Action Jackson Part 1


Throughout the 19th century, Europe remained indisputably the center of the Western art world. By the early 20th century, however, a conjunction of circumstances led to a significant non-European artistic development.

A devastating world war, followed only a decade later by widespread economic depression, the rapid decay and displacement of antique regimes, the alarming ascent of megalomaniacs to power, the ominous signs of another imminent war—all resulted in immense disruption and the repudiation of conventions and belief systems in every facet of society, including the arts, on both sides of the Atlantic. Another result of this disturbance was the arrival on U.S. shores of emigrating European intellectuals, scientists, writers, musicians—and artists.

American artists were already actively familiar with what was happening on European easels. Some had spent time studying and working abroad. Others had attempted a departure from Old World movements to pursue more locally relevant directions based on indigenous traditions and subject matter. In the 1930s this was encouraged by WPA funding of new, large-scale public art.

If you like to think of the United States as a giant compost heap (I do), you can see that this blend of rich organic matter and seed varieties would result in some interesting hybrids. Modern American painting experiments reflected diverse influences: the flattening abstraction of Cubism, the fluid intensity of Expressionism, the subconscious/dream imagery of Surrealism, the spontaneity and iconoclasm of Dada, the scale and power of Mexican mural-painting.

But someone came along whose work simultaneously drew upon, melded, and broke the boundaries of all these, with the birth of Abstract Expressionism—a purely materialist expressive form that seems somehow appropriate for the United States, the ultimate “materialist” nation. This was Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), whose birthday it is today. (Please see Action Jackson Part 2.)

For the story of another artist born on this day, please see It’s an Oldenburg.


Call the Ewes to the Hills


Today is the birthday of poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), and if you are a lover of his poetry perhaps you may be inspired to host a Burns Supper tonight. You will have to make your own haggis from scratch, however (good luck with that), because apparently the importation of haggis to the United States remains forbidden, as are all food products made with lungs. (Mystifyingly, Spam, although of questionable provenance, can be purchased without a special license and is consumed in this country at the rate of 3.8 cans per second.) Along with sampling haggis, you may toast the poet and each other with whiskey, and when sufficiently inspired recite some of your favorite Burns poems.

In honor of Burns’ birthday I post a song (with a helpful glossary at the end) which I have sung many a time to my children as they drifted off to sleep. (You can listen to a far lovelier rendition by singer Anne Lewis here.) The sketch is from my Ireland sketchbook. For another Burns sketch, please see Move Yer Hurdies.

Ca’ the yowes to the knowes,
Ca’ them where the heather grows,
Ca’ them where the burnie rows,
My bonnie dearie.
Hark! the mavis’ evening sang
Sounding Clouden’s woods amang,
Then a-faulding let us gang,
My bonnie dearie.
We’ll gae down by Clouden side,
Through the hazels spreading wide,
O’er the waves that sweetly glide
To the moon sae clearly.
Yonder Clouden’s silent towers,
Where at moonshine midnight hours
O’er the dewy bending flowers
Fairies dance sae cheery.
Ghaist nor bogle shalt thou fear;
Thou’rt to Love and Heaven sae dear,
Nocht of ill may come thee near,
My bonnie dearie.
Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die–but canna part,
My bonnie dearie.
While waters wimple to the sea;
While day blinks in the lift sae hie;
Till clay-cauld death shall blin’ my e’e,
Ye shall be my dearie.

—Robert Burns

A-faulding: Sheep-gathering
Burnie: Small brook
Gang: Go
Knowes: Hills
Mavis: Thrush
Rows: Rolls
Yowes: Ewes

March On


Hmm, you may be saying. Isn’t this a DECEMBER post?

But no, today is a January double anniversary. On this day in 1870, caricaturist Thomas Nast first used the donkey as a symbol for the Democratic party.

A donkey had been used decades earlier in the 1830s during the campaign of Andrew Jackson. When his political opponents labeled him a “jackass” for his stubbornness, Jackson took advantage of the insult and used the animal on his campaign posters to represent instead his unyielding tenacity of purpose.

Nast, however, in his cartoon, “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion” intended his depiction to rebuke the Democratic party for its disrespectful treatment of the recently deceased Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s controversial Secretary of War. Nast went on to use the Democratic donkey in later, similarly admonishing cartoons, and the association eventually became permanent. The donkey symbol has the advantage of interpretation by the viewer as representing either 1. (if you are anti-Democratic) foolish obstinacy, or 2. (if you are pro-Democratic) humble determination.

