29 December 2011

New Orleans World War II Museum


The World War II Museum (also known as the D-Day Museum) is in New Orleans solely because of one guy, without whom the Allies would have either lost the war or gone about winning it in an entirely different way, and with whom I have a feeling of affinity based on shared names:
Andrew Jackson Higgins.

Probably no relation.
He designed the boats that were used on D-Day, and he lived in New Orleans and built his boats there. Hence the New Orleans connection.

Now, since this blog is supposed to be about art, I'm only going to tell you about one aspect of the Museum. It is a remarkable, sobering, informative place to visit and I highly recommend it. But I want to talk here about the use of art -- specifically, film -- in narrating human tragedy and horror.

Throughout the museum, there was a kind of visual theme in the use of film installations that I've not seen much elsewhere: the use of split screen. There were lots of small/short installations showing and/or narrating important moments of the War, such as the invasion of Normandy, and they all used split screen in one way or another.

Then there was the big highlight film, so important that visitors can buy a ticket for just the movie and skip the museum (or, as in our case, pay for both; but you don't just get the movie thrown in with museum admission). It's called Beyond All Boundaries, and it stars (if that's the right word) Tom Hanks. It's called a "4-D Experience" -- which wikipedia helpfully notes is not actually, geometrically, 4-dimenional -- involving chairs that shake, the actual nose of a bomber plane lowered in front of the screen, a real anti-aircraft gun, etc. While it is not 4-dimensional, it is a very powerful physical/emotional experience designed to put the viewer either into the position of a solider on the front lines or into the mood of some back home waiting in agonized suspense for news of the beloved solider on the front lines.

I'm a bit confused where to go from here. That's because I'm a bit confused about the purpose of such a film. Is it to make us sad that such an awful thing happened? Proud that our country survived such horrors? Impressed with the technology of the film? I felt some of each of those.

Then there's also the question of making art -- to make money -- out of suffering. Now, I don't suppose this one was designed to make money. And even though the admission price was the same as that of a normal movie theatre, I don't suppose it was for profit. Do you think this is an example of the cheap exploitation of suffering for the sake of something bordering on entertainment? I'm not sure.

On the other hand, part of what humans need to do in the face of horrors is to pass along the stories of those who suffered, in an attempt to preserve their memories and the enormity of what they accomplished. This film does do that.

What do you think?


On a related note, I do think that so-called 4-D is the wave of the future. I think we'll probably keeping combining 3-D visuals with more and more special, physical effects until that's the movie norm. Although you'll see from this list that the U.S.A. is way behind Asia and England in using these techniques.

It may be a while yet, but I'm guessing Huxley was right.

28 December 2011

New Orleans Three Jazzy Nights


During our stay, we went to three different venues for live jazz. We could hardly have experienced more variety, or a better cross-section of the historical and current styles of jazz, in such a short time. I'm going to write about them in the order that makes most sense for the points I'm making, rather than in the order in which we went to them.

The Davenport Lounge at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel
The Ritz is, fittingly, a very beautiful, stylish hotel. The public spaces—lobbies, reception, etc.--are all made of white marble. At this time of year, they were resplendent in gold and glass decorations, adding to the glitz and glitter of the place. The Davenport Lounge is a kind of glorified sitting-room and bar combination, with live music most nights. It is nicely decorated, as well, in mostly gold-and-white Victorian and faux-Georgian armchairs and loveseats.

But neither the music, nor the crowd, befitted its environment.

I haven't spent much time around drunks, and certainly not well-dressed drunks in an expensive hotel. They're really, really stupid. When the band played swing, they slowdanced. When the band played blues, they tried to swing. When the band played cha-cha, they cha-chaed to some beat other than the one the band played: flamboyantly, foolishly, with a kind of pathetic sensuality that made me rather ashamed of my species.

And the band was of that most watered-down kind of slightly syncopated pop that calls itself “jazz” mostly because there's a saxophone in the ensemble. It was the hotel's headliner group, Jeremy Davenport, and was about as spicy as iced tea sitting in the sun with all the ice cubes melted. Sappy, smooth, a little too loud, a little under-talented, very under-trained, but the kind of music that goes down easy when you've had a few (I suppose) and when conversation means more than music. So much for the classy venue.

