What ever happened to that newsletter

It was eaten by sea monsters

Hey, y’all,

So this thing’s drifted. I guess I’m here to bury it, not to praise it, although I’d also like to let you know about some other stuff that’s up.

When I kicked off this newsletter, I was red hot and full of ideas and stuff to say. It’s wild to think about this, given, well, everything that came after, but December 2019 and January-Feb 2020 were a time of wild energy and optimism for me. And then, y’know. I kept it going, and kept enjoying it, but rounding the corner into 2021 I had the feeling that I had less and less to say on the matter of art. Maybe it was pandemic brain; maybe I’d just actually run through the initial store of ideas. Either way, I just kind of found myself in a position where if I sent a newsletter out, it would have been purely because I felt like I *should* send one out, not because I had something to say, and I never wanted this to be like that.

But! I’ve been busy with other stuff! Stuff that you might like, if you’re generally into *waves hand at own head* this.

The biggest single thing: I’ve started another podcast. Depending on how you want to classify it, it’s either fiction or “history.” It’s called The Kraken Busters, and it recounts the somehow-mostly-forgotten conflict between the United States and an ocean full of angry sea monsters right after World War 2. Written with the rhythms of “real” history, it’s got sea monsters, adventures on the high seas, and (if you care about such things) stuff to say about shared sacrifice, societal disruption, and what it’s like to think you’re about to return to normalcy and then have it ripped away. I think it’s a lot of fun. You can stream it straight from the website or go to any of the usual podcast places, search for “the Kraken Busters,” and look for the battleship shooting at the giant octopus:

C’mon. A battleship shooting at a giant octopus. How can you not be on board for this?

If I’m doing any other writing these days, it’s going up at my main website; not that there’s a lot, but there’s some. Worth keeping an eye on! I’m also extremely active on Twitter and Instagram--including the Iowa City Police Log comics that I post more or less daily to both places.

I can’t say for sure that this is the end of the newsletter here. You never know! The insane froth of ideas that I had running in January of 2020 might come back. So I’m not going to officially kill this account or anything. But there’s a pretty decent chance that this is the end. But just of this. I’ve got all of those other irons in the fire, and I invite you to come sit next to me and watch them glow.

Anyway: thanks for having been interested enough to have signed up for this thing in the first place!

Adios,

Keith

So let’s talk about (sigh) Ernest Hemingway

I always thought this was gonna be about Picasso

Hey, There,

(Sorry it’s been so long! There’s been a lot going on! I’ll explain down at the bottom).

So, last week I got into a kerfluffle on Twitter. That’s nothing too unusual, but this one has really stuck with me for its abrupt weirdness, and the way it went from 0 to FUCK YOU, PAL! in fewer than 300 characters.

Here’s the deal: RC and I watched the Burns/Novick documentary on Ernest Hemingway, and I found each segment fascinating and full of stuff to chew on. Because I’m firmly convinced that all of these things are true at the same time: that Hemingway was a hugely talented writer; that, for good or for ill, you couldn’t possibly talk about American literature in the 20th century without talking about him; that, as essential as some of his work is, there’s also a lot of really problematic stuff in it; that as a human being he was pretty unquestionably a toxic asshole; and that at least some of that toxic assholishness was a direct result of the clash between some internal issues he was dealing with and the time and place where he lived, which weren’t super nurturing grounds for people suffering from depression and a bad fit with their assigned gender.

It’s that last part that’s the interesting thing to me: a Hemingway who’d been able to get access to therapy, to acknowledge and experience the full range of his emotions, and who wasn’t locked into a rigid early-20th-century set of expectations around manhood would be a very different man from the one we got. He’d probably still be kind of a know-it-all who could turn on his friends and loved ones at a moment’s notice, but I don’t think he’d be anywhere near the seething cauldron of tough psychology that the historical Hemingway was. The times shaped the man, or maybe more accurately warped him. And again: I think the specificity of that is really interesting.

So I was trying to lay that out on twitter (one of that site’s main roles for me is to act as a kind of steam valve for all of the ideas that I get obsessed about; Hemingway wasn’t the only seething cauldron of tough psychology in the land) when, two tweets in, a guy I know and considered at least a vague sort of friendly online presence pops in with something like “NOT THIS SHIT AGAIN. I’M SO DAMN TIRED OF PEOPLE SHITTING ON HEMINGWAY. NOT ON MY TIMELINE.” (I have to paraphrase here because he then blocked me, meaning that I can’t go back and see the verbatim quotes).