Both the names and the respective goals of American political parties have evolved over the years. It was, after all, Republican Abraham Lincoln who authored the Emancipation Proclamation, after the newly formed Republican party split off from the slavery-supporting Whigs. But, over the last century, the Democratic donkey has become a symbol, both respected and derided, of progressive values. At times it seems the Democratic party is mired in confusion, lacking direction, and anything but resolute. But if we take the veeerry looong view, we can see, beyond party affiliation, the ultimate triumph of progressive goals.

Which brings us to our second anniversary, the birthday on January 15th of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), whose dedication, passion, eloquence and non-violent means effected tremendous change in attitudes and legislation. King is now such a heroic cultural icon that it might even surprise some of today’s schoolchildren to learn of the bitterness and vile tactics of his enemies, the assaults and death threats directed against him and his followers, the fierce opposition to what strikes us today as self-evident fairness and justice.

With his lifelong struggle for desegregation and civil rights, his goal to end poverty and compensate descendants of slaves, his protest against United States support of Latin American dictators, his encouragement to redirect government funds from the Vietnam War toward healing of social ills, he was clearly a man way ahead of many of his small-minded fellow citizens. And in this he seemed, sadly, destined for martyrdom.

Today the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March On Washington, and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act are the stuff of history textbooks. And, thanks to the Internet and YouTube, we can celebrate Martin Luther King Day by listening to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in recognition of the progress we have made. So far.

AMusement for All


On this day in 1773 a committee of the Charlestown (South Carolina) Library Society established the first public museum in the United States. Except that there wasn’t yet a United States. South Carolina was still a British colony, and the Charlestown Library Society’s inspiration for its project was the British Museum, the world’s first national public museum, founded in 1753. But by the time the doors of the new museum opened to the public in 1824, South Carolina was, and has mostly remained, part of the U.S.A. To this day you can visit and admire its displays of local natural history specimens, which the [now] Charleston Museum has continued to acquire over the centuries, along with South Carolina memorabilia.

Collecting is undoubtedly a natural human impulse, ever since our hairy ancestors stored up grain for the winter. Once basic necessities were taken care of, human beings with leisure time and/or disposable income continued for millennia to assemble various collections, from seashells to sapphires, but they were primarily for private enjoyment, profit, or study. Royalty and the well-to-do collected, and even commissioned, statuary, paintings, and elaborate furnishings for their palaces. Scholars created and collected manuscripts to share with other scholars. Scientists and amateurs alike collected unusual plants, animals, fossils, and other natural specimens, increasingly so from the 18th century onward as human beings questioned assumptions about the origins of life, the earth and the universe.

But what we now call a Museum did not exist until rather recently. The word comes from the Mouseion at Alexandria, Egypt, which was not a collection of objects for perusal by curious passersby but rather a gathering place for scholars to share scientific and mathematical discoveries (option #2 above). If you were an educated Greek male living in the Mediterranean world in the 3rd century BC and possessed both scholarly interests and travel funds, off you went to Alexandria, which had by then replaced Athens as a cultural center. Euclid studied there. So did Archimedes. The Mouseion included the famous Library of Alexandria, which sought to collect works (or copies thereof) from all over the ancient world, and at its height boasted hundreds of thousands of papyrus scrolls. Eratosthenes served as one of its librarians.

The name Mouseion indicated an institution dedicated to the Muses, who are the nine daughters of Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Each daughter embodies a different pursuit—Lyric Poetry, Tragedy, History, etc.—and is responsible for its nurture and inspiration. These are offspring to brag about at any parent gathering. “So, what are your daughters up to these days?” “Oh, they’re the Muses of Choral Poetry… Dance… Astronomy… .” References to the Muses abound in painting and literature, from Raphael to Moreau, Homer to Shakespeare.

We honor them still when we speak of Music, or when we cross the threshold of one of the world’s thousands of Museums, which today often still serve as centers for scholarly study, but in addition are open to ordinary citizens like you and me and contain fabulous collections of every imaginable kind of art, artifact, and animal, in every possible subject—science, history, transportation, sports, toys, bananas (I kid you not)—where we can open our eyes and our minds in wonder. And even get a slice of pizza and a postcard. Thank you, oh Muses.

This is a drawing of five of them, from my daughter’s homeschooling Ancient Greece main lesson block.

New Year’s Resolution: Wishes


So many choices! The world offers a bounty of ready-to-grant wishes large and small, from cooking a meal for that sick family to shoveling the neighbors’ front walks to delivering a stack of blankets to the animal shelter. And I know my husband has a long list that includes filing (ugh) and decluttering (sigh) and paying more attention to him (some wishes are fun to grant).

For another resolution, please see Share.