National Endowment for the Arts & Crafts

It has been ten years since The Onion published its spoof of controversies over NEA-funded antics. By the time it appeared in 2004, audiences were pretty well accustomed to what Hilton Kramer once termed “a jolly rape of public sensibilities.” Writing in 1996, Kramer declared it almost went without saying that the “America-as-merde” tenor of so much recognized art arrives supported by NEA grants. 

That was also the year a professor at Bates College, William Pope, received a $20.000 grant for two performance pieces: In one, he would chain himself to an ATM machine in his underwear. In the second, according to news accounts, he planned to walk around New York City wearing a six-foot long white tube as a mammoth codpiece. This, you recall, followed on the heals Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ of blessed memory and preceded the foofaraw over Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum.

Whatever your position on the benefits of a federal hand in the artsparticularly to individual artists—The Onion piece is an evergreen. It is still fun to read after so many years, so many assaults brought to us with taxpayer dollars.

KANSAS CITY, MO—Republican lawmakers and conservative religious groups blasted the National Endowment For The Arts & Crafts Tuesday, claiming that the organization has allocated federal funds for “obscene crafts.

The $15,000 grant in question was awarded last October to Detroit arts & craftsman Albert Kahle, 39, for a nine-foot macramé penis titled “Father (By Mother),” which is currently part of the Macramazement! exhibit at the prestigious National Gallery Of Arts & Crafts in Kansas City, MO.

“‘Father (By Mother)’ is neither art nor craft,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) said. “It’s trash. The fact that American taxpayers are paying for this kind of lewd handiwork is outrageous.”

The macramé-work phallus comprises three discrete elements: testicles, shaft, and head. The testicles are knotted in Double Alternating Lark’s Head style and decorated with black maple beads. The shaft of the penis, knotted of Tammy’s Hemp Cord in flesh tone, is embellished with subtle strands of Half-Knot sinnet cord in light blue and Amy’s Cord in pale lavender. The head, the most detailed portion of the work, is embellished with a spray of silver glitter.

The Onion’s burlesque description of the art work is a pitch-perfect rendition of what art criticism has been reduced to. When grounds for judgment have disappeared or are dismissed, detailed description is all that is left. Reportage continues:

When expressing the human condition through craft, the craftsman is responsible only to himself,” Sirota [fictional NEAC spokesman] said. “It takes great courage to pick up those popsicle sticks and empty dishwashing-soap bottles and bring something forth out of the ether. The creative space is outside Congress’ jurisdiction.”

The macramé penis is Kahle’s first phallic work of art & craft to receive media attention. His other major works include a shoebox diorama titled “Abe Lincoln In The Bathtub,” a 13-foot-tall newspaper and poster-paint papier-mâché penis titled “What’s Black And White And Red All Over?,” and “Pin(whee)ls,” a collection of 200 pinwheels made of construction paper, pencils, and clippings from pornographic magazines.

“If people took the time to explore ‘Father (By Mother),’ there would be no controversy,” Kahle said. “The piece is not prurient. The true meaning of the piece is located on its head, where glitter was applied with Elmer’s Glue. Every speck of glitter is a tiny mirror reflecting the observer. At end, this piece is about love, sex, birth: what we came from.”

Lurking beneath the satire, is a serious comment on the pretensions of art and the cultural exhaustion they represent. Read the entire piece here. First have fun. Then weep.

Michael Hull, Ex-Pat

Now is it official. There is no need for more speculation about the whereabouts of Michael Hull, the disappearing pastor of Manhattan’s Guardian Angel parish and director of the Sheen Center.

Charles II (Charles the Bad) Preaching to Clerics (14th C.). Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.

The Scottish Episcopal Church has announced the appointment of Dr. Hull as its Director of Studies. He is currently living out his baptismal call by Skype at the Mercer School of Theology on Long Island. The former monsignor conducts classes through the ether from his conjugal home in northern Italy. Now an Episcopalian, he will assume his post in Scotland this January, after semester end at Mercer. This appears on the Church’s website:

The Rev Anne Tomlinson, Principal of SEI said “Dr Hull’s scholarship, experience, pedagogic skills and humanity will bring much to the SEI staff team as together we seek to form people as competent and confident authorized public ministers for the Church of God. I look forward enormously to welcoming him into the SEI community, to working with him and learning from him.”

The Rt Rev Kevin Pearson, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles and Convener of the Institute Council said “This is an exciting time in the development of the Scottish Episcopal Institute. Dr Hull brings a remarkable range of skills to the staff team and to the Scottish Episcopal Church.”

