Not showing art

Museums around the country are showing their disagreement with the immigration policies of the Trump administration by not showing art. NYC’s Museum of Modern Art has replaced all of the art in one of its chronological survey galleries with works by artists from the 7 countries covered by the original ban.   The impact comes with the interruption of the art movements.    Other museums are emphasizing the administration’s holistic antipathy to immigration by shrouding painting and sculpture by artists who immigrated to the United States.   This protest has some shock value, especially for those did not remember that most Colonial and Federal-era painters were immigrants. Visitors in many communities were shocked when so many portraits of the founding fathers were shrouded.

For me, the shrouding of art evokes Day Without Art, an international art world protest for December 1, World AIDS Day. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where I worked until my very recent retirement, started recognizing the day with lists of names – printed on corridor galleries or in small booklets, hand-bound with red ribbon.  We lost a number of staff members and frequent visitors and the mourning/protest of individual names seemed most appropriate.   As the pandemic continued, we chose to collaborate  with Visual AIDS and the performing arts community. We participated in the shrouding, closed galleries completely or hung banners on gallery glass walls. The participation varied depending on the subjects of the Fall exhibitions. Anything in the mid- to late-20th century performing arts, especially, exhibitions on large numbers of individuals, such as photo shows, became shrines to the identified and sorely missed. I rejected the alternative practice of removing the art or reversing it, to avoid reference to the 19th century practice of “turning a frame to the wall.”That meant not a death in the family, but the rejection of a family member.

My e-mail signature, like so many museum staff, promotes current exhibitions. This Spring, it promotes a exhibitions that celebrate an immigrant. Currently, my signature guides e-mail receivers to the Lincoln Center Boro-linc presentation of our The Genius of Geoffrey Holder, which is spending the Spring at the Jamaica (Queens) Center for Arts and Learning.    That Queens institution is the part of the borough that has a large West Indian community. You may not recognize the name, but apart from all of the other credits, he directed and designed The Wiz. The artist/actor/choreographer/painter and costume designer is also featured in 40 Years of Firsts, our exhibition/collaboration with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and California African American Museum – currently on view at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle.



Pink hats and Rosie references

The Victoria & Albert Museum, London’s wonderful compendium of art and artifacts has acquired a pink pussy hat for its collection. For the official announcement, please see:   The knitted hat has come to represent the international Women’s Marches, which were held throughout the world on January 21, the day after the Trump inauguration. Originally designed by Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh as a response to Trump’s iniquitous statement of how he abused professional women. It was a downloadable pattern, popularized on social media and Ravelry ( knitting community’s social media), and knit by the thousands for the Winter March.   Women decided to reclaim pink as a symbol of strength and pink yarn ran scarce at knitting stores and sites through January. The pattern went viral and, within hours of the March kick-off, so did images of the thousands of women and men wearing their versions of the hat.   [Full disclosure – as a crowd control monitor, I had to stay at Dag Hammerskjold Plaza and decided to protect my eyes by wearing a hat with a wide brim.]   My sister came up with her own varieties of the pattern (a 3-needle bind-off instead of mattress stitch seams; decreases and increases to make the ears stand out), added purple variants, and is now trading the hats for donations to Planned Parenthood (which has also re-claimed pink for its own political ends).

A pink hat also showed up on The New Yorker cover of February 6, 2017. It was worn by Abigail Gray Swartz’ up-dated Rosie the Riveter – a beautiful African American woman with the traditional blue shirt and rolled up sleeves.   Rosie has represented   working women, especially women who work for general good, since World War II. Most people’s visual “Rosie” icon is based on the poster designed by J. Howard Miller in 1942, proclaiming, “We can do it” against a yellow background. The Norman Rockwell work actually named “Rosie the Riveter” is a different, lesser-known image. Miller’s version has become an all-purpose activist symbol, with special meaning for women.  Many political campaigns have adopted the iconography onto posters, buttons and t-shirts for Rock the Vote, (with Michelle Obama), and both Clintons.

