Friday, June 24, 2011

Get These Dead People Outta Here: a Good Hard Look At Institutional Nearsightedness

It is always a pity when a influential institution decides to keep sticking its head in the sand, but it a common occurrence and not worth getting upset about.  Institutions are sand-seeking by their very nature and should be tweaked for it only because, in doing so, they waste valuable resources, manpower, and wall-space.  These things are all very dear and should have a more dynamic function.

I allude to the Virginia Museum's acquisition of more dead artists to supplement a collection that has more than enough of them. 

Before I go any farther, I want to talk about the necessity of the dead, even as the living clamor at the gates.

I grew up on dead people and am glad they were "around."  They honed my appetite for the sort of living experiences without which painting and sculpture cannot be made.  Furthermore, they made sense.  If you start with dead people, you'll be curious about folk who walk around and make funny noises.  They get your feet wet, give you a little heads-up on things, and high-five you into the future.  People who value artwork as a living expression of human needs and aspirations are nourished by the dead - at least for a while.  But the dead must eventually be put away - though, like any keepsake, we should trot them out now and then and see that they look all right in their coffins and don't get ghoulish on us.  A reliance on the dead - which is endemic to most institutions - smacks of necrophilia.  In art, necrophilia takes on a strictly academic form, in which the qualities of ancestor worship and scholarly gravitas are deftly (if dumbly) mingled.  Fortunately for worshippers of the dead, the dead are already encased in mausoleums, which favor such kinkiness.  Yet living impulses cannot be contained - even in a police state.  They will come out along the edges, surface in the cracks, and insist for their right to be heard no matter how many bayonets are pointed at them - or jail-cell pillows plumped and no doubt scented against the arrival of renegade heads.

Not to say that prisons and art institutions are synonymous.  Museums make me queasy whereas prisons can provoke the gag response in its entirety.

I grew up on the greatest dead people imaginable.  I had Titian, I had Rembrandt, I had Rubens, and I had Michaelangelo.  Pretty good company for a nerdy kid who liked nothing better than to sift through art-books and wonder about the people in them.  Eventually, I got to see the occasional painting by these heroic personages and it was, to quote a far better text, good.  I would even risk saying that works by these dead, but still-powerful, creators was a heady experience from which I have yet to recover.  (I except Michaelangelo, who's played "hard-to-get" to a greater extent than these others.  But we all know that and have learned to accept his meagre presence here in the U.S.)

Through the work of The Dead, I was able to tap into transcendental experiences that would have otherwise been denied me.  I remember first encounters with paintings as a prurient teenager, thinking of more lustful events, remembers. . .well, never mind that.  They're both vivid experiences neither of us are willing to relinquish.  There was a Tintoretto at the Brooks Museum.  It was big and full of swirling, pre-Baroque energy.  Everything in it was alive - after nearly five centuries.  I couldn't get over the fact that something so old could have such a grip on me.  And yet it did.  And I wanted more.  Fortunately, the Brooks had enough depth in its collection to allow for greater ephiphanies and continuous grace.

Since that time, dead people have been my spirit guides and reality counselors.  If I'd thought of it before now, I could have posed this WWVD? ("What Would Velasquez Do?") question with a straight and searching face.  Dead people are indispensable.  They were not only there before us all, they confronted similar challenges, met obstacles head on - or at least sideways - and got on with the business of doing their work amidst constraints and limitations we, the living, don't have to fool with.  They're the role models that step in when parents and mentors fail.

And the work they did!  We need to see it again and again, initially because we need its clamors and comforts, but ultimately because we have to learn to be done with it and make - or at least appreciate - our own.  If you grant that life is a circle - which, by its nature, is always coming back on itself - the dead fail to complete it; they dangle a piece of it out to us, who have to keep it going.

But back to "them" for a moment; I can't be done just yet. 

I remember seeing my first Rembrandt, and then another.  And, finally, a whole slew of 'em.  There were so damned many, I had to keep going back in order to do justice to them all.

I started with the great sombre artifice of "Artistotle Contemplating a Bust Of Homer."  Its dazzling richness was not showy.  Its behind-the-figure depths could not be plumbed.  Its overall dignity was so crushing that everything else seemed trivial.  And that was just the first. 

How could one measure up?  And is that even a valid question?  With Rembrant behind you, you can be cheerfully mediocre and not worry about it.  Why torment yourself with the burning, if doomed-to-fail, need to walk in the footsteps of greatness?  Just do some nice little pictures, make some money, and die without having ever experienced the negative capabilities that were Rembrandt's soul-elevating companions.  If what you think you ought to have is unattainable, it frees you to be yourself.  And, in the face of greatness, we all have to scatter and assume our secondary roles in its shadow.  It's just "what is."