Two things strike me: 1. I think I pretty clearly wasn’t shitting on Hemingway; I was trying to lay out the “he had problems but some of them were caused by his time and place,” which seems like the opposite of shitting on him. And 2. The guy who got pissed at me is a professional critic.

And that’s what’s weird to me: it seems to me that trying to understand the psychology of a problematic creator and put it into a proper context is pretty dead-center on how you do criticism. But the dude acted wounded and defensive; ironically, kind of the way you’d expect Hemingway to react to a perceived slight.

The reason this sticks with me, I think, is because I don’t see any other way to engage responsibly with Ernest Hemingway than to acknowledge his contributions but then also acknowledge the problematic stuff about him and his work and then, if relevant, try to look at the context around those problems. I literally don’t know what else to do! It’s better than pretending nothing’s wrong; it’s also better than pretending he didn’t exist or matter.

You might say “just don’t engage with Hemingway, he’s old and boring, fuck him.” And I can’t say you’re wrong, really! I definitely think we’ve moved into a world where a person can have a full and interesting cultural life without thinking two thoughts about Ernest Hemingway. BUT: I can guarantee you that, just as sure as the sun’s going to rise in the East every morning, there’s a creator you care about who’s going to put you in the same position.

We’re living through what feels like a tidal shift in being aware of the problematic things about artists that were ignored for decades, and that’s fantastic. It’s 100% a good thing. But it also means that, over and over again, we’re all going to have to figure out how to engage with the work and the lives of people who shaped the cultural landscape that we love but who were also total shitbags.

And that’s why I have the subhead up above about Picasso. One of the earliest ideas I had for this newsletter was what to do with the Problem of Picasso, in that he was absolutely an abusive garbage dump of a human being but who also shaped 20th century European art in ways so enormous that they can’t be ignored (in grad school, I had a private game of keeping track of every time his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was name-checked in any seminar that had to do with the 20th century, and it always hit double digits).

Enough people worked in his shadow or responded to him that you can’t really understand the big picture without, at the very least, him acting like a black hole whose gravitational pull affects everything around it. If I had to teach an art history course about 20th century European art, I’d talk about Picasso. But I’d also make it clear that he was a shithead, and if I found something that gave some context into why he was a shithead, I’d try to get into that, too.

Right on. Stay safe.


ABOUT THAT DELAY

So yeah, it’s been a while. I spent most of the winter and early spring looking for a job; I’m pleased  to say that I found one, and thank god; the American manner of looking for a job in the 21st century is exactly as fun as swan-diving into a wood chipper.

While I was looking, my creative energy got pulled into recording an album; it’s tough to describe, but I think most of it could fit into a bucket labelled “really weird bluegrass.” Maybe it makes more sense to say that it’s a record where covers of Hank Williams and Low both appear and both make sense next to each other. You can stream it on Spotify or Apple Music, or download it from my own website. Or if you’d like, you can buy it on Bandcamp (although if you do that, let me know so that I can hook you up with a couple of extra MP3s).

I’ve also been working on a novel about sea monsters, but that’s a story for another time.

CLOSING STUFF

OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!

I Don't See a Lot of Money Here

How not to make it in show biz, or any other biz

Hey, There,

Last weekend, I watched Inside Llewyn Davis again (I’d seen it once before, in the theater when it came out) and it’s just kind of sat undigested in my head ever since. If you haven’t seen it: you should! Although brace yourself, it’s in contention for the title of “Bleakest Movie by the Coen Brothers,” which is a hell of a title to contend for.*

*I actually ran a poll, and the consensus choice was No Country For Old Men, and I think that’s not a bad choice, but in the end I agree with the minority opinion that it’s actually the “Meal Ticket” segment in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which might be the bleakest thing in the history of American film. And by the way, I think it’s probably significant that the Coens seem to have stopped working—at least as a unit—after Scruggs.

