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Sunday, January 24, 2016


A few years ago all hell broke loose when a group of Mummers, all Caucasian men, wore Native American headdresses. At that time I wrote, “Sometimes it’s fun to worry about inconsequential minutiae, but the fact is Native headdresses have been part of the Mummers for decades. Since the Mummers are about feathers, it should come as no surprise that some brigades would opt to use a Native headdress as part of its ensemble.”

While I don’t wish to revisit that instance in this column, I will visit this year’s Mummers controversy — the uproar surrounding the parade’s parody of Caitlyn Jenner and the ‘high crime’ of stereotyping Mexicans with brownface and other people supposed to be Mexicans dressed as dancing tacos.
There are good jokes and there are bad jokes. There are also lethal jokes that shake up nerves and sensitivities. Take Sarah Silverman, a political comedienne who in one comedy act claims that if Jesus came back from the dead, she would gladly crucify him all over again. She takes to the extreme Jonathan Swift’s maxim that “nothing is above satire,” be it abortion, religion or sex. Silverman is wise enough, however, not to say anything untoward about Mohammad because there may be unsettling consequences to that. Sometimes self interest transcends the desire to get standing ovations. I do not like Silverman, but I would never impose on another person’s cup of tea (gagging Silverman) if they happened to be a fan.
Why do I bring up Silverman? I suppose it is because the comics division of the Mummers Parade see themselves as part of this great American tradition of scandalous satire. Here’s what the very Catholic (and conservative) author G. K. Chesterton said about satire:  “A man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.” The satire we see in the Mummers Parade is not the smart, refined satire of “Gulliver’s Travels,” but satire of the most rustic sort: bargain basement parody.
Uproar over the skits performed at this year’s parade did not come from die-hard Mummers fans lining Broad Street; they came from a few City Hall power brokers, the new mayor, a couple of suits and ties who makes their living behind desks and the new Executive Director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick. They believe they have a job to do and that is to keep our city out of the business of showing disrespect.

Here’s part of what Mayor Kenney said about this year’s parade: “It’s all about education and it’s all about explaining to people who might not understand that sometimes you do things that are offensive to people, whether you meant to or whether you didn’t, you still offended them.”
Every single one of us is guilty of offending people whether we mean to or not. When a man who is walking ahead of me on a sidewalk suddenly clears his throat and spits a huge glob of mucus right in front of me, I might be offended. When the well-dressed elderly woman hears a risqué joke on a city bus, she may be offended. The people waiting for the morning rush hour El at Front and Girard may be offended if they have to watch a couple engage in lusty, inappropriate public affection. You might be offended when you have to witness the antics of a two year-old child ducking under the banquet tables at an adult holiday party because the kid’s father was too lazy to hire a babysitter. We are offended everyday by offenses great and small.
The 2016 “offensive” Mummers skits, for the most part, was typical Mummery. Mummers comics, generally, are not Union League members or Harvard grads, but raw Philly-types who drink beer, have strong opinions and cuss. The comics have always been especially outrageous, so much so that a Mummers observer from 1978 wouldn’t have noticed anything peculiar about the 2016 skits.
If anything, the parade is a shadow of what it used to be. The new, sanitized, “Disney” Mummers Parade is just a little more exciting than watching a 4th of July parade in a small town in Utah. In fact, compared to what the parade was like in the 1970s, it has become a practice run for performances before TV cameras and for those special shows in the Convention Center. In prior years, the parade usually lasted until midnight. There was an exhilarating feeling on Broad Street then, an actual atmosphere of joyful revelry and personal involvement as people on the street camped out or huddled curbside, staying late into the night or until the last Mummers marched on past.