It's hard to understand greatness in the living.  We know these people and see their flaws too closely.  We know what they have for dinner and wish they'd stop eating meat.  Greatness in the dead, however, can hit you like a bolt of lightning.  In a sense, we need for our great artists to be dead, so that we may revere them without any opposition from them or anybody who happens to sit on the wrong side of history.  They pose no obstacles for us.  They can eat meat if they care to; we are not watching them.  All we see is what they've left behind.

Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Michaelangelo.  It's good to have these guys steading you.  Without them, you might see the glass ceiling too often, slip through a squishy spot on the floor, confront a sea of mediocrity and have no frame of reference.  Without them, that sea of mediocrity crashes just as hard against the shore, gobbles up as many ships, and throws temper-tantrums that prompt spontaneous evacuations and pantheistic wonder.  With them, that sea is just an oversized pond tended by frogs and dragonflies.  And it doesn't heave against anything; it just sits there and reflects the sky - a passive role if there ever was one.

But what about the average "deadie", the shade inadequate, the moonbeam, as it were, that doesn't carry far enough.  Well, there's a lot of that.  And the Virginia Museum went out and decided to get some of it.
And why?  Well, there's that thing I already said about institutions.  They just don't get it.  They lag behind because they're listening to a langorous beat and sultrier rhythms.  And because the people who run them don't care much for living anything, in which case dead artists - so long as they have a pedigree - don't have to perform Rembrandt's function.  All they've got to do is reflect the short-sighted agendas of the institution itself.

I allude specifically to the Virginia Museum's recent purchases: of a Tissot, a Bouguereau, and a few other doggie-treats.  I happened to be browsing the museum's minutes one day and came across a board meeting in which the Bouguereau was discussed in a seemingly desultory fashion - and purchased, for the tidy sum of a million dollars.  (And if they didn't end up paying that million, whatever they paid, beyond fifteen bucks and shipping charges, was too much.)  I think almost anybody who cares for 19th-century painting would not choose Bouguereau to represent that restless and tormented period in art and politics.  After his popularity waned, he went into the basement, where he has been mouldering for the past seventy-five years.  He belongs there, along with his fellow academicians, and should not be disturbed - particularly to the tune of one friggin' million bucks!  Bouguereau and his minions are cautionary tales.  They tell us to step back, there are pretty naked people here that don't resemble the tawdrier naked people in real life.  Furthermore, these naked people are in Greece impersonating gods, nymphs, and satyrs.  I'll grant you the women look pretty good.  Their breasts are perky, their come-hither looks can that little thing a-goin', and they seem to dance pretty well too.  And for gay guys, there's some beefcake that probably won't settle their hash, but might remind them of the sort of hash they're after.  There's also the sappy stories - but who cares about them?  What we want to see is T & A, as the snickering Salon boys wanted us to see it.  (T & A should be plural, but it doesn't sound right, does it?)

Too bad the 19th-century didn't have real pornography.  There would have been no need for the likes of Bouguereau, Dagnan-Bouveret, Cabanel, and slews of others who titillated the appetites of the haute-bougeoisie and made a nice piece of change into the bargain.  What we need to do to with Bouguereau is to keep him where he belongs.  Among the dead.  I mean, the dead/dead.  Who should never rise again. 
Tissot is another cutesy sort of painter who titillated with domestic bliss, particularly as it involved over-corseted women who had nothing to do except sit around and be ogled.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it might have an affect on women today, who do stuff besides wanting to be parlor-furniture.  Even if "women of today", upon seeing such fluff, don't give a damn about it, there are far more compelling images of 19th-century women.  Bouguereau - in spite of what *Winslow Homer said about him - could paint reasonably well.  Tissot doesn't measure up in this regard.  His is a fussy realism that fails to understand the big shapes, upon which one may embroider.  Compare his pictures of bourgeois comfort with Eakins' and you'll see what I mean. 

I don't know how much the Virginia Museum paid for the Tissot, but any amount of money is too much.  It's dead painting by a dead person - which is the very worst kind.  Great painting by dead people, as I was attempting to explain earlier, sustains the spirit and is capable of launching revolutions in one's mind and heart.  If you can't see the difference between this kind of crap and a Rembrandt - who is admittedly out of most small museums' price range - you might as well poke your eyes out.  Or just go to the museum cafe and talk about what everybody's wearing.

In embracing the dead/dead - the dead who are beyond our ken and cannot help us - The Virginia Museum sends a message about what is culturally desirable and it is deadly.  If the curators haven't looked - as they probably haven't - there's a new generation of figure (I loathe the word "figurative" and won't use it except to say I'm not using it) painters any museum might scarf up for a bargain, considering the price tag on the VA's Bouguereau.  Lordy, people!  You could fill the whole museum with vital specimens of the human figure and have money left over for a swell bash.  But, no, you are interested in pedigree.  You are also lazy and will not go out and find these "vital specimens" because you're not aware that they exist.  And if you were aware of it, it probably would do nothing for you.  You not only traffic in dead people, you've grown accustomed to their faces and would not care to see any live ones if you could possibly help it.

