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Saturday, March 16, 2013

ICON City Beat Column, March 2013

   (Photo: The Franklin Inn Club Five months before the March Debacle.
                 As one FIC member noted (not pictured): "The Club should not
                  coddle poor members who cannot pay their dues." Story coming.)

While last month’s PAFA debate on gender and race in the art world was not as volatile as the NYC 1971 Town Hall debate on Women’s Liberation where panelists Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos (of NOW) and Norman Mailer watched fellow panelist Jill Johnston being dragged offstage by female friends who wanted to French kiss, the event did heat up an otherwise dull Sunday February afternoon. As PAFA VP of Marketing, Heike Rass put it; the panel’s aim was to discuss “how gender and ethnicity factor into how art is received.” The debate was called to address New York Times art critic Ken Johnson’s controversial comments on PAFA’s current exhibit, The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World. “Sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market, “Johnson wrote. “But it might also have something to do with the nature of art that women tend to make….Anyone with a theory about that will have a good opportunity to test it at PAFA.” PAFA invited Huff Post Founding Arts Editor, Kimberly Brooks, and artists Njideki Akunijcli and Joyce Kozloff to challenge Johnson at the standing room only event. Throughout the ordeal Johnson maintained a cool as a cucumber demeanor despite a history of slighting various minority groups in his reviews. Audience members questioned his chronic deference to men as the authentic inheritors of lasting artistic talent. To wit: Doesn’t your obvious bias help perpetuate a privileged all- boys club? etc., etc. “The Times view is just one opinion,” one panel member said in a scolding tone, a true enough statement in today’s world where paid criticism has been eroded considerably by that Op Ed Tower of Babel known as The Huffington Post. Both sides made valid points, even if Johnson was outnumbered and out voiced. In a fantasy scenario, perhaps a pro-Times ally like provocateur feminist Camile Pagila would have come to Johnson’s rescue. Temperatures got hotter when an inference was made that the word ’critic’ implied hierarchy and privilege (read: white male dominance) in what should be an egalitarian free-for-all art opinion market where no one voice, credentialed or non-credentialed, holds sway. We couldn’t help but think: Isn’t this “cultural communism” reminiscent of the time when teachers told students that everybody is an artist, and that anyone can be a Renoir or a Picasso if they just apply themselves? Bottom line: We admire the PAFA show and advise everyone to see it before it leaves the city in April, even if we admit that in a future theoretical exhibition there could be issues around what The Times calls “identity politics in art.” To wit: Should powerful critics in major publications be fearful of panning bad Feminist art, LGBT art, Scientology art, Jewish art, Greek Orthodox art or even Developmentally Disabled handicapped art, for fear of being labeled phobic? And: Should art be subservient to current political and cultural trends in the interests of equality? Mao thought that art should be “socialist in content and Chinese in style,” while Paglia throws the whole of modern art into the garbage can when she states: “Contemporary art has no big ideas left,” which might explain why we’re in this jar of pickled (Keith) Herring. What do you think? You owe it to yourself to check out The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World and let us know.

Requirements for membership in Philadelphia’s Franklin Inn Club used to be that one had to have published a book, but today, as Inn member Dan Rottenberg likes to note, the only requirement is that you must have read a book. Inn members and guests have included Christopher Morley, W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, Ezra Pound, G.K. Chesterton, and (the very much alive) former US poet Laureate, Daniel Hoffman. Today the Inn is only vaguely literary, with most members being active (or retired) lawyers, physicians or business people. During our recent visit there we heard Philly architect/classicist Al Holm and Philly folklorist Tom Carroll, president of the John Kelipus Society, lecture on the Wizard of the Wissahickon, or What Led an Old German Pietist to build a cave by the Wissahickon to wait out the Apocalypse. We were glad that the Kelpius talk happened the same week that Richard II’s bones were discovered under a parking lot in London, and were made twice as happy when we received notice of Larry Robin’s Moonstone 100 Poets event (Poetry Ink 20123) which takes place April 7th. That’s when 100 poets get 3 minutes to read a poem to other poets. At last year’s Poetry Ink, a few naughty poets spent 5 minutes explaining their poem before reading it, which extended the list’s wait time considerably. FYI: Really, really famous Philly poets tend to skip 100 Poets altogether because they want audiences where there is ONLY one poet—them. Still, we think that the 2014 100 Poets event should be held at the Inn, which might help restore some of the Inn’s literary heritage as well as tame the overactive lawyerly impulses that continue to unwittingly push the Inn closer to some kind of Union League identity precipice.

