This Michael Eric Dyson essay is essential reading. I remember coming across the LBJ quote when it was recent and thinking “So THAT explains it.” Why in the hell was I not hearing that in my classroom rather than “Mumble, mumble, slavery was wrong and evil but it was a long time ago and if we aren’t having race riots in town here you don’t have to worry about it.” Unfortunate traces of that “lesson” explains why I was so shocked at the blatant bigotry I encountered in Boston: the metropolitans were supposed to be more sophisticated, not more bestial.
Sometimes you know full well the topics of history you were not taught properly. Even as a young teen I knew I’d gotten miserable explanations of race and Commie hysteria in America. But other items loom large only later — much later, maybe.
I understood that Warren Harding was the worst POTUS of the 20th century. A genuine diddling doofus. However, the overall thrust of the lesson was: “Boy, was that ever an embarrassment. But don’t worry, it will never happen again.” Only reservation I had back then was that I had an unsatisfactory sense of how he got in the office. If it could never happen again, though, that wasn’t so important.
One aspect I did grasp (I have not done any additional research other than my grade-school history-class memories) suggests some parallels with Bush Jr.: the Roaring 20s were never going to end and times were so good who cared who was Prez? But the side of things I wish had been filled in more was that Republican corruption was out of control and Harding was selected as the tool least likely to do anything about it. And (like Unca Ronnie) he looked real Presidential. That’s exactly why the multiple corruption investigations seem so on-target and so many GOPers are tolerating outrageous nonsense: they know today’s Teapot is about to boil.
I’ve yearned to see this painting since I first ran across a reproduction in a book when I was a child:
So, last night, courtesy of the Botticelli exhibition at the MFA, I was able to fulfill the dream. Aside from making the message marvelously vivid — wisdom/knowledge conquers savagery with a touch — Botticelli’s powers of incarnation are irresistible. Centaurs are real, man. To say nothing of Wisdom Goddesses. Everything whams you — down to the bow and the axe. I am fascinated by the structure behind the centaur, as well. It’s a forever-intriguing mix of a ruin and a natural stone cliff face. Two more days to visit!!
Forgot to add my one real disappointment: The “Venus” on display — despite being the major illustration in the ads for the exhibit — looks a little “off” to me. I’m afraid I’m inclined to accept the notion that it’s a copy made by assistants under Botticelli’s supervision.
From Dr. Strangelove onward, little bits of these horribles kept floating around as a nightmare undercurrent to my youth.
I have to quote this sentiment which articulates a tormented feeling I’ve had for ages and ages:
There are a lot of dangers to self-government, and one of those dangers that’s done a lot of damage in my lifetime has been the feeling that the American people are such fragile ornaments that we don’t dare risk telling them the truth of something lest they fall to the floor and shatter to pieces.
I would only add that there’s no question now that it reflects a shift from treating the American people like civilians to regarding them as peasants.
(1) We got what I would call an ideal viewing of the Sistine Chapel.
We had long been warned to start a Vatican tour as early as possible and zip right to the Chapel in order not to be distracted and even overwhelmed by a sea of crowds. We went with the 7:30 AM tour done by The Roman Guy and indeed did motor pretty much right into the Sistine Zone. I expected the groups to be as small and scattered as they were, but I worried that we would be more or less hustled through the room. Instead (though our guide said she was not allowed to say much, she would answer questions — I noticed a couple other guides kinda ignored the silencio requirement) we got absolutely enough time for a full examination. And no question, it’s a pinnacle of human achievement.
Three sub-points and I’ll move on. I’ve always thought “God Separating the Light From the Darkness” looked oddly murky and unfinished (even in the cleaned reproductions I had seen). Observing the work itself, it was plain Michelangelo intended this deliberately. The primal origin is the murkiest moment in the history of the universe — and I think every religion as well as science would agree on this truth. Next, no matter how many dozens and dozens of times I have scanned the “Final Judgement” I never appreciated how horrible and emotionally tempestuous is the figure of Minos. Nightmare.
Finally my favorite non-Michelangelo work in the Sistine is on the right of the back wall. Shows angels chasing demons away from the corpse (and soul) of Moses, who had a very sordid set of later years, of course. Very demony demons (as I say, you can tell when the artist believes) and a knockout presentation of the principle that the good you do can redeem the bad. I flopped attempts to track down who painted it.
(2) The modern art we saw offered serious competition in wonderfulness to the classical masters.
(And my biggest complaint is that you could do a well-researched visit to Rome and hear next to nothing about the Modern treasures.) The Time Out of Joint exhibition was a thorough treat — well, a few dull rooms — and we would say a must. One of the best aspects is that, while there are themed sections, there’s no right or wrong way to put together your path through the building. Just make sure you take in everything. The Hercules in the link, btw, is the only 19th century mythology-themed statue that rivaled the glory-years works. The others were warnings about how trapped in a wondrous past a country’s traditions could become. And even this Herk is an obscure if intense moment I had to look up to remember.
The Botero retrospective was a surprise treat among surprise treats. We got in during a special-discount late-hours session on Saturday and enjoyed a crowd with more art-devoted locals than usual. Particularly strong on showing how turning pre-existing themes into you own language is potent. The blow-my-heart-and-brains section was the one on circus performers. Only gripe: 80-year-old Botero oversaw the selections himself and chose to present his work as a bit more above politics than it is. Even one of these would have made it a perfect survey.
(3) Food and taste cheerys.
We had forgotten that not just eggs but milk — and cheese and ice cream and yogurt etc. — was richer and more complex in Europe than in the US. I yearn for one of those yogurt and fruit snacks to this minute. Also, sticking rigidly to my new eating schedule felt half deranged and half impossible. Especially as I caved on carbs for unforgettable pasta and even bread sometimes, I worried. We were quite active — walked at least two miles or more every day — I was sure I would gain.
Stepped on the scale the day after we returned: not a single pound added. Joy oh joy. The only change I’m going to make in my routine is to be a tiny bit more forgiving about an occasional slice of bread that seduces me. Should be offset by my reluctance to settle for the lesser pasta hereabouts.
Eternal question: where has Italian wild boar been all my life? Over there, waiting for me to flip out over it.
(4) The stunning clarity of the cleaned-off artwork banished all regret at taking so long to visit the Eternal City.
The freshened stone and canvas and even paper are what to see. An indisputable argument was the Coliseum — where you almost wish they would leave the grime-removal incomplete since the compare-and-contrast was so fascinating.
Speaking of the Coliseum, another pleasant surprise was the extensive temporary display that traced the history of the giant structure in reproductions and reconstructions, including representations in paintings and illustrations.
There was yet still more, but I’m outta poop.
And also the importance of the fantasy pushed by the administration. It was important to the Establishment for the compliant press to present JFK and Jackie as this magic, perfect couple. Of course that made the assassination more shattering, but an odd followup that almost nobody noted was that Jackie seemed to get over him pretty damned pronto. I half expected her to mourn the rest of her life.
It was important to sell the fantasy that pipsqueak Viet Nam was nothing and we were winning, any day now. LBJ was hated more because of the deception.
Now the fantasy of the return of high-paying manufacturing jobs is crucial to scads of people. They just want it to happen — who cares if there’s a plan or a program or even a possibility.
Every time I’m tempted to yield to thoughts of “Boy, maybe cool careers writing about the arts are gonna come back,” I remember these sorts of insistent fantasies.