Friday, June 17, 2005

"Was Harvey Dyslexic?"

"Was Harvey dyslexic?"

The question crackled to me over a walkie-talkie, from the Opus 40 gift shop.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, he was," I said. "But why....?"

"Some visitors just asked," Sue said over the walkie-talkie. "You should come and talk to them."

It was a family, a mom and kids, including a ten-year-old boy. The mother asked, "Has anyone ever asked you that before?" I said no, this was a first. She explained that her son was dyslexic, and that he too was a talented sculptor.

Harvey was lightly dyslexic, and reading was a slow process for him. This gave rise to one of my beloved childhood memories. In the evening, Barbara and Harvey would sit upstairs, next to the big picture window overlooking Opus 40, and she would read to him: Gods, Graves and Scholars by C. W. Ceram (the pseudonym for his friend and neighbor Kurt Marek), Kon-Tiki and Aku-Aku by Thor Heyedahl, Stonehenge Decoded by Gerald S. Hawkins and John B. White, the historical novels of Mary Renault and Mika Waltari. And spoofs on history, like 1066 and all that: A memorable history of England, comprising all the parts you can remember including one hundred and three good things, five bad kings and two genuine dates by Walter Carruthers Sellar, and The Weans by Robert Nathan.

I wish all the luck in the world to the young dyslexic sculptor and his nurturing family.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Arts Funding in Europe and America

A lengthy excerpt from a much longer article by William Osborne, all of it worth reading

As an American who has lived in Europe for the last 24 years, I see on a daily basis how different the American and European economic systems are, and how deeply this affects the ways they produce, market and perceive art. America advocates supply-side economics, small government and free trade – all reflecting a belief that societies should minimize government expenditure and maximize deregulated, privatized global capitalism. Corporate freedom is considered a direct and analogous extension of personal freedom. Europeans, by contrast, hold to mixed economies with large social and cultural programs. Governmental spending often equals about half the GNP. Europeans argue that an unmitigated capitalism creates an isomorphic, corporate-dominated society with reduced individual and social options. Americans insist that privatization and the marketplace provide greater efficiency than governments. These two economic systems have created something of a cultural divide between Europeans and Americans.

The divisions between American and European arts-funding models are best understood if one briefly considers the changes that have evolved in U.S. economic policy over the last 30 years. Except for the military, there has been continual political pressure to reduce government. Even though the government’s budgets have continued to increase, arts funding has been particularly vulnerable to cuts. By 1997, the NEA’s funding was close to half its former high, and has only slowly regained some of its lost ground.


In its purest form, America’s neo-liberalism would suggest that cultural expression that doesn't fit in the marketplace doesn't belong at all. For the arts, the alternative has been to maintain a relatively marginalized existence supported by gifts from corporations, foundations and the wealthy. A system similar to a marginal and elitist cultural plutocracy evolves. This philosophy is almost diametrically opposed to the tradition of large public cultural funding found in most of Europe’s social democracies.


In culturally isomorphic societies, thought is less and less likely to move outside a pre-configured set of paradigms. In the 20th century, for example, we saw a culturally isomorphic essentialization of art in the "Gleichschaltung” of the Third Reich, in the Social Realism of the East Block, in the “Cultural Revolution” of Maoist China, and to an increasing extent in the mass media commercialization of culture in America. [7] Like the political divisions of the 20th century, these aesthetic orthodoxies reduced human expression to systemic concepts that tend toward the formulaic and reductionist. Since narrowed perspectives make it difficult to confront aspects of reality, a culture of self-referential rationalization evolves.


In the spirit of their mixed economies, Europeans would argue that many forms of artistic expression cannot be positioned or relativised within the mass market or its fringes. For them, culture must be communal and autonomous. They often see American culture as hegemonistic -- a totalizing and destructive assault on the humanistic, cultural and social structures they have worked so long and hard to create.

A general sense of the different perspectives concerning communal identity can be illustrated with an example now widely discussed in the States. Many Americans have seen how corporate-owned strip malls and Wal-Marts have deeply affected their cities and towns. The old downtown areas are abandoned as customers move to corporate businesses on the edge of town. Communal identity and autonomy, which are an important part of cultural expression, are replaced with a relatively isomorphic corporatism.

Europeans struggle to maintain a different model. Most cities and towns have thousand year histories that are reflected in the architectural and other cultural treasures of their various municipal centers. They employ zoning laws and other regulations, as well as public education, to protect their cities from the Wal-Martization that would be caused by embracing American-styled neo-liberalism. Europeans have large department stores and the occasional K-Mart, but their influence is kept within balance. They would consider the losses to their cultural identity caused by corporate uniformity to be too great.

.... Far from making music even more commercial, the European response has been to create a balance with public arts funding. In Germany, for example, cities with more than about 100,000 people often have a full-time orchestra, opera house, and theater company that are state- and municipally owned. A good deal of funding for these groups is set aside for new music. Europeans also administer this arts funding locally, and not from a remote Federal organization such as the NEA.