Yet in Richmond alone, there are a handful of figure painters who deserve to be seen alongside of the prosperous and life-giving dead.  And you could get them for a song - though it would be fairly good money for them.  Money they'd used to enrich a culture you're not even aware of.

It is beyond shameful for an institution that presumably represents The State (the State of Virginia in this case) does not have the best interests of its charges in mind.  It buys what it wants, hangs its favorites, votes its aesthetics, and says to hell with other possibilities.  The fiscal mismanagement is appalling enough.  Even if the museum passed on the "vital specimens" I was talking about, it could spend the money on public programs that could bring people in instead of keeping them out.  Who would want to see a Bouguereau with all the great pornography we've got?  If the curators want to argue that such a painting represents the apex of academic stylization, they most certainly can.  But it's a rather crappy argument.  Did anyone express a need for such a thing?  Is it essential to have this expensive ornament about so that, if anybody started complaining about a lack of academic stylization, a docent could point that person to the Bougeureau and say: "Don't worry. It's here!"  (I confess to sexism.  I have never seen a male docent at the Virginia Museum of anyplace else.)  We can all do without smirky pornography, academic stylization, and all sorts of other "luxuries" just about anytime.  And yet the Virginia Museum insists that we not only acknowledge them, but consider them appropriate in a museum setting - which is to say, among a lot of good dead people who might well be turning in their graves.

Of course, they're right.  They've made a museum that does not reflect life as the ordinary person knows it.  He/she gets high-falutin' stuff from the 19th-century and are told it's shinola.  He/she gets hogwash from the 20th and, because it was purchased by local businesspeople, it gets a pass because you shouldn't speak ill of the monied.  And he/she are beginning to get skunked here in the 21st century with overblown Picasso-style exhibits because the museum can't contain its delight over being one of two or three places that gets - and pays dearly for - them.

At the very least, the Virginia Museum should re-brand itself as the sort of institution that reflects the dead-zone mentality of all institutions and not even pretend to serve the public - about whose needs and wants it cares not at all. 

The difference between somebody in Carver who's never heard of Bougeureau and somebody in the West End who is correspondingly ignorant consists in the West Ender's willingness to go along.  Carver people would look at the Bouguereau and wonder who was kidding whom. 

Which is what we should all wonder about The Viginia Museum.

*Winslow Homer said he wouldn't walk across the street to see a Bouguereau.  And this guy lived in a pair of hiking-shoes.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Linear Minds, Hands Full Of Charcoal Dust: Tribute To My Mother, Part Five

An astute cultural analyst once observed that writers who are artistically gifted work chiefly in line.  Their literary intelligence seems to connect with the hatchings of a pen or pencil, but they rarely, according to this analyst, go much beyond that.  I have, in my casual search for inconsistencies, found this theory to be sound.  The fellow was right.  Line people, as in linear, can write stories, but tonal people cannot. 

I seem to be the exception - though talent, in my case, might be considered a moot point.  I am, however, a practictioner, and I'm happy to say that I have breached the linear/tonal paradigm to become at least a tolerable painter and, on occasion, passable scribe.

I attribute this success - if you wish to call it that - to the influence of my mother. 

When she was seventeen, she had a life-changing operation.  (There are photos of her with a head-scarf on.  The hospital folk had shaved her noggin for this operation and, while she wanted to be among, and of, her fellow creatures, she did not want to show them her denuded skull.  This may represent the extent of her concern for social approval.)

The operation targeted a bit of her brain, which it attempted to outsmart or overrule.  Apparently it was successful in this regard.  But unsuccessful as a jumping-off point for a functional human being.  It had, in fact, disabled her right hand, forcing her to learn everything she had already learned with her left.  She fell to the task, however, with the eagerness of the reprieved.  She had at least walked away from the operating table and wasn't blathering - something other brain operations caused so many other people to do.  (Lobotomy was a viable preference at the time - just to put things into perspective.  It enabled Mrs. Venable to insist that staff psychiatrists cut that "evil thing" out of her niece's brain.  Rather scary, to think that otherwise-sensible people endorsed the circumvention of dangerous thoughts by means of a pick and hammer.)

I rarely saw my mother take a pass because she couldn't grip things with both hands.  She simply used the "bad" one as best she could.  When it was time to applaud actors at a theatre, she geared up for a vigorous appreciation, clapping both hands - the strong and the withered - to produce a satisfying conjunction.  When she needed to hold something down for a signature, she'd take her right hand and make it mash on a thing that might otherwise slip away.  And when somebody wanted to shake her right hand, she offered it and let the person shake it.  It was not a virile encounter, but all the more courageous because it was all she could do.  As with other handicaps that do not necessarily foster - but fail to interfere with - social efficacy, people forgot about it.  She couldn't because functioning with a handicap always requires strategy.  But she didn't let on and allowed everybody see what else she had to offer.