I almost expected the Democratic Women’s Caucus to wear the pink hats for Trump’s address to Congress, but instead, they went for an earlier historic color reference. They wore white to honor the on-going centennial celebration of America’s adoption of Women’s Suffrage. Hillary Clinton had also worn the American suffrage whites, purples and greens during her campaign.

The Victoria & Albert’s announcement stated that they used their “Rapid Response” initiative to locate and acquire ”an immediately recognizable expression of female solidarity and symbol of the power of collective action.”   Allow me also to add an “insidethe mseum” reference here — my tribute to Edith Mayo, curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in the activist 1970s – 1990s. She was the promulgator of her own variation of the “Rapid Response” Initiative – she attended civil rights and peace marches, stayed late and picked up all of the left-over posters, buttons and t-shirts for the collection.   I first heard her speak at a NYSCA seminar in 1990 and think of her every time that I am working voter registration tables, handing flyers out on a corner, or marching for a cause.   I wish that she could have picked up a pink pussy hat to go with the collection that she developed over the years for Rosie the Riveter and “We Can Do It.”  But I am sure that some of the many staff that she inspired and trained are documenting the current activism for their institutions.

The Birth of a Nation and their posters

Last Fall, a new film about the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion was released. It is entitled The Birth of a Nation, which was also the title of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film. It was critically acclaimed in festival showings, but received bad publicity and reviews. I have not seen it and cannot comment on the film itself.  This blog, like most of my blogs, concerns artifacts that tell a vivid backstory – in this case, of posters for the films.

I didn’t post it at the time, since the film had such a short run.  But the current Attorney General announced today that the Justice Office would not continue to pursue the Texas Voter ID Law. So, it is still appropriate to think about American political sensitivity and iconography.

I have seen 3 posters for the recent film – one shows the actor/director playing Turner in front of a crowd, one is a graphic take on the American flag, and the third, cited in a recent New York Times business section article, shows a poster for D. W. Griffith’s film with graffiti spray-painted “Nat Turner Lives.” All are referential, employing references to pre-existing image-based documents to set up a mental compare & contrast process.

The character leading the crowd design, which for me, at least, refers to Les Miz, established the film as about rebellion and part of a welcome group of films and television shows that tell 19th century American history from the alternative viewpoint of the enslaved or freed population. The purely graphic one (“in distribution this Fall”) is an American flag with a frieze of a crowd replacing the red stripes. Red paint streams down like blood. On a tattered blue field is the film title in a Declaration of Independence font.

The graffiti poster is especially interesting since it refers specifically to the equally controversial D. W. Griffith’s film from 1915. That The Birth of a Nation was based on an unabashedly pro-Confederacy novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon. The poster shows a hooded rider on a rearing horse – the pose associated with heroic statuary. The figure is not clothed in the Klan’s white hood and cloak that renders anonymity. It is a Medieval helmet and heraldry look that, at the time, referred to Teutonic knights and Crusaders. The NYPL Digital Collection’s copy of that version of the original film’s poster includes the catch phrase “American Institution,” Griffith’s name, the title, and a positive review quote from the New York Mail, May 2, 1921.

The iconography on the original release souvenir program, another image in the Digital Collections, refers to civil war, small caps, but not to the novel’s point of view. It shows an explosion in front of a capitol dome – referring to 19th century America and civil unrest, if not the Civil War. It may have been more general to avoid giving away too much information. The Billy Rose Theatre Division’s copy of the souvenir brochure is from the Lillian Gish Papers, Papers and was published by the Epoch Producing Corp., 1915.

A similar iconography can be found in one of my favorite discoveries ever in the amazing silent film holdings of the Billy Rose Theatre Division. There is a small collection of gouache designs for film posters, probably from Fox Film Corp.’s New York promotion office. The design shows a capitol dome, but it radiates light and in front has an eagle bearing a wreathed laurel portrait of Abraham Lincoln.  The light, eagle and laurel wreath all represent a slain heroic leader and can be found on many war memorials.  This discovery was one of the artifacts that inspired our exhibition The Birth of Promotion, which investigated advertising, publicity and marketing in the silent film era.

