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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer of Stein

"There was a woman who used to wash the clothes for the enemy in a kind of way she was an enemy herself, not an enemy who could frighten one but just an enemy and she said the enemies would win because they had wonderful weapons that no one had ever seen, all the enemies had wonderful weapons that no one had ever seen."
            -Gertrude Stein, Wars I have Seen

We started this week's visit to the Steins Collect with a quick trip up to see Matisse and Cezanne.  The place was flooded with docents so we made a quick exit down two floors to visit the Klee exhibit.  The National Socialists declared Klee's art "degenerate" in 1933, upon which he returned to his birth land.

Und schamt sich nicht (Am not Ashamed)

I have been reading about the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) and Varian Fry's work in rescuing degenerate artists from Europe during the Nazi terror.  According to my New World Dictionary a degenerate person is "one who is morally depraved or sexually perverted."  One who has become "debased morally or culturally."

Hermann Broch, began his masterpiece, The Death of Virgil, while incarcerated in a German Concentration camp.  In it he writes of Virgil on his death bead.  Virgil's thoughts: "nothing availed the poet, he could right no wrongs; he is heeded only if he extols the world, never if he portrays it as it is.  Only falsehood wins renown, not understanding."

The ERC started with a list of names compiled by friends and colleagues who had recently escaped Europe.  After the Vichy government agreed to hand over any German (any anti-Nazi) on the Nazi's list.  The Americans sent Fry, in August 1940, to evacuate as many of the people on his own list that he could find.  He set about his task, and recorded his experiences in a 1945 book titled Surrender on Demand.

Gertrude and Alice were not among those who received his aid.  Like Matisse they chose to wait it out.  Their experiences are detailed in Wars I Have Seen, one of the most profound of Stein's writings (along with Three Lives).  Her humanity is revealed in her attention to the daily details of survival—especially as two women, alone, in a Vichy France.  She doesn't complain or even name the difficulties of being a Jew and a Lesbian at that time–for Gertrude, I believe, that is facile.  What Gertrude and Alice demonstrate is the undertaking of daily life, there, and anywhere, for two women, where allegiances are not always clear and art shapes every breath.  During this time, like all of the artists I've read about, or read themselves, Gertrude wrote.  She created.  Alice cooked.  Together they found that "you never can tell who is going to help you, that is a fact. . . It always is funny that way, the ones that naturally should offer do not, and those who have no reason to offer it do, you never know you never do know where your good-fortune is to come from.  The most experienced person can never tell, never never never."

Fry is one such man who helped for no reason.  There are many more and there are many that were not saved.  Walter Benjamin, travelling with his manuscript in hand, being only one death by suicide that we all know.

"The one thing that is sure and certain is that history does not teach, that is to say, it always says let it be a lesson to you but it is not at all because circumstances always alter cases and so although history does repeat itself it is only because the repetition is soothing that any one believes it, nobody nobody wants to learn either by their own or anybody else's experiences, nobody does, no they say they do but no body does, nobody does.  Yes nobody does."  (Wars I Have Seen)

One of the most powerful aspects of Gertrude and Alice's lives, for me and Ms. Niki Lee, is that every night Gertrude wrote and every day Alice typed, sewed and kept the house.  Together they devoted each day to art and to artists.  Today most of what I hear is that you can't make a living writing, speaking your own language, cooking and growing your own food, raising your flock, sewing your own clothes, being open— in any way— to something larger than making and spending money.  The madness of art appears when the artist opens him, or her, self to something greater, something beyond what is seen, even by themselves.  There is fellowship among those who attempt to live this out, especially today with the wonderful weapons of hate, apathy and greed.   

Many of Klee's paintings, those left in Germany, were confiscated during the great destruction of art committed by the Nazis.  At this moment, these particular pieces hang on the second floor at the SF Moma.  In honor of combat Veteran Jeff Hillier, master of the reflection in photography, you will find me and Ms. Niki Lee in each photo. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer of Stein

"There is a price exacted from those who live in a place where they are rejected and openly hated by their neighbors:  loss of confidence in one's identity and its corollary, the unending need for self-reinvention." 
            The Tremendous World I Have Inside My Head.  Franz Kafka:  A Biographical Essay by Louis Begley

Before even entering 5 Stories I stopped to look at the guest book.  Scrawled across the right side of the page was:  Gertrude Stein saved two Jews during the war—herself and Alice.  It rubbed me the wrong way.  I read only two Jews, and I read it as criticism.  Ms. Niki Lee asked, "What was she supposed to do, join the resistance like Beckett?"  I said, I didn't know and the question has lingered for weeks.

I keep reliving a conversation we had a year ago in our kitchen.  Some how Kafka came up.  I can't remember the details, all I remember was my friend saying, "The self hating Jew."  I was quiet.  Ms. Niki Lee asked him, "Have you read him?"  Knowing the place Kafka takes in my intellectual and spiritual practice.  Without apology he said, "No." I took my cue and spoke briefly in reference to his work, his patronage and documentation of the Jewish theatre, the context of Prague, and the more I spoke the less he was interested.  Ms. Niki Lee checked her cookies (she's like the Oracle in the Matrix), and he chimed in, "They're brown around the edges, they're done."  We left it at that.

This memory kneaded the knot lingering beneath the guest book affirmation; I now believe the author of the quote wrote to confirm the power of saving one life, even if it is only your own.

It is easy to stand outside of a moment and understand what should have been done differently—supposedly, better.  Gertrude and Alice were Jews, they were Lesbians, they were women without a man (and all that he brings with him).  Everyone has an analysis of what they might have or could have done different.

I believe it is best to start with the work:  Wars I Have Seen.