We’ve been to The Mountaintop and met an angel that drinks and cusses—and it was good. The Philadelphia Theater Company’s production of Katori Hall’s play about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last hours in Memphis had us cheering, even if there were no stagehands present to make the stage revolve the way it revolved when the work was on Broadway. Having an onstage reader exclaim, “Blast of thunder, lightning strikes, the room shakes,” not only encourages one not to take stage hands for granted, it sets the stage for other far flung unconventionalities, like a motel chambermaid who’s really an angel sent by God (a big black woman with Medusa hair) to tell Martin that he needs to prepare for a trip to the after life. Although the lack of sound effects was not totally bad---it added something existential to that (staged) lonely motel room in Memphis--- the strike did take its toll. Gone, for instance, was the post play PTC press reception, apparently a stage hands event, but even more importantly, when we retuned 3 weeks later when the strike was over, the talented onstage reader was still there, shouting “Blast of thunder, lighting strikes, the room shakes!” And so, with all due respect to the ever gracious Producing Artistic Director, Sara Garonzik, the stage hands do owe the press two things: a stage that revolves, and a party! .

There were plenty of words but no sound effects (except the ringing of phones) at The Wilma’s production of Assistance, a play by Leslye Headland, a look into the “hell is other people” workplace angst at a powerful Manhattan tech company staffed by sycophant careerists going crazy trying outdo co-workers and please a boss who’s never satisfied. As a snapshot of fanatical careerists (who will do anything, including murdering their first born, to ascend the corporate ladder) the play was on the money but came up short when offering solutions other than walking away in order to escape the insanity. After all, where does one go when so much of the world is filled with bosses who are never pleased?

There are no Ideal Husbands, anywhere, despite what Oscar Wilde says. The Walnut’s production of the Wilde classic was predictably lavish with a stage set that garnered applause, a rare thing in today’s theater world where stage minimalism a la Beckett has become the (yawn) norm. Still, we have to ask: are subscribers to the Walnut theater real theater people? While it’s true that we uttered a silent, “Wow,” when the curtain went up on a lavish chandelier-draped Victorian library living room, we would never think to applaud an arrangement of table and chairs, or marvel at how the luxurious ripples of a curtain tapestry frames a stage window The Wilde play, as Wilde plays go, was amusing, even if we did notice how the playwright contrived the ending in a pulp fiction manner. Oscar Wilde, you devil! We were reminded once again how you bent over backwards to entertain the very people who later stood in line to lock you up in Reading Goal.

We headed over to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to check out the Tattoo Convention and left feeling glad that we never came under the spell of Ink. Tattoo artists from all over the country waited in open stalls for passersby to offer their bodies: Large women in red undies lounging on their sides like Reuben or Cezanne models (making us think of the current show at PAFA); lithe young men, some tattoo virgins, sitting or lying on their backs with their shirts off on what looked like operating room tables, eyes closed, as tattoo surgeons drilled, inked, wiped, and then bored into their nubile skin. We heard no cries of mortification or pain as these fellows and ladies accepted mark of the beast brand names like Josh Fallon, Trueblue Tattoo, Jay Blondel, DNA Tattooing, and Bonedaddy’s. As for the tattoos themselves, there was a marked preponderance of skulls and funny horror faces--- even, we dare say, on the bodies of various parents, their tattoo-less kids in tow. Before leaving we bumped into Mike Allenbach (, a personable entrepreneur who told us about his specialty: photographing tattooed brides. We’re not talking about the Bride of Frankenstein or brides like the one in the Rocky Horror Picture Show but normal Presbyterian or wayward Catholics who may have overdosed on Ink.

If the University of Pennsylvania were to be suddenly swallowed up by Robert Smithson’s 1970 environmental sculpture, Spiral Jetty, located on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake but propelled eastward on some Sci-Fi asteroid, there’d still be Arcadia University, or the University That Could. Penn does not rule all, as we learned when Arcadia put us on a shuttle bus with a contingent from the Fabric Workshop and delivered us into the hands of British-born Berlin-based artist Tacita Dean who delivered one of the most unusual art lectures since William Burroughs’ private monologue rampages in his New York City bunker apartment. We won’t attempt to explain Dean’s work in such a short space except to say that by the end of the evening we felt as if we’d been transported to some alien world, and then deposited back, our heads spinning. To check the whole thing out, go here: