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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

ICON City Beat Column April 2014: Dancing Buddhist Monks, Women in Yoga Pants, and Dreams of Anne d’Harnoncourt

 April City Beat 2014

A Buddhist wall tapestry hid PMA’s iconic top- of- the- stairs statue of Diana at the opening press event of Treasures of Korea (till May 26). We watched as Korean Buddhist monks danced to ceremonial bongs, our gaze transcendentally fixed on two monks in boxy headdresses holding bouquets of flowers. We assumed the “flower monks” were women but when they removed their head gear suddenly they became two men holding hands. The ritual dance reminded us of the Dalai Lama, even Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal, and set the tone for a more ‘home schooled event the following week: PMA’s homage to the Rocky Balboa cult. As museum president Gail Harrity told reporters about the museum’s first time ever screening of a Rocky film, we knew that the old “closed” museum world was over. We sensed some change coming about a month ago when we had a nighttime dream of a very happy  accepting our offer of a cherry pie baked years ago by Picasso but frozen after his death and now thawed so that Anne could use it as art distribution food. What is this if not modernist surrealism in the extreme? The “sensurround” museum experience seems to be taking hold everywhere, as our recent visit to the Penn Museum also indicated. At Penn we viewed over 200 objects at Native American Voices (till May 2014), ate Native food (mini buffalo burgers on crackers) and marveled at a long head-to-toe ceremonial headdress that had us thinking of the famous chiefs we knew in childhood—Sitting Bull, the Delaware Chief Tedusyscung, and of course Philly’s own Chief Halftown.

At Treasures of Korea we chatted with Edie, an occasional “art forum” PAFA panelist, who suggested we check out a leggy female journalist in tight yoga pants (a current urban style), running sneakers, and a bulky knit sweater top—by no means an outfit that would warm the hearts of Parisians, at least according to author Edmund White, who writes in his latest Paris memoirs that when the women of Paris leave their homes they dress as if they’re going onstage. “Why do some Philadelphians dress like that?” Edie asked, to which we had no answers. The journalist in yoga pants reminded us of the men in bib overalls we used to see at play openings, and even the shirt-hanging-out-of-the-trousers crowd prevalent today among men trying to hide weight gain. The topic of How Philadelphians Dress resurfaced at a Curtis Institute fundraising event at 1600 Locust, where we accompanied Drexel University’s Vanessa Bender to mix with friendly music loving cultural high rollers, including Charles B. Finch, Director of Special Events at Curtis, and Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest.  While we didn’t spot a single woman in yoga pants, or a man with his shirt hanging outside his trousers, we did see one radical hot fashion trender:  a young male in a shrinking before your eyes petite suit that looked as though it had been painted on his body. It reminded us of the Barbra Streisand song, Sam You Made The Pants Too Long, only in this case the reverse was true. We first glimpsed the petite suit look about a year ago when we mistook it to be a Krass Brothers of South Street-style tailoring mistake.    

We celebrated Jewish kosher culture at a culinary food fest at Vie (600 N. Broad Street), where Kashrut-sanctioned hor d’oeuvres, chef samplings and specialty wine pairings brought us face to face with some of the best looking beards we’ve seen since our visit to an Orthodox Christian monastery. The event raised funds for two non-profits, Philadelphia North and Lubavitch of Bucks County. The music was all Middle Eastern, and reminded us of our first Jewish wedding and the excitement we felt then watching the groom being lifted up on a chair, Priapus style, and then passed over the heads of the crowd like a buoy at sea. In the crowd we spotted former television icon Marciarose Shestack (a judge in the sweet category), but couldn’t find Nancy Glass (also a judge), one-time co-host of KYW-TV’s Evening Magazine.  From kosher beards we went to (the closing of) Other Desert Cities at The Walnut, staring Krista Apple-Hodge (she’ll play Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart at the Broad Street Ministry in April) and Ann Crumb (daughter of composer George Crumb) who played, Silda, easily our favorite character in the play. This tale about a disaffected writer-daughter of a Palm Springs California family whose book about her dead brother promises to destroy the family name, had more Jewish references than the play Tribes at the Suzanne Roberts earlier last month. This got us thinking about family identity, and why both playwrights felt it necessary to have characters frequently identity themselves as Jewish. In real life, of course, families never refer to themselves as Irish, Italian, German, Greek or even Serbian, especially when sitting around talking about their dysfunctional selves...