I can tell myself that the only thing this artifacts really symbolizes is that poster designer did not have access to production information and had not seen the film or script. But thinking about these promotional designs – in the light of the 2016 director’s use of the 1915 title and the current political crises – made me want to celebrate the anonymous artist’s assumption that a film about the civil war should celebrate Lincoln.



Politics on the mystery shelves with a spoiler alert

My blog earlier this month drew questions, comments and links concerned not with dystopian literature, but with mysteries and popular fiction. They were focused on books by prolific authors whose careers lasted many decades of political contexts. The blog and Wiki worlds have debates on which arch villains were which pre-pro-anti- or neo- which movement.   We can consider this blog to be an excuse to re-read fiction (with an occasional screen adaptation) or a thank you note to the paperback publishers who are bring out reprints of Allingham, Buchan, Christie, Daly, etc. to the Mystery shelves.

Agatha Christie is particularly interesting since she had such a long career and because she allowed her characters and their social milieus to age along with her.  Her 2nd book, The The Secret Adversary (1922), introduced Tommy and Tuppence Beresford as protagonists and gave us an excellent preview of her ability to juggle their narrative voices, with individual perils and their frequent mistakes. The villains were mostly in it for the money, but the ones with political motives were attempting to find a letter lost on the Lusitania, that proposed an alternative solution to World War I.   Note — This trope shows up occasionally in more post-Armistice fiction and may have related to a specific rumor from the teens. The book also uses a common trope of the avuncular, helpful, successful man who is revealed at the very last minute as the actual villain. That plot twist was also favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, who used it in his The 39 Steps (based loosely on the novel by John Buchan (1935), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942).

The British Fascist movement has become a common theme in recent novels, such as Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989) and Robert Barnard’s A Charitable Body (2012).  Although very different books, each refers to past activity at 30s stately house parties, which are revealed to the readers to be pro-appeasement or downright pro-Fascist.   It may be that house parties were already an overly common setting for mysteries, so fewer contemporaries used them for specifically political references.   Or, possibly, if I re-read more novels more carefully, I will find those missed references.

After a period of developing her ability to create clever domestic mysteries involving recognizable, normal British people (always her strongest suit) who are motivated by love and money, Christie returned to the Beresfords in N or M (1941). It was overtly political, as a retired Tommy returned to his Special Branch service. His assignment at a British seacoast resort town was to locate a 5th column unit, that being the contemporary term for spies pretending to be recognizable, normal British people.  Her possible suspects included refugees and Irish activists, but, as she often did, the story lies in the characters who seem to be set dressing.

In the Cold War era, Christie seldom relied on political motivations. Her mysteries are brilliant depictions of the aging of her continuing characters — the Beresfords, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and their various friends and police connections. As they aged, they obsessed about the young and changes in British society.  Christie did pepper her characters’ social commentary with some political issues. She focused on Youth Cults in at least two novels, including They Came to Bagdad (1951) which features one of her intrepid young women heroes, with a love of adventure and bad taste in men. The fascinating one for me is Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), which overtly connects the youth cult to a European neo-Nazi leader and includes an amazing description of a private concert of Wagner.

She also wrote two later mysteries that focus on the question of whether Brain Drain (of scientists leaving England) was motivated by Communism. Destination Unknown is a complicated romance between two people in disguise and the scientist exodus turns out to have a financial basis. The Clocks (1964), the incredibly clever novel that started me thinking about these politicized mysteries in the first place, also deals with the Brain Drain and Communism within an complex menu of possible red herrings.   It is best known as the novel in which Poirot details his taste in mystery fiction, citing real, fictional and disguised authors, but it should also be read for its plot manipulations.

Did I miss any? Head to the Mid-Manhattan Library or your local bookstore and check for more political clues.

“Ones that Came Before”


flournoy-miller-formal-head-shotLast Broadway season was enlivened by Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. It was brilliant but unlucky. It ran for 100 performances and I really hope that you were among the lucky ones who were able to see it. As the title said, the show was about the 1921 musical Shuffle Along and why it holds such an important place in theater history. The original Shuffle Along was written by the comedy team of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle and the 2016 musical concerned the back story of how it was created and produced and how that success impacted them and their cast.