Yammering on about it on twitter, I quickly came to discover that the movie kind of has two lives online. Among the general paying-attention-to-the-Coens population, it’s just kind of a middle-tier movie that some people like and some people don’t. But among musicians it’s kind of an object of dread fascination, like someone took every nerve out of your body, while still attached, and strung them all up on a loom to make a picture tapestry depicting, say, an orange cat whose scrotum is missing.

If you haven’t seen it: Inside Llewyn Davis, set in 1961, is a movie about a folk singer who’s extremely talented but also kind of a shithead, and can’t get it together (he’s also haunted by the recent suicide of his friend and former duet-act partner). He bounces around Greenwich Village and Chicago trying to make his music career happen, and it never does. He sponges off of kindly folk-loving academics; he rails against some friends of his who’re more successful in music because he thinks they’ve compromised. He travels to Chicago to try out for a manager, playing a great version of an old folk song to be told “I don’t see a lot of money here.” He gets punched out in an alley behind a club, possibly twice (or possibly infinite times, if you buy into some of the more esoteric interpretations of the movie) and, in the resolution of all of this failure, walks out of a club (on his way to getting punched) as Bob Dylan (who, incidentally, would later record an altered form of the song Davis played in Chicago) is taking the stage to begin his ascent into and then through folk.

So Inside Llewyn Davis is an in-depth study of musical and artistic failure (for what it’s worth, it’s also pretty funny amidst the bleakness). I think that on its own is why I and other musicians find the movie so fascinating; the Coens have maybe the sharpest minds in American film, and having them turn those minds towards your corner of the world is fascinating and exciting on its own merits (and, again, it really is pretty funny).

I think Davis has interesting stuff to say about who makes it and who doesn’t; and I think this extends out to all forms of art, not just music. The Coens are extremely idiosyncratic filmmakers with a very distinct point of view; they’ve referred to their joint career as playing in their corner of the sandbox. They aren’t people who you’d readily accuse of compromising. But the issue of artistic compromise is a big one in Inside Llewyn Davis, and the Coens seem to be arguing for it, at least a little.

One thing that struck me on this watch of the movie is that Llewyn Davis actually has several chances for success of different levels within the confines of the movie, and he stubbornly walks away from all of them. The novelty song he records with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver is strongly implied to be a life-changing hit in the making, but Llewyn won’t see any money from it because, to get cash quicker and avoid paperwork, he signed away royalties (as a friend pointed out, every person who knows how recording contracts work wants to scream a tortured “NOOOOOO!” when he does that). The promoter in Chicago, after grimly dropping the “I don’t see a lot of money here” boom on Davis (and by the way, that line is made extra savage by the fact that it follows the promoter looking Davis in the eye and saying “let me hear something from inside Llewyn Davis,” so it’s specifically the contents of the protagonist’s soul that he doesn’t see money in), then offers to include Davis in an ensemble group he’s putting together. That would be no guarantee of success, of course, but the movie positions this promoter as a guy who can make things happen; Davis stubbornly refuses, saying that he’s a solo act.

Even a much lower scale of success—a ready couch and stream of meals at the homes of some folk-loving benefactors—gets pushed away (temporarily) when Davis reacts badly to being asked to sing after dinner. Although they do reconcile eventually.

You can look at this and say that the movie’s arguing not to be so stubborn and uncompromising that you deny yourself any chance for success. But I think there’s even more nuance to carve out. Davis’ stubborn dickishness is part of all of those bad decisions, but there’s other circumstantial context, too: he signs away the royalties because he needs money right now to pay for an abortion; and both his spurning of the promoter’s offer to be in a group and his freakout at dinner are at least partly driven by his ongoing raw traumatic response to his partner’s suicide.

On the other hand, his ass-kicking(s?) in the alley is (are?) purely the result of him being a heckling jerk. And it’s at least somewhat implied that being a jerk to John Goodman’s junkie jazz musician, who’s also an even bigger jerk, might get a powerful curse laid on Davis.

In the end, I don’t think the movie makes a definitive statement on Why Some Artists Make It And Some Don’t. How could it? It kind of holds the issue up in front of you, swivels around so that you can look at it from a few angles, and lets you make up your own mind. I think it’s safe to say that the movie’s arguing that talent isn’t enough on its own; and that beyond that, luck and circumstances matter, along with your ability to compromise when you need to and to avoid alienating every person you encounter. None of that is any guarantee that you’ll make it—whatever making it really means—as a musician or an artist or a cartoonist or a writer or a filmmaker, but at the very least it should minimize your chances of getting your ass kicked in an alley, possibly an infinite number of times.