... In Germany, classical recordings compete strongly against pop. This is not merely a matter of history or coincidence. Europeans use their local public cultural institutions to educate their children and this creates a wide appreciation for classical music. The popularity is also based on a sense of communal pride. They support their local cultural institutions almost like they were sports teams. European society illustrates that music education leads to forms of creativity and autonomy that are often antithetic to mass media. The European view is not based on elitism or a dismissal of popular culture, but on an understanding that an unmitigated capitalism is not a seamless, all-encompassing paradigm - particularly when it comes to cultural expression.

...Germany, for example, has one full-time, year-round orchestra for every 590,000 people, while the United States has one for every 14 million (or 23 times less per capita.) Germany has about 80 year-round opera houses, while the U.S., with more than three times the population, does not have any. Even the Met only has a seven-month season. These numbers mean that larger German cities often have several orchestras. Munich has seven full-time, year-round professional orchestras, two full-time, year-round opera houses (one with a large resident ballet troupe,) as well as two full-time, large, spoken-word theaters for a population of only 1.2 million. Berlin has three full-time, year-round opera houses, though they may eventually have to close one due to the costs of rebuilding the city after reunification.

If America averaged the same ratios per capita as Germany, it would have 485 full-time, year-round orchestras instead of about 20. If New York City had the same number of orchestras per capita as Munich it would have about 45. If New York City had the same number of full-time operas as Berlin per capita it would have six. Areas such as Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx would be nationally and internationally important cultural centers. The reality is somewhat different.

If America’s Northeastern seaboard had the same sort of orchestral landscape as Germany, there would be full-time, year-round professional orchestras (often in conjunction with opera houses) in Long Island, Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, Camden, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, Providence, and Boston. California would have about 60 full-time, year-round professional orchestras. Like Germany, the U.S. would suffer from a shortage of good classical musicians. There would be little unemployment for these artists. With that much creativity, it is unlikely Americans would stick to European repertoire and models. Even with half the German ratios, a starkly American musical culture would evolve that would likely change history.

It is also essential and informative to place these numbers in the context of the dismal social conditions in almost all major American cities, since these are areas where classical music would normally thrive. A recent article in The New York Times, for example, notes that Philadelphia has 14,000 abandoned buildings in a dangerous state of collapse, 31,000 trash-strewn vacant lots, 60,000 abandoned autos, and has lost 75,000 citizens in recent years. [10] Regions such as the south Bronx, Watts, East St. Louis and Detroit, just to name a few, show that Philadelphia is hardly an exception. The populations living in our dehumanizing ghettos are measured in the tens of millions. It seems very likely that the problems with arts funding in America are closely related to the same social forces that have caused the country to neglect its urban environments. This naturally leaves many Europeans wondering why America is so intent on exporting its economic and cultural models.

The problems of arts funding are seldom the topic of genuinely serious and sustained political discussion. The cultural and political system has become so isomorphic that most Americans do not even consider that alternatives could be created to institutions such as network television and Hollywood. With only one percent of the military’s $396 billion budget, we could have 132 opera houses lavishly funded at $30 million apiece. (That much funding would put them on par with the best opera houses in the world, and as noted, likely lead to forms of expression more distinctly American.)

The same sum could support 264 spoken-word theaters at $15 million each. It could subsidize 198 full-time, year round world-class symphony orchestras at $20 million each. Or it could give 79,200 composers, painters and sculptors a yearly salary of $50,000 each. Remember, that’s only one percent of the military budget. Imagine what five percent would do. These examples awaken us to the Orwellian realities of our country and how different it could be. Given our wealth, talent, and educational resources, we are losing our chance to be the Athens of the modern world.


Another example of the loss of intelligent discourse is the discussion surrounding the current proposed $18 million increase for the NEA. This sum represents only seven-thousandths of one percent of the proposed 2005 U.S. budget, a number almost too infinitesimal to comprehend. And yet the topic is once again being opportunistically exploited as a political battering ram.

In Europe, by contrast, funding for the arts is a central platform of every major political party. Lively and varied artistic expression is considered one of the most important forums for national discourse. Politicians literally search for opportunities to speak about the arts because it is politically advantageous. The dialog is generally intelligent, meaningful, and carefully considered.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Tomas Penning

Two great sculptors, neighbors, friends...Harvey Fite and Tom Penning. The James Cox Gallery, which owns the greatest selection of Penning sculptures, is presenting an exhibit of Penning's work from June 19-July 31, opening reception June 19 2-5 p.m.

This is not to be missed. Not for anything.