The Spotted Cat night club

One evening, we walked all the way down Decatur Street through the French Quarter and beyond, where it turns into Frenchman Street. This is, apparently, where the locals hang out for real jazz and maybe some dancing. Um-hm, it was real jazz! And there was some dancing, too. The band was called “The Orleans Six” (quite original name for drums, bass, clarinet, trumpet, guitar, and piano, eh?), and they were hot. They were just playing standards, nothing original as far as I know, but they were a tight group, and they were swingin'. For most of the time we were there, locals were also swinging: swing-dancing in a tiny space between the band and the bar. It was a small, smokey, cramped place, but full of good feelings and great music.

So that was an example of the best of what jazz can be today: the old songs, still just as lively as ever, with some creativity in the instrumentation and a little bit of an update to the sound.
And how many clubs sport a piano in the ladies' room?!

Preservation Hall

All week we kept saying that we had to get to Preservation Hall to hear the old-time jazz. Finally we stood in a long line, then crammed into the back of the tiny hall with its stripped plaster walls, where we stood on weary feet to hear the best of the jazz that there is to be had in that city of the best of the best of jazz.

This band of sax, trumpet, tuba, trombone, snare, and drums might as well just have been put into suspended animation in about 1940, then woken up just long enough ago to practice up to their peak again. Man, were they good! They played the oldest of the traditional stuff, with other lively, silly tunes mixed in: “You Are My Sunshine,” “Jambalaya,” “Jingle Bells,” “Summertime,” and others I didn't know. I've always hated the saxophone, but that old guy cured me. His saxophone was the sweetest, smoothest, most crooning sound I've ever heard. It was more like a string instrument than any sax I've ever heard. And he could flutter his fingers and hold out a note, and just play that thing for all it was worth. Indeed, each player was just having tons of fun with his instrument. The trombone player drew out his slides as long as he could; the tuba player made noises like an elephant, or like a rude kid; the snare player crashed on his neighbor's cymbals when occasion called. It's impossible to describe the sheer fun of this concert.

Part of the joy came from the requests that the audience shouted out, accompanied by $2.00 for each song. They passed the money forward, and the trombone played draped it lovingly over a tin hat. Sometimes the band didn't know the songs that the audience requested, because the audience was a bit ignorant of the provenance of the tunes they wanted to hear. A young boy asked for “anything by Duke Ellington,” but they said, “We don't play the Duke. We only play the real traditional stuff: the beginnings of jazz, the stuff that got the Duke going.”

They ended the concert with a parade of the brass instruments through the audience, around that tiny crowded hall, with much cheering and delight.

If you ever go to New Orleans, then, you can experience Jazz as it is, as it was, and as it should be!

New Orleans Swamp Tour



OK, there's not really any way to make this post fit the "faith and art" theme of this blog! -- except to say that God's creation really does lick art hollow sometimes. After that very disappointing visit to the New Orleans Museum of "Art" yesterday (quotation marks mine), as we set out on the swamp tour into the misty beauty of the bayous, I said, "Wow, forget about art."

But as usual, it's not that simple.

We had a most marvelous day, photographing egrets, herons, turtles, and alligators. We didn't see any big alligators; they're asleep for the winter already. The more energetic young ones stay out and about when it is so cold that the great-granddaddies cannot function. Alligators don't technically hibernate, but they sleep all winter with a heartbeat of one pulse every 3 or 4 minutes! Their metabolisms slow down so much during that time that they can't eat: even if you forced food into their mouths, they wouldn't have enough energy to swallow it. Anyway, we only saw those that were about 4 feet long or less.

The really fun surprise came at the end of the trip, when the “captain” of our little tour boat pulled a baby alligator out of a bucket and handed it around! It's belly was extremely soft, like the most expensive leather. Its little throat was smooth, delicate, and fragile. It has a “nictitating membrane,” like a transparent eyelid, that acts as a windshield wiper over its profound bronze eye. I held the little guy on my shoulder and stared into his ancient face.

Because of that, and all the beauty of wind, sun, and water, this day was much more enjoyable than our visit to the boring art museum the day before, which is what led me to say that “nature beats art.”

But there is a problem. What we enjoyed was not really “nature.” Some of the time we cruised on the bayous—natural, endless waterways that flow into one another all over the word—but some of the time we were on man-made canals. And on Friday, we watched an I-Max movie at the Aquarium of the Americas that explained how the canals and levees have contributed to the depletion of wetlands, which used to protect New Orleans from the full force of hurricanes. In other words, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was in large part due to the ill effects of human “artistry” on the landscape: canals that bring in salt water and kill the trees (leading to severe erosion), levees that prevent annual flooding (leading to conservation of the silt and topsoil that used to flow down the Mississippi and build up the wetlands). So the temporary comfort of protecting New Orleans from little floods and the commercial benefits of canal-building contributed to a much bigger disaster.