Dr Hull says “I am delighted for the opportunity to serve as the Director of Studies! The optimism of the Scottish Episcopal Church in its missional orientation is palpable. The chance to participate in the formation of women and men for authorised ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Institute and to share in the Church’s mission is thrilling. It is with great joy that I look forward to praying, working and growing with everyone in the SEC and SEI as we strive together to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

We know what Rev. Tomlinson means by the word humanity

The Scottish Episcopal Church, a proud celebrant of diversity, seems tailor-made for this new member of the Anglican communion. It describes itself as a denomination that “delights in its non-established status.” And its liturgies were made in heaven for an ex-priest who not long ago described himself as a card-carrying member of MoMA:

Its patterns of worship are full of drama and colour which link together the experimental and the intellectual.

In the end, Michael Hull has his Sheen Center. (The irony of it! The Center, rumored to have cost at least $20 million, no longer has him.) The only thing left to wonder about is whether Hull came to his new position with a recommendation from the New York Archdiocese. Could any of our episcopate have been that cynical or cavalier? Let us hope not.

No one begrudges Hull his ability to make a living or to continue teaching. But Director of Studies in yet another seminary? An authority intimately involved in the “formation of women and men for authorised ministry”?

Priestly formation takes place within a context of great moral seriousness. It is not the place for a man who brings to the job a middle-aged susceptibility to much younger women. And a taste for lavish digs. (It is still not known where funds came from for the high-end renovation of the Guardian Angel rectory which Hull abandoned shortly after completion.) Both inclinations are askance of the pastoral requirements incumbent on candidates for the ministerial priesthood. So is the chutzpah of a man who apparently feels no need to keep his head down after embarrassing the Church he was committed to serving.

What ever happened to the Scots’ reputation for canniness?

The Vanity of Melancholy

Since social propriety demands that wives wear mourning for their husbands, it is fair that they be reimbursed for their mourning clothes . . . . Since she is legally required to wear mourning but not pay for its cost, it the responsibility of the husband’s heir to provide her with mourning. —From a lawsuit, 1757. Quoted by Philippe Aries, The Hour of Our Death.
My mourning has been quite an inconvenience to me this summer. I had just spent all the money I could afford for my summer clothes, and was forced to spend $30 more for black dresses. —Julia Ward Howe to Louisa Terry, 1846.

Only recently has society undone it historic role and dismantled the protocols of mourning which it had designed and imposed until the twentieth century. Mourning rituals are not addressed to the dead, but to each other. They are a conversation among ourselves—an exchange between the mourner and the community from which the dead have been evacuated.

Young widow with friend at the end of the First World War (c.1918). Postcard

But community in the traditional sense has largely faded. In its place are fluid alliances of atomized individuals clustered, often in the abstract, as interest groups. Members are kin by dint of condition, practice or purpose e.g. the handicapped, transgender, and hedge fund communities. (Or, as I heard on the news some days ago in what has to be the ultimate corruption of the word: “the terrorist community.”) The gathering of witnesses toward whom the conventions of mourning are directed have dispersed. Or gone to the gym to put mortality at bay.

How, then, does a contemporary museum approach the sensibilities of a century in which death was a constant companion? One chastened by an acutely higher mortality rate and lower life expectancy than our own? Should the Metropolitan Museum of Art present mourning costumes as revelatory items of social history, tribal marks that acknowledge the scandal of death? Or can it take the Anna-Wintour-devil-wears-Prada route, and beat the drum for widow’s weeds as chic?

Fashion Plate (1824). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Reference Library.

Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire at the Met’s Costume Institute takes the gauzier route. The tenor of things is all there in the wording. “Death becomes her” is another, somewhat waspish, way of saying, “She looks good in black.” It is a calculated segue into the mentalité of vintage Vogue. On show is the vanity of melancholy, and its use as a screen between death and the living.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition features mourning dress from 1815 to 1915. Since most men of the time wore black anyway, the evolution of mourning garb concentrates on women’s clothing and accessories. Color and fabric follow the prescribed progression from the total black of early grief to the gradual introduction of grays and mauves that signaled a period of half-mourning. It is a compelling subject that angles into history through dress. Going by the posted blurbs, however, fashion trumps the history it embodies.

Gallery view ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unquestionably, garments on display offer compelling testimony to the beauty and craftsmanship of the needle arts. With the single exception of what is deemed a homemade dress, every outfit is an exquisite work from talented, high-end dressmakers or from newly emergent vendors specializing in funeral wear. (Intimate with ever-present death, the 1800s and early 1900s created a busy market for bereavement apparel analogous to today’s bridal trade.)

It is impossible to look at the cut, construction and detailing of these dresses and refuse honor to the artistry of their making. Hold for another day the debate over whether fashion is art. Here, it simply enough to recognize needlework as inherently worthy of the aesthetic attention given to what we flatter with the term fine art. In the medium of fabric, this is abstract art applied to the human figure instead of a canvas.