She had been a gifted draftsman with her right hand, so, as she learned to write again, she took her drawing skills along with her.  As I have said elsewhere, I enlisted her as a sort of procurer, beseeching her to draw pictures of pretty girls for me.  And of a particular pretty girl with flowing brown hair.  (Such girls move me to this day.)  But before she fell under my employ, she was drawing all sorts of things.  And while none of these drawings survive, I remember the sturdiness of a nanny-goat's flank as she was about to rare back and kick something.  I remember a horse that, with rearing head and field-annihilating foreleg, couldn't wait to get going.  And two small children walking hand in hand, not as sentimental idealizations, but like kids who might get separated when one of them fell down. 

So many women at that time gave up on dreams that seemed plausible and necessary before they had children.  When I came along - and, then, my brother - my mother adopted the self-same strategy, with my father's implicit approbation.  He didn't like women to do "funny" things - though he was not untalented in this way himself.  He was merely applying the double standard that had been good enough for his father, and his father before him.  He had not, in relocating from the Midwest to the Delta, come upon an enlightened enclave.  Few of the fathers in our Memphis neighborhood would have given him much of a fight. 

In those days, mothers stayed home.  And went defiantly, if unostentatiously, mad.  Or found handicraft projects, like the lady across the street.  Who made "ceramics."  These ghastly creations were crammed inside of a house that was not much improved by them.  There was a boutiquey look to her kitchen and livingroom, and no comfortable place to sit.  But if you were there long enough, she'd give you a tour of her inner life - which had taken such an appalling form. 

I talked to a neighbor who had left her husband, with three kids in tow.  He seized the house for himself, but she waited him out and has lived in it, now, for over forty years.  But she never went back to her singing.

As I've said, my mother encouraged me, not necessarily to become an artist, but to see like one.  She thought "the life" was, while cruel in the short run ("You'll have to get used to being recognized after you're dead"), a glorious adventure while it was happening.  She talked about Van Gogh, who was to become - with the help of a somewhat ridiculous movie - poster-boy for the stereotypical artiste.  The Life (as opposed to The Work) wasn't quite as important in those days - though people got around to over-appreciating it.  Everybody knew about the ear thing - with which this incomparable creator has become embarrassingly synonymous.  My mother emphasized Van Gogh's struggle and sacrifice - which had led, in his case, to beautiful things.  She must have been thinking of all the people whose struggles and sacrifices amounted to almost nothing.  In her years as a teacher, she saw them often enough. 

"He had a very difficult life, but you can tell he understood that in other people.  Remember 'The Potato Eaters'?"

I did.  Chunky-looking people in a forest-dark room, with plumes of smoke coming up around them.  They looked cramped and miserable, but somehow charged with dignity.  Even then, I was attracted to the strokes, which had formed not only faces, but characters.  These were the kinds of people who would have understood the struggles of our sanitation workers, which would come to a head a few years later.  Or maybe not.  When you're in a bad situation, you can't always think of other people.  You have energy enough to help yourself, but nothing is left over.  It is why the super-fortunate take an interest - when they do - in downtrodden things.  They've got the commitment the lost people or animals they wish to rescue have had to abandon.

"People didn't understand him," she said, almost self-referentially.  "If you're an artist, that's what happens sometimes.  You just have to keep your mind on what you're doing.  People will come around.  You just wait and see," she said, with a little less certainty than she may have intended. 

One day, I was experimenting with a black crayon, whose velvety textures began to engross me.  Making them required a "touch", if little else: I flattened the body of the crayon out on a piece of paper and let it slide around.  Or bore down hard, then eased up.  When I did that, I got a dark patch, followed by a more delicate one, with a grainy look to it.  I studied it with an idiot's delight - having stumbled on a fundamental truth that made so many things fall into place.  I began to see these gradations in the hooked rug, on which I settled when I was drawing.  But, when I looked around, they were everywhere else too.

"Look, Mom!" I exclaimed, pointing at the paper.  "Look at this!"

She complied with an initial sense of weariness.  I was always asking her to look at something.  She was entitled to a momentary detachment.  Her  attention-craving son could at least theoretically hold his horses.  But as she looked at these exciting new swatches, she understood their implications. 

"I've been wanting to tell you about this, but I didn't want to make you do something you weren't ready for yet.  But look!  You've managed to do it all by yourself."

It was among my first instance of artistic exploration leading, without detours or byways, to an unqualified success.  If this was the sort of instant gratification an artist got, it was worth looking into.  Besides, noodling around with crayons was fun and it didn't involve the kind of strenuous effort that was synonymous, then as now, with "hard work."  I knew I was onto something and was fatally encouraged to keep it going.