Right on. Stay safe.


CLOSING STUFF

OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!

"Outsider" Art: Threat or Menace?

(it's a trick question)

Hey, There,

I want to use two pieces that are on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art as an entree into talking about a bigger issue.

The two pieces in question are a writing desk, made in about 1870 by William Howard, and Ram, by William Edmondson, carved between 1938 and 1942.

These Williams have more in common than their first names.

I know it seems incongruous to talk about a piece of decorative furniture and a sculpture, but these two works are closely linked. First, let’s talk about William Howard’s writing desk.

From a distance, this desk doesn’t look too remarkable. I mean, it looks like a nicely-made desk, but nothing special. But when you get up close, it gets really cool. Howard decorated the flat vertical faces of the writing desk with objects in relief, arranged to fill the space. If you look, he’s got a sword, a gun, a couple of bottles, a boot, some cooking implements, a mason’s square, a real grab bag. I mentioned the sword and the gun first, though, for a reason. Howard was an enslaved person on a plantation in Mississippi until 1865, when the Civil War ended and he was freed. This is speculation on my part, then, but it seems pretty plausible to me that the Civil War and the implements used in it would still have been pretty prominent in his mind around 1870, when he built this desk as a free man.

You can see from the construction and design that Howard was a skilled woodworker; it’s also clear from the decoration and materials—this desk is partially made of tobacco boxes and shipping crates—that Howard was working pretty far outside of any sort of mainstream “fine art” furniture ecosystem. From what I’ve been able to find- and it’s entirely possible that the answer’s out there but I just haven’t seen it – I can’t tell who Howard actually made the desk for. Google Arts and Culture notes that he was living as a free man on his former plantation when he made it, and that it was handed down through an African-American family in the area. That strikes me as particularly interesting, since it’s a writing desk made during Reconstruction and literacy among enslaved people had been tightly suppressed before and through the Civil War.

Let’s hit pause on Howard’s desk and talk about William Edmondson’s Ram. This is a roughly-cut, impressionistic sculpture of a ram, worked out of a block of limestone. It’s certainly not made to be realistic; I mean, look at the face, which is almost abstracted out to a mask. Or at the piece’s anatomy and proportions. Instead, the sculpture conveys an impression. It almost feels symbolic, which is in keeping with Edmondson’s religiously-inspired body of work.

William Edmondson, a Black man living in Tennessee in the first half of the 20th century, was not a trained artist. He just picked up a chisel and started carving because he felt drawn to the activity.

Like William Howard, then, Edmondson was working far outside of any fine-art mainstream (although in Edmondson’s case, the fine art world recognized him, with an exhibition at MoMA in the late 1930s). This lack of formal training and deviation from the mainstream doesn’t hinder the work; it remains a highly expressive piece regardless. And if anything (and I think this winds up being the case for a lot of work that gets promoted as “outsider”), its deviations from the conventions that mainstream artists learn during their mainstream training probably help give it extra expressive power; the difference from what you expect really grabs you, especially in the 1930s, when the art world was significantly more rigidly structured.

Edmondson and Howard are both examples of what gets called “outsider artists.” And maaaan is that a loaded term. In its most generous sense, it implies a recognition that there’s a defined fine-art space defended by gatekeepers, and that there’s all kinds of worthwhile art being made by people outside of that space, and we should acknowledge them. That’s not a terrible thing at all.

But often, the outsider art tag carries an implication of condescension and exploitation, especially since the people flagged as “outsider” artists are almost by definition people from communities that are structurally disadvantaged, defined either by social class or ethnicity. And these “outsider” artists also often wind up being people who are dealing with some sort of mental illness in a way that’s visible in their work. And it certainly says a lot that the supposedly less-loaded near-synonym for outsider art is naive art, which carries a value judgment right there in the name.

It’s not an accident that work from these two Black artists falls into the fraught bucket of outsider art. The quote-unquote insider art world in America has always been a pretty exclusionary white space; if there were prominent exceptions to this, they were prominent for their exceptionality. There’s even very prominent history of the white art establishment plundering aesthetics that they consider “primitive” or “outside” as fuel for their own work; this, in a nutshell, is the deal with Pablo Picasso and African masks, which turned into one of the cornerstones of 20th century mainstream painting.