It was not the first African American musical comedy on Broadway. What was depends on your definition of “on Broadway” (most scholars would say In Dahomey, 1902), but all agree that it was early in the first decade of the century. What all of the shows had in common was that they were built around a male comic or comic team, and had multiple opportunities for character and romantic songs. So the pairing of the comedy team and songwriting team was standard practice.

George C. Wolfe’s script for the 2016 musical included 3 scenes in which the characters paid tribute to “the ones that came before,” the large community of creators and performers of the African American musicals that toured and played on Broadway before 1921. In one scene that drew gasps from the audience, an older actress/character described touring on the TOBA circuit to explain why she advised against the romantic leads kissing on stage. This scene reminded the characters and taught the audience that the Theatre Owner Booking Association (aka Tough on Black Actors) circuit followed Jim Crow laws and practices.

Another dialogue scene was a conversation between Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle concerning James Reese Europe and the Clef Club Orchestra, with which they both performed. While no short scene could possible sum up the vital importance of James Reese Europe for 2 decades of Harlem-based music, it did remind the audience of the long history of African American songwriting and composition while giving Sissle a motivation for his emotion state.

Within the plot, the show’s cast is waiting at the train station to start the preview tour. There is a hold-up with the tickets and to quell the cast’s worries, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Flournoy Miller starts to sing. Surprisingly, it is not a song from the show, a spiritual or hymn, which would have made theatrical sense, but one that seems to be known to the cast, who join him in perfect 4-part harmony.   It was not identified, but I recognized it as “Swing Along,” a song by Will Marion Cook. Cook was the songwriter for In Dahomey and many of the other early African American musicals, as well as songs performed in vaudeville and interpolated into “mainstream” musical comedies.  He frequently set lyrics by Paul Lawrence Dunbar.   Although most of his music was published by Jos. W. Stern, then a important Tin Pan Alley firm, Swing Along was first published by G. Schimer as one of the “# Songs for Chorus of Men’s Voices.”  It was first recorded on Victor in 1915 by the Orpheus Quartet, so that 4-part harmony was appropriate.

Cook’s name comes up this season at the New York Philharmonic since he was one of the two African American composers (with H. T. Burleigh) who studied with Anton Dvorak in New York (at the National Conservatory of Music) who are believed to have inspired Dvorak to use African American traditional songs in his New World Symphony.  When he is mentioned in music history, it is frequently with the frequently with the phrase “he studied with Dvorak and taught Duke Ellington.” For more on Cook and his family, there is a recent biography by Marva Griffin Carter named will-marion-cook-1910.

In Wolfe’s clever script, the characters in the show remind each other and teach the contemporary audience about the ones that came before – them and us.

Portraits at Flournoy Miller and Will Marion Cook (directly above) from the New York Public Library’s Digital collection.   My WordPress readers may be interested in an older blog about another Clef Club stalwart J. Rosmond Johnson which I wrote for the opening of the Smithsonian’s African American Museum.

Dystopia is Hot


“Writers help us better understand our world, both present and past, by shining a light on seen and unseen truths. The recent appearance on bestseller lists of dystopian literature such as 1984Brave New WorldIt Can’t Happen Here, and The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us that the novelists, poets, and critics who give imaginative shape to our experience are indispensable in our current political climate. A free society treasures its writers for this important role.”

The Authors Guild sent this message out in yesterday’s e-news. It is one of many statements of the rise in book sales and library requests for the classics of dystopian literature. The list is interesting since 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Shape of Things to Come are novels of life in an established dystopia.   Whatever caused the society to be autocratic and patriarchal has already happened and is already considered established history. The base line civilization for those writers was England which, at that time, had little experience with diversity.   1984 was cited and its re-popularization was noticed first since its society’s newspeak came to mind almost immediately when faced with Kellyanne Conway and her “alternative facts.”   The dystopias, whether predicted for a time between their writing and now or set in what is still the future, establish alternative realities that include recognizable elements from the present.  These adult novels of personal responsibility and sedition could have shared the spotlight with the dystopia series that have led readership and sales in the Young Adult market for decades.   A remarkable number of popular YA novels and film franchises have been training manuals for revolutionary action. We all learned from the Order of the Phoenix and I wondered if Bernie Sanders’ popularity was at least partially due to his resemblance to Dumbledore.

