Monday, June 5, 2006

Monday with McKenna:Hooray for American art

I fully realize we've been coming on rather strong lately here at Daily Rev. There is, after all, a certain urgency to our moment in history: the Earth is under a petrochemical assault that the oil-fed neocon hegemony will not acknowledge except to produce TV ads in which carbon dioxide emissions symbolize Mom, apple pie, bunny rabbits, and Hallmark emotions. Murder, war, and institutional thievery rage on a scale unseen for at least a generation in American government. For those of us with children, it is not a time of celebration and breast-beating complacency; but rather of a certain dread and a grim resolve.

But while we work to take back our government and media from the grip of corporate obesity, we also need to take back our own center; to recover, if you will, what is truly "fair and balanced" within us, as individuals and as a nation. For as Mark Morford reminded us recently:

The wise ones tell us that whatever you focus on, expands. Wherever you direct your attention and wherever you put your energy and your heart and your concern, that thing will suddenly seem bigger and more important and potentially all-consuming. Is your attention excessively on death and corruption at the expense of laughter and perspective? That is your reality.

So this week at Daily Rev, a review of what's promising, positive, encouraging, and illuminating about American life, culture, art, and yes, even politics (and for a very encouraging international story, check out the news of the escape of the "singing nuns" of Tibet). We begin here with Terry McKenna on art.

Well, after months of muckraking, Brian suggested a time out to celebrate what is positive in America. So I thought I’d have a go at art.

I’m interested in the 50 years from 1920 to 1970. During this period, America’s place in the world changed utterly. Before 1920, Americans looked to Europe for culture. By the 1970’s, Europe and the Japanese visited the US to soak in the current scene. I’m also stopping in 1970, because by then, American Art began to put on “airs.” For the visual arts and classical music, art has since retreated to the academy, the concert hall and the museum. Thus, where in their heyday, most Americans had heard of the likes of the conductor Leonard Bernstein, or of painters Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol (or for that matter Andrew Wyeth), the current generation of similar artists are known only by their peers.

If you want to understand this period of American Art, start with the picnic. For as much as the artistic soul may require bouts of personal suffering, the production of art comes when we have abundance. And the picnic stands in for much of where Americans parted company with Europeans.

The European picnic began in the 17 century when aristocrats gathered their friends (and their fine china) for elaborate luncheons in the countryside. This picture is from pre-revolutionary France. It depicts a luncheon after the hunt.

Like much of European “high” art, this picnic was designed for members of the ruling elite. I’m sure the meal was delightful, and the conversation stimulating. But I doubt that either Brian or I would have been invited.

Contrast this with the American picnic (the following is an undated picture probably from the turn of the last century).

These people could be either middle or working class. They were in their Sunday best, but other than that, the scene is familiar.
We can tell some things from the picture. The event itself is comfortable, but not grand. There do not appear to be any servants in attendance. (There are servants in the French picnic.) Beyond what we can know from the picture, we would expect abundant but common food (baked bean, corn and lemonade – but no foie gras or oysters). I would assume everyone pitched in to set up and serve – and also to clean up. Whatever conversation they had would probably be no different than that around the family dinner table. And folks like my grandparents would have been invited.

Now to the art itself.

The Musical and The Great American songbook

After WW1, America entered its first era of self confidence. Europe was captivated by American Jazz. And American movies became a common cultural denominator. Musical theater was taken over by a number of new composers who wrote sophisticated music which at the same time was popular and sing-able. Jerome Kern was one of the first. In style, he was a link to the operetta tradition that preceded Broadway. Two of his better known musicals were Show Boat (still performed today) and Swing Time. Cole Porter was another early composer. Although his shows are still performed, his most important legacy is songs like What Is This Thing Called Love?; Night And Day; and Just One Of Those Things. By the 1940’s, composer Richard Rodgers began a long collaboration with wordsmith Oscar Hammerstein. Their first work together was Oklahoma, a work that transformed Broadway and in its wake all musical theater. Before Oklahoma, musicals were glorified reviews - but from that point on, characters had to be real.

Taking the show tunes and also hits from Tin Pan Alley*, a new generation of singers came to the fore. Singing before a microphone, they brought conversational expression to singing. Starting with Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey (and Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday) the era peaked with Frank Sinatra, whose best work remakes the art song into an American genre.

The era faded in the 50’s and was overthrown by the Beatles. But we continue to look forward to the creation of new musicals to provide a certain kind of bold expression not available in any other art form.

The Great American Songbook also remains alive as a body of songs that are both a monument to their era – and a focus for continued study by musicians intent on performing with the earnest emotion that was the original intention of the composers.

Action Painting

Big canvasses, slathered in paint. This is what happened with American painting after WW2. Our nation had just come out of the great depression and as a people, we were flush with victory. A generation of painters came to the fore with brash new works that redefined how paintings would continue to be made. After they had their say, European modernism slipped into the background. The first slide is from Jackson Pollock who was the most celebrated of his peers.

Then we have Willem DeKooning (my personal favorite). Let’s look at 2 of his best – and not say anything.

Even if you don’t know what to make of these pictures, you should try to remember that until this time, paintings were done with small brushes in the traditional way. A 30” x 40” canvas would have been considered large. After this era, artists bought canvas by the roll and paint by the gallon.


Are movies art? I don’t know. But they are expression. And they are a form of expression seen around the world. Americans invented movies and the Hollywood that fills movie houses around the world with films to show. Our movies have always been made for the world, and actors from around the world have always come to Hollywood to be a part of it. In the 30’s and 40’s we received refugee actors from France and Germany. In the current era, many Asians come to see if they can make it. A recent Sony picture “Memoirs of a Geisha” was an American film with Chinese actors, interpreting an Japanese themed book.

So.. are movies art? I don’t know, but I know that around the world, people look to Hollywood for images of virility and glamour.

—T. McKenna


*Tin Pan Alley (the name given for the small studios along Broadway where aggressive you songsmiths turned out hits for popular consumption… The last of the Tin Pan Alley composers were probably the likes of Carole King, Neil Sedaka who toiled in the Brill Building.

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