"We should take the story for what it is—the author's desperately brave attempt to work through nightmares from which he could not awake—" (The Tremendous World. . .)

Klee Benally sings, "We know this nightmare, because it repeats."

I am interested in survival—specifically the consequence of surviving extermination. 

I agree with Blackfire, relocation is genocide.  We have considerable shared experiences with many.  I acknowledge relations.  I don't rent ruptures or fester disconnections. 

Gertrude, Alice, and Kafka:  examining the intimacies our lives share is just as relevant as Baldwin's point:  "I still believe that the unexamined life is not worth living:  and I know that self-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford.  His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are."

Everyone has moments in their own history they have difficultly comprehending.

These are mine:  I live among people who would throw sewer water in my church, and spread human waste products on the face of my Gods' house, knowing, without doubt, that their acts will destroy my people, my children, my future.  I endure the people's journey on the Long Walk, in both directions, knowing we lived and died together and alone.  I know the loss caused by my ancestors' position as slaves in the south western slave trade, and I face the brutal reality that substance abuse and domestic violence have become accepted and part of my oral tradition.

Understanding a person within the context of their times, and within the context of their own lives (their opportunities, their position, their resources and their spiritual and ideological fortitude) requires a considerable amount of introspection—quiet, attentive, intimate introspection.  Understanding also requires time alone with language—Language is life; we all live inside it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Summer of Stein

It took us three visits to get to the end of The Steins Collect exhibit at the MOMA.  It is true:  the fact that the MOMA got all these paintings from varied collections to show at this one time and location is a monumental accomplishment--a coup of great social and political import.  Seeing this collection assembled in a set of rooms you can wander aimlessly through (provided you forgo the ear bud propaganda) is an experience that can help you imagine the experience and power of having original art in your home.  Art you chose because you felt something resonate between the two of you:  yourself and the picture, recalling Alice's insight, "you don't know a painting until you've dusted it." 

But when you snake through the exhibit, careful to avoid overhearing the docents, you arrive at the last exhibit room:  the propaganda kiosk.  I took note of this room on our first visit to the exhibit.  They had Alice's cookbook, The Making Of Americans (I assume to coincide with SPT's day long reading.), Gertrude's Picasso,  and a bunch of adult and children's books about Matisse, Picasso and Paris.  You could hardly comprehend that Ms. Stein was a writer.  I believe the MOMA prides itself on leading the pack, visually and culturally:  I though they'd foreground Ms. Stein's literary accomplishments and her role as collaborator, mentor and patron.  I lost my decorum when I saw the black t-shirt with the white lettering:  You can either buy clothes or buy pictures. 

This line appears in Hemingway's A Moveable Feast (which I'm surprised they didn't have on stock), from the chapter "Miss Stein Instructs."   At this point in the chapter Hemingway is recounting the afternoon Ms. Stein "told [them], too, how to buy pictures."

"You can either buy clothes or buy pictures," she said.  "It's that simple.  No one who is not very rich can do both.  Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort and durability, and you will have the clothes money to buy pictures."

"But even if I never bought anymore clothing ever," I said, "I wouldn't have enough money to buy the Picasso's I want."

"No.  He's out of your range.  You  have to buy the people of your own age. . .There are always good new serious painters."     

Given their (SF MOMA) fascination with Matthew Barney I don't think irony is their strong point.  The point of the t-shirts, the posters, the Print On Demand photocopies misses the significance and importance of the nexus created by the Steins. 

If you want to see Henri Matisse go to the MOMA.  If you're looking for a more nuanced discussion of this nexus head out the door, up the street and over to the Contemporary Jewish Museum where the emphasis is on seeing Ms. Stein and Ms. Toklas.

"The premise is that material objects, whether fine art, household artifacts, or curious possessions, highbrow or lowbrow, that belonged to Stein and Toklas could, if read closely, yield fresh insights about them and their universe."

The Contemporary Jewish museum presents Five Stories:  Picturing Gertrude, Domestic Stein, Art of Friendship, Celebrity Stein and Legacies.   This exhibit looks at Stein, her home, her body, her image, her artistic process, her creative relationships and her lover. 

Gertrude:  patron, husband, writer and friend.

Kundera writes about Bach:

"The historical position of Bach's work therefore reveals what later generations had begun to forget—that history is not necessarily a path climbing upward (toward the richer, the more cultivated), that the demands of art may be counter to the demands of the moment (of this or that modernity), and that the new (the unique, the inimitable, the previously unsaid) might lie in some direction other than the one everybody sees as progress."

These words could have been said about Gertrude and Alice, about the Steins and their collections; I will revisit them during the course of this series.

In the current arena of buying and selling (aka, get the rake, the artist is dead):  the Picasso circle jerk at the deYoung in the name of membership and cultural hegemony (including their decision to limit tickets for members, a change in policy members only learn about, after renewals), the bottom lines decision makers, and the proliferation of giclée prints and fine oil arts available at Aaron Brothers, very few people own original art they can dust.  Part of the problem resides in the fact that "people want art ( or an immediate return on investment), but they don't want artists."  (Niki Lee)  Gertrude and Alice's apartments and lives reveal a bit of the historical and artistic significance of artists supporting artists—financially as well as artistically.  Their lives (and this exhibit) demonstrate the intricacies, difficulties and absurdities necessary to survive "the wars I've seen," those foreign and domestic.

What does it mean to be a writer, an artist, a homemaker and a homo, then and now—in the day to day and over a lifetime, even those subject to revision for a SKU and a kiosk.

About Me

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I believe we can be more beautiful than broken. Devotion to language and literature, stories and storytelling, writing and reading will restore humanity and heal severed relations. There is no alibi in being.