It Can’t Happen Here is different. Sinclair Lewis’ novel is present tense (set in the 1930s) and the autocracy gains power through a presidential election. It was popular in its time, was dramatized for stage and radio presentation by the Federal Theatre Project, and filmed. We used that title for an exhibition on Anti-Fascist Performance in America.   Today’s image is a Charles Hawkins design for Coriolanus — Autocracy vs. Democracy, a Federal Theater Project production that was featured in the exhibit. The soldier’s logo was also used by the Corpo, Lewis’ right-wing police force.   It Can’t Happen Here concerns the process of subverting electoral politics and its plot is less like 1984 and more like Animal Farm, as the original villains are replaced by a worse, but less didactically pure, group.

If 1984, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale are inspirational examples of sci-fi as literature, we should still remember that another place to look for anti-Fascist texts is on the Mystery shelf. The film (and forgotten novel by I.A.R. Wylie) that is often mentioned  with It Can’t Happen Here is Keeper of the Flame (MGM 1943), remembered more as the first co-starring of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Until recently, they were forgotten along with the threat of American fascism.  But, now both deserve a reconsideration.  At the least, TCM could do a mini-festival.

The British fascist movements – currently a major topic in history – can also be found as the threat in 1930s popular mysteries.   The avuncular good guy who is unmasked as the evil genius behind it all shows up in many Agatha Christie novels and Alfred Hitchcock films.   My personal favorite “how to recognize a Fascist” mystery is Traitor’s Purse, an Albert Campion story by Margery Allingham.  It was recently re-released in paperback.

What’s on your booklist?

Notes on the Women’s March

“Never for the sake of peace and quiet deny your convictions.”
– Dag Hammarskjold, from his book Markings

I blogged a few weeks ago about the tradition of banners and signs in Suffrage marches.   On January 21, millions of women around the world refused to deny their convictions. They made their statements with words that were displayed, chanted, shouted, or just by showing up. Scheduling a protest march the morning after Inauguration Day proclaimed that this very large group named “we” disagreed with the election results. Marchers’ signs, hats and t-shirts said “Not My President!” Others stated ”I’m with Her!,” referring to Hillary or, when worn by men, to the women around him. I was particularly happy to see diversity in all of its aspects and the rhythmic chant: “This is what democracy looks like.” The NY march featured many personalized variations on “I am marching for…” There were word games, spelling out T-R-U-M-P or adapting song titles with insults, such as “Super, Callous, Facist, Racist, Extra, Braggadocious.” I finally got to wear my “A Woman’s Place is in the [White] House” t-shirt, which honors Hillary Clinton and Bella Abzug.

Although the manipulation of truth, lies and alternative facts were enabled and probably promoted by social media in this long campaign, I finally saw a positive aspect of Facebook.   It facilitated the organizing of the marches and supporting them by selling buttons and t-shirts. It also gave people a way to let their friends know if, and where, they were marching. We could see and photographs of posers and particularly creative hats. Following friends of friends, I discovered that there were marches planned in Ketchum, Idaho, San Jose, PR, and Antarctica. On Sunday, I checked for their postings to see how the marches looked.

My own march experience was typical for me – I always end up slightly outside the main action doing organizational tasks. In the NY march, I was at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, in front of the Katharine Hepburn Community Garden for 5 hours being a crowd control monitor. I talked to families and strangers about why they were there and what they wanted to do next with their convictions. I learned that they all loved Katharine Hepburn and honored her for her activism and, sadly, did not know who Dag Hammarskjold was.

I had a magical experience the evening before the march. The 1000 volunteers were asked to call in for final instructions. Due to the mechanics and procedures of conference calls, it began with 8 minutes of women and men calling in and announcing their names. Hundreds and hundreds of just their names.   It reminded me of AIDS protests, although those announced names were statements of mourning, not commitment.   You can think of it as the opposite of the “I am Spartacus” scene.  In any case, the experience  will stay with me forever.