars et al for their help including, but not limited to, our Producer, Natalie Jablonski, Michael Siegel, AS220’s Bert Crenca, Cynthia Langlykke, Aaron Peterman and Cheryl Kaminsky and our advisor/evaluator, John Voci. As anyone who has ever submitted an NEH proposal knows, writing is only one part of relatively arduous procedure that involves organizing countless letters of support, going over and over the budget, making sure the work plan, narrative and budget match etc. Again, our sincere thanks to all who made this submission seem comparatively effortless.
This blog would have been written and published a bit earlier but, its writer, me, got the flu, or rather it got me. I was not only amazed at the strength of its force, but of how fast it traveled, from city to city and from person to person. Once again, our connections to one another was made explicit, as it was, even more so, in 1918 when another, much, much more deadly flu virus traveled the globe killing approximately 25,000,000 people.
Here’s our show on the subject: http://actionspeaksradio.org/1918-the-flu-epidemic.
As we are sliding into a new year, I’ve been thinking lately of my father’s birth, 100 years ago on January 14th, 1913, the first of four sons born to parents who had recently emigrated from Smolensk, now part of Russia. He was born in Brooklyn, probably above, behind or inside a laundry that his parents would have owned. 1913, the year of his birth… How was he to know… How was anyone to know, that at the time of his birth, a movement in arts, culture and technology was forming that was to have a major impact on changing how he, his children and his children’s children would think and live and what they would see and hear?
In 1913, the time of my father’s birth was also the birth or at least the formative years of Modernism. Trains and cars, streetcars and factories created a cacophony of sounds, a seemingly anarchistic collage of sense impressions and a pace of life faster and less comprehensible than anything anyone had ever before experienced. Ford’s first assembly line began that year. The Armory Show established European impressionism and cubism as the most prescient description of a world of multiple and often conflicting narratives and of a place where one simply refused to ‘stand still’. Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ demonstrated the effects of film on perception and this painting, of a freely moving nude body, was an empowering challenge to Art’s stationary, gazed upon and posed female nude as well as brusque farewell to the mask of Victorian morality. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring debut provoked boos and battles as the loudness and at times dissonant sounds of the City made their way into concert halls whose patrons wanted to still believe that they lived in a world where gentility filled their lives and wallets. But the anarchist-socialist Wobblies knew better and in 1913, built a union and a strike among Patterson , New Jersey Silk workers as their cross industry, cross cultural model shot fear into the ‘late robber barons’ as they joined with the intellectuals and Avante-Garde artists of Mabel Dodge’s 5th Avenue salon to create a pageant that would raise support for the strike and for the then Utopian, eight hour day.
Samuel Levitt, my father, benefiting from a free government funded college and law school education became a lawyer and lived in a world charged by Modernism’s skepticism for the past and confident that change was for the better. As we enter into the Centennial of both my father’s birth and so many defining moments of modernism, it seems increasingly difficult to believe that change is always for the better and now seem perched between the dual themes of our next season’s Action Speaks; the Utopian and Dystopian. However, as we approach the New Year, we feel sure about one thing about our world, articulated so succinctly by the early Modernist philosopher and economist, Karl Marx, ‘All that is solid, melts into air…”