And the triumphs did come, as well as the delightful immunity privileged persons get just because they can do something nobody else can.  From my earliest years in school, I was assigned to do the class murals - which were not as conceptually oversized as they were on the board.  Yet my artistic sensibility was strained.  Even as I discovered those gradations of tone without which one's grey areas will be lost, I couldn't apply them on a grand scale.  My pilgrims struggled to emerge from pumpkin patches that were too big for them.  And, after Giotto (though I can't say I was thinking of him at the time), I enlarged their flintlock muskets past what the laws of proportion would allow.  Guns were essential, not only to American history, but to my personal aesthetic.  They were shiny, they looked good from a holster or stirrup, and, most importantly, they killed things.  The urge to represent often comes after the need to murder.  Yards of war-celebrating canvases cannot be ignored - though many are in various basements, where they should emphatically remain.  Yet because they come from who we are, we should not deny them - even as we, with a reasonable revulsion, sock them away.

At the time, my mother had not yet become a teacher.  These were the "lost" years of her marriage - years of financial privation and emotional servitude.  Aside from keeping my brother and me amused - and, as she pointed out in a personal memoir, protected - she was dedicated, at least mentally, to the eventuality of freedom.  Pictures of the family seem, in this context, rather generic: the four of us (the photographer is unknown) squeeze together on the only couch or have a little shindig in front or backyard.  In one of them, my brother is being stood up, as if to raise him personally above the muck of family angst; I am infected by a bit of raillery and am laughing; my father looks warmly present; my mother seems to imbibe the native humor of the event and go along with it.  But the reality was more complicated.

Yet amidst all of her yearning for a way out, my mother upheld a private vow to keep me in paper and crayons.  Personal vision can occur at any time.  When it happens too early, the subject (or victim) is likely to burn out.  Child prodigies become plodding adults - or forget genius and go for the cash.  I wasn't one, but such vision as I have was already forming.  A lot of talented kids make - after that sublimely delirious phase of color exploration - cartoons.  Then they want to do "real" pictures, which are based on photography.  I never did either.  I was interested in physical realities that could be touched by the hand and transferred, by that touch, to paper.  I was, in fact, more invigorated by the "space between things" than with the linear enclosures by which children and adults codify physical boundaries.  For me, nature was becoming a holistic thing that found synergies in pulse and
 movement; shape and color; in the effects of sunlight, and the miseries of weather-systems that have recently gone off their nut and will very likely continue. 

Then as now, Memphis abounds in weedy things - things that are not taken seriously, but flourish because people are too lazy, or unconsciously admiring, to cut or mow them.  Some of these nameless entities bear tiny flowers; others spike out of the ground; still others laze in beds of pseudo-clover.  Luxuriant strains of grass-seed become water-eaters householders most willingly oblige.  Translucent carpeting proliferates along the margins of a house.  And between the warped members of an old fence, honeysuckle twines disastrously, but exudes a wildly seductive fragrance.  Upon contact, a fence-mender will re-think his mission and go somewhere else.  Amidst these polymorphous things, ants and grasshoppers wander.  Dig down and you'll run into the usual earthworms, followed by squishy grubs and the occasional ant-farm that can go ballistic, depending on how provoked it is.  (Open-air ants are more peaceable.  All they want is to march in queues and raise small hill-creations out of the dirt.) 

I came into the house one day with a handful of flowers and tried to draw them - unsuccessfully, but with good intentions.  I asked my mother why they were so hard to do.  Rather than explain it, she drew a little flower herself, adding others.  Finally, there it was: my bastard clump, now wilted, but triumphantly preserved.

"How did you do that?" I asked, pitying myself first and admiring her second - if at all.  Tears of frustration were beginning to well.  She could see that and was meeting them head-on, though she also knew to let them fall if they had to.

"You just look."

"I did!"

"The hard part is to choose one of them and do it."

"Just one?"

"Try drawing just one flower and then go onto the next."

"Okay," I said, with renewed vigor and a sense of hope.

And so it happened.  As I drew one, then another, the whole thing began to fall into place.  I'm sure it wasn't a very good drawing, but people attach too much to the look of something.  If some seed of progress can be discerned, the drawing is a success.  It doesn't need to be exhibited, though it can be studied for its small, but quantifiable excellences. 

Suddenly, the world existed, not in pieces - though piecing things together is something even the most holistic painters must do - but, again, as a single unit governed by laws that could not, at that time, be known.  I had come into a very rudimentary understanding: if you take something in, you take it in the all-together.  Just as that black crayon moved quirkily along the surface of the paper, putting down hard lines and/or blanchy-looking tones, your eye must move across and around things in order to get a kind of global feeling without which you really can't make a picture.  My mother was the first person to alert me to this phenomenon: this holistic unity, this scannable universe, this block-and-tackle for the eye and mind.  It is a sophisticated concept to which the average businessman - to puncture a familiar target - does not naturally gravitate.  It upsets his sense of the grand design, which is multi-linear and dependent upon the suppression of good instincts.  It also takes irreconcilable things and forces them to interact.  In reality, a holistic design is unified by a webwork of ingredients from which the designer must, in the service of his or her vision, choose.  That's why everybody's pictures are different.  The wonderful Richard Dadd got into the nameless grasses of his native England and peopled them, not with ants and grasshoppers, but with living, if somewhat over-panoplied, human beings.  He saw lots of things within his unity, but it is a unity still.  The best of the Impressionists saw light as an all-enveloping force and that unified their pictures.  Durer saw the enigma of personality drawn down by fate and mortal feeling.  Rembrandt saw a divine order made of light-beams that aren't entirely optical, but resonate more spectacularly than the light we can see.  He saw spirit in matter, but put matter first.  No one has made "brick and straw" more tactile - even though he probably ceased calling things by their names.  A holistic vision doesn't require them.