Detail of mourning dress (1902-04). ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Where the show stumbles is in its staging. There is a campiness to the presentation that undercuts the larger cultural value of its own subject and sets entertainment over history. The exhibit opened the last week in October. Halloween hangs over it like Casper the ghost. A-haunting we will go with projected wall texts that fade in and out, wraithlike. A shadow glides across the words for a few disconsolate seconds before one spectral quotation dissolves into another.

In the main, texts posture for audience effect. A sardonic note slips into the printed materials as if to taunt the objects they escort:

Black is becoming; and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing. —Robert De Valcourt, The Illustrated Manners Book (1855).
When we see young ladies persist in wearing sable, we are reminded of the reply a young widow made to her mother: “Don’t you see,” said she, “it saves me the expense of advertising for a husband.” —D.C. Colesworth, Hints of Common Politeness (1867).
The Scots shut themselves up in total darkness, wear veils, I know not how many folds, but so black that sitting beside them you could not tell whether it is a broomstick dressed up or what it is. —Elizabeth Stuart to Mary Baker, 1856.

Charles Henry Dana. Illustration (1900). Metropolitan Museum of Art

On Halloween night, the Costume Institute celebrated with an invitation to museum-users “to chart their own path through the galleries and join drop-in, interactive experiences with art.” (Not sure what those drop-in experiences entailed; very likely, playing dead was not one of them.) 

The doleful sound of Hildur Guonadadóttir’s cello accompanies the display. The sound track irritated me. Plaintive Icelandic hymns about death suppress recollection of the reasons mourning costumes were in such demand in the hundred years featured here. The nineteenth century was a river of blood. Europe convulsed in revolutions, wars of independence or unification. Americans suffered a Civil War that slaughtered a generation of men. Bereavement came blood-stained; widowhood, rampant. 

Ms. Guonadadóttir’s contemporary cello loops aestheticize death. They insure a detached, secular response to the crisis of mortality which required these ritual clothes in the first place. Any number of appropriate musical alternatives come to the historically minded. For starters: A Mighty Fortress is Our God or The Strife is Over. Brahms’ How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place would do nicely, as would any arrangement of the Twenty Third Psalm. So would Julia Ward Howe’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is more fitting to the time frame of this exhibition than her tart quotation on the wall.

Queen Victoria, a musician herself, loved John Henry Newman’s Lead Kindly Light. Her dress is here; her favorite hymn is not.

Currier & Ives. Departed Worth (19th C.). Museum of the City of New York.

One text makes reference to the agony of the age. But even that skips quickly to cost:

No, I do not dress in mourning. It is seldom worn now; there are so many deaths. But few put it on even when the nearest and dearest relatives die. There is probably another reason for not donning mourning; it is very expensive now. Dress goods, especially imported, are very dear. —Annie Fahs, in a letter written in 1863, during the Civil War

Trembling at the core of respect for the dead is deference toward death itself. In the end, it is ourselves we mourn for. But Ash Wednesday dampens box office.

What Is In A Name?

Every so often some wit writes to advise me of the exquisite consonance between my postings and my last name. So indulge me for a bit while I take a quick run through a complex etymology. Leave out the Gaels; pass over the Normans who anglicized Gaelic names within the Pale. I do not need too much. Just enough to illustrate how beautiful this ancient clan name appears in Gaelic: Ó Maelearchaidh. Phonetically, the Old Irish spelling is identical to the modern variant, Mullarkey. But you must pronounce it with a lilt. Do your best. Listen as you say it. The music of it fills me with regret that my husband had no interest in reclaiming the historic form of his patronymic surname.

To paraphrase Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: “I could have been a Maelearchaidh.”

Banquet of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Hotel Astor. Museum of the City of New York, NYC.

The anglicized version, Mullarkey, appears on British records in Ulster in the 1600’s. Family tradition has it that the Mullarkeys were among the Irish Catholics cleansed from Ulster by Cromwell’s 1652 Act of Settlement. The Act confiscated Catholic-owned properties and sent native Irish east of the Shannon into exile. Dispossessed, the clan was driven onto the poorer soil of Connacht and Clare. Some dispersed to the hard landscape of Mayo, where my husband’s people farmed as best they could amid rock and peat.

Charles Muller. Exile of Irish Catholic Youth (1655). Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon.

Early on in my professional life, I was encouraged to shed my married name. My maiden name was pretty; it had a sturdy British ring to it. No popular banality attached to it. Besides, women were increasingly accustomed to keeping the name they were born with. But I had not chosen my birth name nor the male line that gave it to me. I did choose my husband. I took his name as I took him, a gift. I understood it not an erasure of identity—as feminist thinking had it—but as a sign of the perfection of it. 