 The acting profession is divided on whether to call female thespians actresses or female actors. Krista Apple-Hodge calls herself an “actor,” (as does Whoppi Goldberg and Gena Davis) but many women in the profession like the word actress because they don’t want the word to defer to men. ‘Female actor’ is somewhat in vogue, but to us it is as sloppily PC as calling a princess a prince or a duchess a duke. And, as so many have observed: Why not give women the dignity that that their separate identity deserves?  One UK Guardian writer put it this way:  “What’s next? Replacing mummy and daddy with male parent and female parent?”   

Picasso (sans cherry pie) once said, I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries.” At PAFA’s Open Studio Night, we kissed Heike Hass, helped ourselves to coffee and cupcakes, then went on to explore the open studios we did on a scale of one several years ago when PAFA grad Roman Sierra  (now a successful painter in Detroit), invited us into his cubicle. The many open studios covering several floors of the building made us think of a large Farmer’s Market. Some students attracted large crowds, while others waited for visitors the same way that boardwalk gypsy fortune tellers sneak longing looks at passers by. The popular studios were those exhibiting Bo Bartlett, Andrew and Jamie Wyeth-style realism, while the less crowded ones accented abstraction or the macabre. In one cubicle we spotted painted (decapitated) doll heads; in another, miniature penis wire sculptures placed on the wall like light fixtures. One enterprising student generated a circus atmosphere with a life sized transgender doll and its heart shaped red lips, Orphan Annie hair, Mae West bosom and large plug-on satyr’s ceramic erection. His charisma notwithstanding, we wondered who would ever buy such a thing. One visible change was the propensity of male nudes, something that was not the case at PAFA student shows just five years ago.     

For Women’s History Month, we headed to the Rosenbach Museum for a Pearl S. Buck Wine and Readings event. Sponsored by Pearl S. Buck International, we were one of four featured readers who entertained guests from a selection of the author’s books. The mini Bloomsday-like event gave guests plenty of space between readings to chat with Docent, Susie Woodland, a Pearl Buck impersonator, say hello to Rosenbach Director Derick Dreher or other guests like Lisa Heyman, Aaron Ron Hunter, and Philly artist Noel Miles. We were there to celebrate the life and writings of the 1938 Nobel Prize winner who experienced her fair share of critical derision at the hands of stuffy scholar squirrels and literary snobs. Despite these battles, Buck would prove to be ahead of her time: In 1966, she predicted the transformation of communism, was a staunch advocate for birth control and women’s rights, and was one of the first public figures to call people from Asia Asians, rather than Orientals. We have to wonder if Buck were alive today whether she’d be given a top slot in the politically tiered Philadelphia Book Festival, the city’s annual celebration of literacy featuring area authors with new books to promote. Would organizers (who seem connected to the scholar squirrel network) assign her to read at the library’s Central branch, or relegate her to a small branch like Torresdale or Tacony, where the audiences for the festival number in the low single digits?       .   

            The mayor wants to sell the Philadelphia Gas Works to a private corporation in Connecticut, the UIL Holding Corporation, for 1.86 billion dollars.
            What a bombshell. The New Deal style political grassroots Democrat had become an urban version of Governor Tom Corbett. Welcome to a Philly nightmare.
  If the mayor’s proposal materializes, the city will be giving up its 178-year ownership of PGW.
            He says the city needs to sell PGW to rescue “the city’s ailing pension fund,” and that sale of PGW would inject 424 million into the city’s pension fund. The pension fund, however, affects only a miniscule group, while the vast majority of Philadelphians have no connection to the fund because they do not work for the city. This tells us that PGW is good for Philly because, as a non profit public utility, it benefits the entire city with gas rates that, although still high, would be three times as high if a private corporation like HIL (which exists only to maximize shareholder value) gains control of PGW.
    Pension funds all over the country are dying out or being drastically reduced. In some cases, such as in Detroit, city pension funds have been radically cut. Philadelphia’s pension fund is, by comparison to other cities, extremely generous. There have been no cuts, although according to the mayor there is an 8 billion dollar pension fund deficit.

             UIL promises that it will not raise gas rates for customers for 3 years after the sale, and that it will keep discount programs for low income seniors and others. An additional promise was made that PGW employee retiree pensions will be respected. 
                         Will a private corporation be as benevolent or as generous as PGW when people are late or don’t pay their bills? Can a “for profit” company ever be as “benevolent” as a not for profit company?
            Can you name one large private corporation that has ever put people before profits?