If this has gotten better in the past few decades—and I think it has, although there’s still a long way to go—it was definitely very much the case when William Edmondson and William Howard were working. Being black men without a lot of money, these two would have had basically no entree to the world of fine art, no matter what they made. I don’t love calling these works outsider art, because of all the baggage I was just talking about. But they certainly aren’t insider art. And I think that outside-the-mainstream perspective makes them and the stories behind them all the more interesting.

And that’s the tricky line to walk here. There’s a lot of value in looking at art that comes from outside the typical channels. The key is to do it with respect and dignity, rather than condescension and exploitation. I think the Minneapolis Institute of Art does a good job of that when they display these two pieces. They’re presented as part of the larger collection, with labels that give straightforward context. I don’t think that’s a presentation that you could always count on for works like this. You don’t have to go far back to find dismissive connotations with “outsider” works; here’s a Hyperallergic piece from 2013 reacting to dickery in the Village Voice. So I guess even if the big picture is getting incrementally better, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Right on. Stay safe.


CLOSING STUFF

OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold This Look Back

I promise you, this is *fascinating* even if you don't like PE

Hey, There,

So, I’ve been a Public Enemy fan for a long, long time. They were one of my primary gateways into hiphop. Loved the production, the politics, the interplay between Chuck’s and Flav’s voices, the whole package. And the aesthetic. Let’s not kid ourselves, Public Enemy has a very distinct aesthetic.

It’s a very militaristic aesthetic. Uniforms, military signifiers, a lot of berets. The guys in the berets, of course, are the S1Ws (for “Security of the First World” in PE parlance). Theoretically, they’re PE’s security force. Functionally, they dance at shows and look cool at press events.

Note 1) the S1W’s unusual naval look here, 2) the combination of Chuck’s skull and Flav’s entire look, both of which seem to be callouts to a Vodou aesthetic associated with Haiti, which will seem important later.

Anyway, Public Enemy is a smart band and Chuck D is a smart guy in particular. This isn’t random. This resonant look came from somewhere. It’s naggingly familiar.

It’s naggingly familiar because it’s pretty much a direct visual quote of the distinct aesthetic of the Black Panthers. It’s clearly not an accident:

The Panthers, for what it’s worth, were very savvy about the use of imagery. They were great at mass communication; I’ve seen some fascinating presentations about their use of visual art in their newspaper:

So, OK. A militant political rap group borrowed some visual tropes from a militant political group. So what?

Well, the interesting thing is that the Panthers pretty clearly borrowed a lot of elements of their look – the military signifiers, the regimentation – from the Nation of Islam. If you’ve read this far, you probably already know who the Nation of Islam are; if you don’t, they’re a major combination Black nationalist/religious group. They were tied to—sometimes in complicated ways—major figures like Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali. They have supporters and detractors, but you can’t really minimize their importance in the history of 20th century America.

And here’s where it gets really interesting… the Nation of Islam, in their turn, clearly borrowed a lot of their imagery from Marcus Garvey, the pioneering pan-Africanist / Black nationalist who was active in the early part of the 20th century.

So, OK, we can trace this thread of visual signifiers for Black militancy back to the 1920s. What of it?

Well, here are some paintings of heroes of the Haitian revolution, the only successful rebellion by African slaves. Pretty obvious thing to hearten back to if you’re Marcus Garvey.

Pictured above, we have Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, heroes of the Haitian Revolution. Those uniforms look a lot like the uniform Marcus Garvey was wearing in the pics above, which of course inspired everything after. As far as that goes, keep in mind the Haitian Vodou callouts in the PE group pic way above.

(By the way, do Michael Jackson’s bedazzled military uniforms make more sense now? They should)

And Michael was not the only Jackson to tap into this same visual current:

So… Public Enemy is old news. Barely a band now. What does this have to do with today?

Well, Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl Halftime show wasn’t that long ago.

And that freaked some people right the fuck out:

This imagery is obviously still present, and still powerful.

–Fin–

Oh, but:

Scroll back up and take a look at the pictures of Chuck D and Huey Newton on thrones.


CLOSING STUFF

OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!

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