We were very young—too young to know that the answer to the question What’s in a name? is: More than you think.

The America Today Murals

Conservatives whaled me for “degrading” America, purists for representing things, and the radicals were mad because I didn’t put in Nikolai Lenin as an American prophet.
                                                Thomas Hart Benton, An Artist in America, 1983
If it’s not art, it’s at least history.
                                        Thomas Hart Benton, New York Times, 1968

But it is art. Incontestably and splendidly so. With the politics and dogmatic arguments of American modernism behind us, Benton’s first mural commission can be seen for the glory that it is. His ten-panel cross-section of American life, America Today—donated to the Metropolitan Museum and on display until next April—is an epic kaleidoscope that embodies the intimacy between visual art and United States social history in the first third of the twentieth century. Here is the restless pulse of the Jazz Age, painted just before an intoxicated nation sobered in realization of the full effects of the 1929 stock market crash. This is the mural series credited with prompting the federal mural project of the WPA in the 1930s. And it put Benton on the cover of Time, 1934.

Thomas Hart Benton, City Activities with Dance Hall (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

A bastion of progressive adult education, the New School for Social Research commissioned the mural series for its board room in 1930. José Clemente Orozco had just received a commission to paint murals for the school’s public dining room and student lounge. Uninterested in the pure fresco Orozco practiced, Benton was eager to experiment with mural techniques on large panels to be installed upon completion. So eager was he that he took no fee for the commission, asking only to be compensated for materials. (“I’ll paint you a picture in tempera if you finance the eggs.”) He was ambitious for stature; America Today achieved it.

It seemed an inspired paring, Benton and Orozco. Both artists were committed to grand themes imbued with social significance. Both counted themselves on the left. Both were the nation’s most prominent spokesmen for mural painting as the premier medium for public architecture. Their work was complementary in intention and technique. Yet Orozco’s New School murals have not aged well while Benton’s retain their persuasive power.

José Clemente Orozco. Struggle in the Orient: Slavery, Imperialism & Gandhi (1930). New School, NYC.

The Mexican painter’s sententious fresco cycle lingers as a visual correlative to the rhetoric of social revolution promoted in the 1920s by editorials in New Masses. Popular in their time, today his murals carry the weight of a blunt instrument. I cannot look at his fervid assertions of the brotherhood of man without thinking of heavy machinery and the Red Army. The sensibility inherent in them hints—despite self-conscious commiseration, devoid of warmth, with the wretched of the earth—at the inhumanity at the heart of the millenarian ideology that inflected Orozco’s art.

By contrast, Benton’s dynamic Instruments of Power, the central panel of America Today, is animated by the ebullience of a decade that witnessed the flight of Charles Lindbergh and the passenger-carrying Graf Zeppelin. Benton understood the motive sources of industrial power—water, steam, electricity, the internal combustion engine—to be, also, the prime movers of an industrial democracy. The Machine Age had no lovelier apotheosis than this. 

Thomas Hart Benton. Instruments of Power (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

While not a member of the Communist party, Benton was a Marxist himself in the early Twenties. His disenchantment with orthodox Marxism came later, as it did to his friends Max Eastman and Sidney Hook. Still, he remained a populist, his cultural leftism refined by a pragmatism that led him to tell the socially-conscious Survey in 1930: 

I realized that the supposed and much-harped-upon standardization of America was a neat descriptive formula which bore only a surface relation to fact. My experience had brought out infinite varieties of ways of living and doing which the formula did not fit.

The hero of America Today is the working man: the farmer, steel worker, construction worker, coal miner. But Benton’s enthusiasm for technology and American vitality was not naive. Coal, below, is an exquisitely rendered depiction of a bleak, back-breaking industry. The panel, aflame with social protest, is the single work that comes close to unrelieved pessimism. The stooped miners, the slag heaps, the shanties on a hill—all in service to a giant electrical plant belching smoke. The artist’s personal ambivalence toward a troubled industry in the Twenties is conveyed through formal means that maintain their aesthetic appeal even while withholding assent from their subject. It is a commanding performance that has few equals in modern painting.

Thomas Hart Benton. Coal (1930-31). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Benton’s preparatory drawings for the murals are exhibited in a room adjoining the reconstructed board room setting. These are a feast in themselves. He had a firm hand, drawing with force and expressive intensity. Master of the classical essential—line—he brought to it a bold confidence that endowed with life every form he modeled, from machine parts to the human figure. His drawings obey William Morris Hunt’s dictum: “Draw firm! And be jolly!” Spend time with them. They tell us why Ingres referred to drawing as “the probity of art.”

Thomas Hart Benton. Dancer (1930). Whitney Museum, NYC.