In the form of secondhand pictures, these artists traipsed across the small livingroom with its hooked rug and constipated television set.  As did the vision of those flowers, which my mother had drawn individually in order to show me how they all hung together, as all living things must.  As I occupy the space she knew better than any other, I feel daunted by the task of remembering bits and pieces from her life and unifying them with my own, which will be without her from now on.  Yet those early lessons were invaluable.  They taught me to keep tabs on the register while the store minded itself.  She never told me how she knew this.  It was acquired by hand and eye through an initial process few of us remember; then re-acquired more consciously after certain neural connections had been severed.  Perhaps that unity was established this second time, as she struggled to see and write again, long after these skills were, in others, second nature.  That was her triumph: as she jumped through familiar hoops with palsied reflexes, she got a better idea of how it was all done.  And when she was making words on the page again - and combing, with a crayon, a horse's mane - she began to make connections the ordinarily skillful person could not.  And passed them gently on to me - who did not have to struggle for them, but received them as most unconscious people do: with a sense of gratitude tempered by a sense of the gift's inevitability.

It has taken me fifty years to acknowledge that I haven't been entirely responsible for my fate, destiny, or what have you.  I got a sort of push early on and will, for the rest of my life, remember it.  A push from a hand that found its own force and, for better or worse, kept pushing.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Looking Away Toward Dixie: a Postcript About My Mother, Race, and the Park Across the Four-Lane Road

Tennessee Williams said that he wrote from a "sense of the awful" - which he suspected, but could not literally see, as he contemplated a circumstance or situation.

I think I know where he was coming from.  I have rarely spent a day in the South and not felt that.  It's casually corroborated by newspaper stories in which police might rough up a suspect before handing him over; stories about hung juries and political payoffs; stories about entrenched privileges vis-a-vis the poverty that is entrenched by them. 

I've been writing about my mother's influence on me as a painter - which cut a swath across my life as a boy.  Yet, even then, there were multiple swaths and colorations.  When you write, you choose - even as you see peripheral movement, things happening off to the side.  You can't get to everything, so you move closer in.  It's a way to understand one thing while ignoring another.

My mother used to talk about coming to a city that was so mired in the past that it could not look at itself and see anything untoward.  Its accommodationist racial policies were such that black folk saw you coming and, sometimes, stepped off the curb.  It wasn't a wrenching movement.  It had grace and form.  It was, after all, practiced all the time.  When ladies of a certain age and social conditioning strolled among the housewares at Gerber's or Goldsmiths, they were projecting an entitlement that was rarely questioned.  Who could doubt that they belonged there, in their long white gloves and seamless gowns, from which an unseemly tightness could be purged by dieting.  They knew each other, but did not always speak - in spite of the gregariousness that's said to be endemic to the South.  Their husbands, sometimes crude, vital men; sometimes well-spoken professionals, let them be the wives they had told themselves they'd always wanted to be.  They shone in public, though not ostentatiously.  Status was not asserted; it was in the air, in the culture, before one's eyes. 

Parallel lives ran at a somewhat uneven gait beside them: the people who stocked the shelves and ran small errands.  The people who took deliveries or waited for the larger shipments that would make stevedores of them.  They came on foot, or by bus.

Their whereabouts was a mystery.  "Where on earth is that?" one might inquire of a maid or yardman who had mentioned a street address.  "And how do you get back?"  Sometimes, a gracious family would take its maid to the mean little house where she quickly spent the money she'd earned across town, but they seemed, these gracious folk, to be the exception.  When the help was done, it had to find its own way home.

They worked, these shadowy people, longer hours than the people who hired them.  As they watched their betters down martinis or stand decoratively before a barbecue grill, they hoped that they could get a glass of water before they left.  And they sometimes rushed out because the bus might not be there when they caught up.

We - who were outlanders and would never achieve any status to speak of - had a maid.  Her name was Doris and she hearkened from a place that evokes the phrase "near-neighbor" but also gives the lie to it.  She lived just half a mile away, yet her more dismal location was as off-limits, in a social sense, as the antipodes.  People seemed to lurk, rather than live, there.  The unemployed were to said to fan out into "good neighborhoods," commit their crimes against persons and properties, then come back and distribute all the swag among themselves.  Or kill one another stealing it.  The reality wasn't quite so lurid.  Most of the people in this neighborhood worked for a living, but made only enough. . .to live in this neighborhood.  Their industry mocked them and shut them away.  But they couldn't, when they took stock of the situation, go anywhere else.