The wetlands are still forming, but they are just in a low, narrow line at the very tip of the Mississippi, rather than spread across hundreds of acres of the Delta. The movie we watched talked about lots of things that can be done to rebuild the wetlands. All of that was interesting and challenging. But the way this whole thing affected me was to shock me a bit, that the so-called “nature” I was enjoying more than “art” was not only largely artificial, but even detrimental to itself in the long run. That's depressing.

I still enjoyed playing with the baby alligator.

New Orleans Gospel Choir



After a lively day out on the swamps, handling alligators, we continued our adventure with an evening packed with music. The first concert (yes, we went to two concerts in one evening!) was Gospel music; the second was jazz. See the next post for a report on all the jazz we heard during the week.

So, we went to the justly famous St. Louis' Cathedral to hear the stellar St. Peter Claver Gospel Choir. This was music that made us move, and made us laugh, and made us cry. Well, I cried a bit, anyway. It was a primarily African-American choir, led by a really dynamic woman who also played the piano in addition to directing (for a couple numbers). The songs were pretty much the same, but a kind of "same" that I couldn't really have too much of! It was thick, piled, toothy harmonies in really catchy rhythms (no kidding: Gospel, catchy? sorry). There were a few solos over the thick texture of the ensemble (none of whom were particularly good -- I mean, their voices were mostly very shrill and sounded untrained to my Classical ear, but that's mostly a matter of taste). And there was one real solo, by an enormous elderly man who rendered "O Holy Night" and "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" in a heart-stopping arrangement. He got an immediate standing ovation, as did the whole Choir.

That was a marvelous concert, and the most Christmasy event of the week. No matter what kind of a church it was in, and no matter what kind of a church the singers came from, it was a universally (I think that's OK to say?) worshipful event. Wow. It felt like Heaven.


27 December 2011

New Orleans Museum of "Art"

This series of posts is just a tad more personal than others in the past; that's because I'm spending the first week of my Christmas holiday in New Orleans! I'm posting each of these one week after the events each describes, and -- as usual -- I'm going to try to focus on arts, aesthetics, culture, and faith as I experience them in my little New Orleans adventure. Enjoy!



We went to NOMA today -- well, we generally go to the art museum in whatever place we visit -- primarily because I'm going to be writing about it for Curator. I hope to produce something fairly balanced and coherent for that excellent voice of reason, so here is my chance to ramble, vent, and babble.


It's really a bit of a mess. There are some lovely pieces, but the collection is a gumbo, or a gallimaufry, or a mishmash. It's quite jarring to walk from a Picasso to a Rodin to a Warhol to a Boucher. OK, it's not quite that bad, because each room or at least each wall has some kind of unifying theme. But the collection is totally random. There is just one work by each artist; frequently just one piece from an entire culture or time period. The rooms are small, so even those that have some kind of reasonable scheme do not allow much time for that concept to sink in.

But I suppose I've been spoiled by having my taste formed, more or less, at the Met, the Louvre, the various National Galleries, the Smithsonians. Not that I have spent many, many hours at these, but that each visit to one of the biggies was at some impressionable, important stage in my life, and was therefore unforgettable.

Back to NOMA, though: the signature, advertized bits of the collection were the worst of all. The famed Vogel collection is sickening rubbish. Drops of watercolor on pieces of notebook paper. Three jagged lines in pencil on a white field. A badly made movie about the Vogels at home, talking to their "artist" friends on the phone, or revisiting their old co-wokers. It made me sick. Is it all a fraud? Is it a joke? Who is fooling whom? Did the Vogels fool the galleries? [they gave 50 pieces of "art" each to 50 museums]. Did the "artists" fool the Vogels? Are the museums fooling us, the admission-paying public?

These lines constitute a work of art?

This little piece of steel is a work of art?

Yup, those are pieces of notebook paper with blotches of watercolor paint.
Yup, they're in a glass case.


So I got worried that maybe I was just an ignoramus. After all, Picasso doesn't do much for me. I sometimes think Warhol was a charlatan -- and probably John Cage, too, although that's off-topic. I'm a bit terrified admitting this. Am I going to be tossed out of the arts world? Am I going to be labeled as one of those ridiculous throwbacks who never got over the 1940s? Sigh.

So then I started thinking about what I do get, what does it for me. It's basically stuff from the European continent from about 300 BC - 300 AD and then from about 1300 AD until about 1900. That's not much. Kind of pathetic, really.