Why Life Is Good

Driving home last night, down the twists and turns of John Carle Road, I turn on the radio, intending to switch over to WFAN and get the Mets score, but I can't touch the dial. It's NPR, it's Tim Coakley's jazz show. And I'm listening one of those things that remind me of why I still love life. I don't recognize it at all. It's got a big band sound, but not Basie, and too Dionysian for Ellington. It's got the swinging driving riffing quality of rhythm and blues, but it's not Hampton, not even close. And it's too modern. And then these solos, each one different, and each one wilder - not just emotionally, but musically too. And I still don't even come close to recognizing it, but I just keep listening, transfixed. The very first time I got blindsided by the radio like this (with jazz, I mean - there were rock and roll moments) was in college, when I didn't yet know what jazz could do to you, and suddenly it was just me and the radio and John Coltrane with the Red Garland trio. I went out and bought the album, lost it years later in a move, found it in a used record store in the Seventies, but it was fifty bucks and I couldn't afford it. Then Peter Jones gave me his copy, and I still treasure it, although at the moment my vinyl is in a closet that a piece of furniture has been shoved against, and I can't get to it. But it's safe in there. Most recently, and this goes back several years, Branford Marsalis' late-night jazz show on NPR, and it was Tito Puente's Golden Latin Jazz Ensemble Live at the Village Gate, driving late, alone -- maybe down John Carle Road that time, too. I bought that one, too, on CD this time, followed by a lot more Tito Puente.

And I don't buy much music any more, but I'll get this one, because fortunately Tim Coakley identified it. Johnny Varro Swingin' on West 57th Street. How have I never heard of Johnny Varro before? AllMusic Guidesays he's been around since the 50s. They also peg him as a swing musician, which he is, but that doesn't begin to cover it. Here's a direct link to the album, which has great cover art as well. My advice - even if you download music, buy this one. We should be supporting our living jazz treasures.

Then I switch over to WFAN, where the game is still on, due to a rain delay, and I hear Gary Cohen's inspired call of Marlon Anderson's pinch-hit, game-tying inside-the-park home run.

So life is still good. You heard it here first.

Friday, June 10, 2005

You're Writing About What?

my brother Jon and I are ard at work on the novel which I tend to describe as “a comedy about McCarthy era.”

Most common response? “What could be funny about that era?” Well, even back then, there were folks who found humor in it. Funniest of all, probably, was The Investigator, now available in its entirety on the Internet, a radio play by Canadian playwright Reuben Ship in which McCarthy dies in a plane crash, and starts investigating subversives in heaven. And you can find humor in anything if you're callous enough.

Still, it's true, that period remains harder to laugh at than some. Relatively few people even today are going to chuckle indulgently and say "Heh, heh, that Elia Kazan -- what a joker!"

Another interesting response, which I got today: "Is there a market for that?"

Interesting in that the answer is invariably "Yes and no." You are essentially always doing something there's no market for. There's a market for art in general - there are going to be a certain number of paintings bought and sold every year, a certain number of literary novels published. But your novel, or your painting? In a word, no. Maybe after the fact, but not before or during.

You can go to a publisher and say, I want to write a bio of Truman - and he'll say yeah, there's a market, or no there isn't. An editor may even come to you, and say "Richards, the time is right for a book on the 69 Mets, or global warming...or 9/11." But you can't sit down and think, "I know - people have been looking for a good story about little three-foot-tall creatures trying to decide what to do with a magic ring -- the first person to write that one will make a mint."

It's only later, if the novel is good enough, that everyone starts saying, "Hey, you gotta read that book about the Catcher in whatever - it really tells it like it is about teenagers and phonies."

Or, "Hey, you gotta read that comic novel about the McCarthy era.”

Monday, June 06, 2005

Poetic Thoughts

Coleridge said of Alexander Pope that his work was "characterized not so much by poetic thoughts as by thoughts translated into the language of poetry."

I don't know for sure whether this was true of Pope, although it may have been, to some extent. But it's a brilliant observation about what makes great poetry, and what makes great art.

Many years ago, we made up a coat of arms for Harvey, in a lighthearted moment. If I can find a copy of it anywhere, I'll post it here. But we needed a Latin motto. Harvey decided that he wanted it to be a Latin translation of the phrase "To speak in stone." We came up with in lapidem dicere, which according to my online translator is a butchery, but what do they know? I knew more Latin then than I do now; I probably knew more Latin then than they do now.

Anyway, I believe that Harvey did speak in stone. His original concept for what became Opus 40, when he first began it as a series of pedestals for large carved outdoor sculpture, was that his carved pieces would represent what was called in those days "The Brotherhood of Man." Harvey believed in one world, he believed in working for world peace, he believed that we are all one family.

A year or so before he died, my brother Jon interviewed him, and during the course of the interview he said that he supposed his original concept had gotten lost when he made his dramatic decision to remove the carved pieces and continue with Opus 40 as an immense abstraction. But I don't think so.

I believe that one can "speak in stone" in representational sculpture, and that Harvey did. But in making his commitment to what Opus 40 became, I believe that he found the way to express sculptural thought, rather than expressing thought translated into sculpture, and that Opus 40 is his true statement of his beliefs, and everything he held dear.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Banks of the Hudson

The song that John Hall and I wrote is now out as a single, and the album will be out shortly. To hear an MP3 download of it, go to John's website.