How was it that we, who had very little money, could afford to have someone come over and cook, clean, and do laundry for us?  Well, it wasn't all the time, but it happened enough so that, when Doris didn't come around anymore, I felt sad.  I can't say that I was raised by a black woman, as Southern boys of a certain era were.  But whenever a good-natured person comes into your life, you tend to remember that person.  And long for him or her to come back.

Doris used to let me watch her.

"Why do you wanna do that?  Why don't you go out and play?"

I didn't know why I wanted to stick around and "do that" because I generally preferred to be someplace where I might fall off of something or find a potential weapon in the grass.  I know why I wanted to watch her now; I enjoyed her approach, which was both haphazard and full of precision.  When she put the laundry out, she liked to move the clothes-pin box along underneath her.  She did it with a kind of willful daring, kicking, rather than slewing, the box along.  She seemed to dare that box to tip over - which it never did.  It was her nature acting up.  Had she been more fully in the world, she might have taken such bravado farther.  As it was, she had kids of her own - which she could take better care of with the extra money.

I asked her about these kids one time.

"Oh, I have lots of chirren," she said, with a big laugh, as if these children were acting up even as she spoke.

"What are their names?"

"You don't want to know their names.  Now, hush up!"

I was hurt.  I did want to know them.  But I think she wanted to keep some measure of privacy to herself.  I didn't, of course, understand and avoided her for a while.

"You mad at me?" she asked me later on in the day.

"No," I said, tearing up.

"I'm sorry.  You want to know the names of my chirren?  Well, I'll tell you right now!"

And she did, though I don't remember a single one of them.  It was her generosity that defined that moment.  Nothing else really mattered. 

When she was done, she hugged me.  She knew my mother - who was generally around - wouldn't mind.  As indeed she did not.

Perhaps not on that evening, but some other, my mother took me aside and told me some things I wasn't necessarily curious about, but might - if I put my mind to it - think of later on.

"Just because Doris works for us. . .doesn't mean she's not as good.  Do you understand that?"

"Yes," I said, having never considered equality in this way.  Doris was Doris - whom I liked to watch going about her business.

"In this part of the country," said my mother, trying to fetch out words that would shed some light on an unusual situation, ". . .in this part of the country, people like Doris, colored people, work for white people.  It's a way for them to make extra money.  It's a tradition that doesn't exist where we were, but it does here."

I tried to consider the difference between one part of the country and another and came up with geographical features alone.  Red hills, blue grass, streams instead of rivers.  My mind even leaped to architecture; sometimes you had brick houses instead of wooden ones.

"Do you understand?" asked my mother, hoping that she'd breached a sealed area - or fleshed out an empty part that was too wide open.

"Yes'm," I said, using the formal response. 

"Yes'm" was indissolubly local.  If you didn't learn it formally, you learned it as you wafted your way through.  You said "Yes'm" and "Yessir" to your elders, to people in authority, and to strangers who were bigger and older.  It re-enforced the structures and proprieties everyone would, in time, observe without thinking.  Meanwhile, you started off polite.  Politeness made things go faster and happen easily.  If you weren't polite, you were a "heathen" or some other rascally thing.

There was a public park across the big street that separated our somewhat meaner subdivision from the nicer one.  Our houses were serviceable, with big yards that had been raked clean by the developers.  Sprigs of tree and shrub shot out of fuzzy grass.  Pine-board fences separated one backyard from another.  No one house was bigger than its neighbor, but each was distinguished by the placement of windows or some other thing that could be seen as having style.  Front yards were ruled by a strip of concrete, where a car would sit.

The park was unimaginably large, a great sea of green amidst the gridlike streets around it.  I would later try to hit baseballs past all this green and come up short.  It was the pastureland our post-WWII economy denied city boys who dreamed of living next to nature.  It was a Wordsworthian mountain-scape, carved from sand and clay by the meandering glacier that got serious once it reached Texas.  From its perimeters, a whole countryside was imaginable.  Its hills were abbreviated, but they rolled like any other.  And there were noble trees there - trees so big nobody could climb them.  In the fall, there were so many acorns underfoot that it hurt to walk through them.  "Ouch. . .ouch!" were the only words I spoke until I was away from them.  Shoes might have met this problem head-on, but they were unthinkable. 

From a fairly early age, I was allowed to go to this park by myself.  There was no supervision there; you could roam around - if you looked both ways before crossing the street - unchecked.  Other kids would find you and you could make a whole day of it. 

One afternoon, I was messing around in a play-area, with its stunted box-hockey stadium and concrete-bordered sandbox, when a black girl came up on me and stuck me with a pin.  I shrieked, first in horror, then with the realization that pins carried disease and might kill me.

"Why did you do that?" I asked sensibly.

"You stay away from me, you hear?" was all she said back.