Is it just a matter of education? Is that just how I've been trained?

Or a matter of genetics and cultural context: when and where I was born, to whom?

So then I walked up to the third floor of NOMA, where the "Pre-Columbian" floor, where there is stuff from Cambodia in the 700s, from the Mayan empire, from Africa in 1050, Zen Buddhist drawings from Japan.... And it was spectacular. Amazing stuff. Real artisanship, with intricate detail, profound feeling, wit, intelligence, insight, spiritual depth, humor. Wowie.

All it took was time, a very little time, to see into those pieces.

They licked the 20th century hollow.

And I'm going to stop now, but the thought that crossed my mind then was that this stuff was made for a practical purpose: for war, love, religion, or death. It was all useful. And the 20th century art was useless. And arrogant. And self-serving.

Hm. Am I on to something there?

Juztaposition of the Classical and the Crazy


New Orleans's Aesthetic addendum

In addition to that unifying curve I wrote about yesterday, there is another, temporary, aesthetic binding New Orleans into one artistic whole right now.
It's Christmas!
The entire city is resplendent with wreaths, garlands, fir trees, red-&-gold ribbons, red-&-gold ornaments, red-&-gold bows, white lights, glitz and glitter and sparkle, but mostly very tasteful.
I don't know what the city looks like at Mardi Gras (OK, I'm looking at pictures online, and that's a whole other story!), but right now that color scheme of green, red, and gold, sparkling with white lights, really creates a visual continuity everywhere.
It also enhances every otherwise plain surface: garlands and greens etc. are on nearly every doorway, light fixture, lamppost, archway, balcony and so forth all over the place.

The restaurant where we ate lunch yesterday (Deanie's, which I highly recommend for glorified Cajun-touched pub food) was resplendent with Christmas decorations, and would otherwise have been rather plain.
And the jazz musicians scattered along the streets mostly play Christmas carols, too, which is sweet.
So if you can't be here for Mardi Gras, try to come at Christmastime.

And did I mention it's 70 degrees?


26 December 2011

New Orleans' Aesthetic

This series of posts is just a tad more personal than others in the past; that's because I'm spending the first week of my Christmas holiday in New Orleans! I'm posting each of these one week after the events each describes, and -- as usual -- I'm going to try to focus on arts, aesthetics, culture, and faith as I experience them in my little New Orleans adventure. Enjoy!


I haven't even been here for 24 hours yet, and I have already discovered a surprisingly unified aesthetic all over this city. It is as if all the architects, all the interior designers, and all the private homeowners have the same taste. I'm not talking just about the general European "shabby chic" beauty, but about something more specific: there is a pattern that ties this whole city together, from the French Quarter to the Garden District, through the Warehouse/Arts district, across the parks, and even into the Ninth Ward. There, or course, millions of Fleurs-de-Lis everywhere. But those are more like decorations than an essential style, although they contribute to what I'm talking about. It's an oft-repeated pattern of filigree, swirls, curlicues. Here it is:

It's all over the multitudinous delicate wrought-iron lace-work balconies on almost every house in the French Quarter. It's in nearly every other wrought-iron fence in the Garden District. It's on the ceilings, in the wallpaper, in the carpets, on the curtains, on the furniture. In our hotel room, it is framed in two versions above the bed. It's in the networked dome over the lobby bar. It twists and twines in uncountable varieties, beautifully and subtly, all over this town.

And it goes beyond just an identifiable pattern. This complex, delicate aesthetic has an influence on many of the shapes and curves of the architecture. There are ogees aplenty. There are arches. There are neoclassical columns that favor the more voluptuous capitals: the Ionic and the Corinthian rather than the Doric.

So the thought crossed my mind that maybe all this has something to do with geography, not just history. Take a look at this aerial view:
What do you think? Do you think that this curvy-ness comes, not just from the Fleur-de-Lis or from the architecture of Europe -- or, ahem, from the curves that are crudely displayed in the many houses of ill repute that blight this lovely city -- but also from the Mississippi River? I think it's a pretty notion, anyway!


06 December 2011

Thinking about Hallows

I would like to write a paper about Hallows -- in the Arthurian Tradition, in the writings of Charles Williams, and in the Harry Potter series. This blog post gives an excellent overview of the Hallows in history, mythology, Arthurian tradition, etc. It's brilliant.

So my question is, What needs to be studied in this connection? Do you have a question about the relationship between Rowling's Hallows and those of legend? What kind of an angle would you recommend I take? Any ideas?

All thoughts are welcome!