"I'm gonna tell on you!" I threatened.

"Just stay away or I'll do it again."

Before long, she was joined by schoolmates, who were being disgorged from a bus.  They looked on with a calculating fury, as if they'd rehearsed this little scene and were giving it all they had.  I had never observed such unity in children.  I was too traumatized to appeal to the lone authority figure, a teacher who wandered among these children with exhortations to straighten up, stay in a single file, and do exactly as she said. 

As I staggered homewards, I looked back, thinking that some cataclysm of Biblical proportions might occur.  But all I saw were these children, who couldn't form in a straight line for love or money.  I kept looking back for the effect I most desired - complete destruction of a place and people - but was not satisfied.

Meanwhile, I was nearly home, weaving down the sidewalk on which I would, later on in life, pick out the names of people who'd poured certain sections.  People who took pride in the work they did.  Or were insanely territorial; each contractor, in claiming a little section for himself, became the empire-builder for whose privileges he grandiosely yearned.

"Mom," I said, bursting into the house, "Look what happened!"

My arm was hurting, but the wound was small: just a pinprick that bled with a decorum that didn't comport with my sense of outrage.

"What?" she said, waiting to be concerned if necessary or - as she was a little more often - amused.

"Somebody stuck me.  Look!"

As she examined the wound, and became assured that I had indeed been the victim of an assault, she tried to get me to explain what happened.  My mind was not yet grooved on rigorous analysis.  When it was asked to contemplate a sequence, it could not.  Or, rather, the sequence came out in pieces that could not necessarily be linked in time or space.

"She said stay away!"


"After she stuck me.  I wasn't hurting her.  I didn't see her, mom.  I promise!"

"I believe you," she said, applying some mercurochrome to the wound, which made me wince.  This was the most serious medication in the house.  It was used on gashes and punctures that might, later on, require medical intervention.  I began to sense that and ceased to let on.

"It isn't hurting anymore," I said.  "It just. . .I'm better now."

"Who did this?"

"A girl."

"What kind of girl?"

I hadn't the language to answer this question, so I used my only frame of reference. 


"What about Doris?"

"Her. . .she was. . .colored."

"Oh.  A colored girl did this to you!"



"She said I scared her."

"What did you do?"

"I was just playing.  I promise.  I didn't see her until she. . .why?"

I think I started to cry, as kids often do when they realize the enormity of a thing that has happened to them in a world they would not, from that time forward, understand.  As in: My God, I could have been killed.  Or: here I was playing and everything turns dark on me.  There was survivor's superiority too - which predates the guilt that is far more searing.  We who are safe love to glorify the dangers we have recently, and most nobly, endured.

"I think I see what happened," said my mother, putting the mercurochrome away. 

I don't remember whether she explained the situation to me, fraught, as it was, with a psychological complexity I would not have, under any circumstances, appreciated.  Years later, however, she told me about the incident and said that the girl stabbed me with her pin because she thought I would do her bodily harm if I wasn't disabled.  She said that, in a kind of analogous response to whites demonizing blacks, she had observed, as a schoolteacher, that blacks had somewhat distorted views of whites - even whites who could not possibly hurt them.  They were, like us, prejudiced - though I think we went first and they followed.  If we regarded them as undesirable, they could regard us as undesirable too.  This particular girl had crossed that line and decided that I, as representing a racial stereotype, was likely to put foolish things aside and attack her first.  Better to nip that sort of in the bud and go on the offensive.

That was my mother's explanation and I think it is very likely.

In the ensuing years, racial equality would be achieved by law, but it has never, in my experience, been universally adopted.  When I come to Memphis, whites and blacks are woven together in common places, but they are not comfortable there.  They do business and they go home - mostly to places that do not impinge, influence, or affect positively or negatively the daily lives of people they have never tried to understand, but must acknowledge and accept from a counter or cash register.  People talk about the pitfalls of integration.  Perhaps a segregated society works better in the short run, and under specific circumstances.  People whose institutions and businesses are home-grown are liable to be more loyal to them and, should they be threatened, defend and/or rescue them.  Perhaps a strain in human nature disallows equality and settles for suspicion.  Our minds are as skilled at rationalization as they are at the technical things that allegedly foster progress.  We think we're moving forward separately, but we seem to be cutting ourselves off that way.  Had life been fair, I would not have known Doris.  It would be endurable not to have known her, but her life was of a richness that spilled over into mine.  And yet she was only possible because, as my mother said, colored people had to come over and work for whites to make extra money.  If that money had been available then, what kind of world would we know today?  Or would we equals find downtrodden people of other sorts and make them work for that extra money?  It is very likely.  We don't seem to have learned the lesson religious leaders, poetic biologists, and lovers of human excellence have always known and told the rest of us in vain: we are all as one.

Why is that so hard for us to get?  My mother knew it, but her hands, like so many other hands, black and white, were tied.  She spent her life trying to untie them - which is about all any subversive intelligence may do.