As for the Sammar Strutters who adopted a Mexican theme and performed in brownface, Mummers comics have been dressing up as wenches, colonialists, British soldiers, Frenchmen in white powder puff wigs, nuns, Arabs, Turkish sultans, Hawaiian princesses, former presidents and cops for decades. It’s all about dressing up and getting attention, not about nuance in comedy A Mummers comic routine will not have the subtle humor of a 19th century drawing room. This is the raw belly laughter of a working class city.
When the Finnegan New Year’s Brigade preformed their Jenner skit with the Wheaties and the Fruit Loops boxes they were indulging in typical working class Mummers rough comedy. If anything, use of the Fruit Loops box was out of sync because Jenner has never been gay. (The word ‘fruit’ has been used as a gay insult for ages, so the Mummers got it wrong). Bisexuality was not part of Jenner’s life as Bruce. When an interviewer asked Catilyn after her transition if she was now officially a lesbian because she still has a sexual interest in women, she refused to answer the question.
Now we have a mayor who wants to give catechism lessons or sensitivity lessons to Mummers comics. He wants to organize them into classrooms and elevate their minds so that they won’t do things like make fun of Caitlyn Jenner. Mayor Kenney wants the comics to learn that there are some subjects that their comedy routines cannot touch.
The skit was not, as the Executive Director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick said, “Transphobic and disgusting.” I believe that’s going way too far.
While some calm discussion needs to ensue regarding the Mummers use of brownface, our new mayor should not be so much of a Pooh Bear tool for the agenda of a few ideologues in City Hall.


   The different arts communities in Philadelphia---theater, painting, poetry and literature—are like individual fish bowls arranged along the top of a wall. Each community is its own enclave or kingdom.  Actors hang with other actors; visual artists keep company with other visual artists, and poets and writers generally keep to their own circles unless they have to jump bowls and write about actors or the visual artists. This arrangement is confining, parochial, and limiting. It’s also a Philadelphia thing because, at least according to a poet friend of mine, the various arts communities in New York behave in a different fashion: they mix and mingle freely with one another. 
            Perhaps we should ask: what is art? I pose this question because many people today believe that art can be anything you want it to be. A fashion model, for instance, will refer to her walk down the runway or her pose before a magazine photographer as “art.” Actors call their work in the theater “art” although there was a time not too long ago when talented actors used to be referred to as good technicians capable of memorizing lines. While this may or may not be true, expressing yourself emotionally on stage is a talent that many do not possess. One thing most people will agree on is this:  actors are the most visible of all the arts communities. They are really the talking heads of the arts world, comparable to “talking head” (broadcast) journalists.

   Consider the poor painter who does not get to appear on stage night after night to standing ovations or mild applause. The painter’s face is not plastered on billboards along Broad Street. A painter works in isolation, has an opening show at a gallery where he or she meets the public, then after that it’s all about returning to work (in isolation). 

  Art in our time has come to mean anything, from the way colorful tattoos blend into human epidermis to fancy food production in hot urban kitchens where The Chef is almost certainly…an artist. Chefs started to become “artists” sometime in the mid-1990s but the sad fact is, ‘art’ is the most abused word in the English language.

The abuse of the word ‘art’ may start in progressive schools where children are taught that “everybody is an artist,” meaning, of course, that anybody can be trained to be an artist. In such schools any sort of hierarchy of talent is seen as elitist. This is why I wince when I hear dilettantes say things like, “I’m going home to make art.” You are—really? How do you know that what you are about to make will become art?  But that’s not the point, really. The point is that because the maker declares that what he/she makes is art then it is art. It becomes art because I say it is art. End of discussion.

The dribble down effect of this kind of thinking has changed the work presented in many of the city’s art galleries.

The modern art in these galleries is not only overpriced, it is incomprehensible and just plain bad, leading many people to conclude that much of modern art is a fraud. At one Center City gallery opening recently, I went to check out the work of two modern artists.  I watched as one of the artists entered the gallery with her small entourage. Dressed to the nines in a pair of patent leather New York stilettos, the artist surveyed her “art” which was displayed in the front of the gallery closest to the door. Her paintings were a mesh of pastel colored brush strokes evoking Victoria’s Secret lingerie or long squiggly lines rising upwards like swimming spermatozoa, priced around $8,000 a piece. As the evening wore on, and it became obvious that nobody was buying (or would buy) any of her work, she left the gallery in a huff. This was long before the reception was over. The squiggly spermatozoa would now have to swim downward and be packed up and sent back to her New York sperm bank.

 I’ve witnessed similar scenarios at other galleries. One Old City gallery, for instance, seems to specialize in the work of young, hot “girl” artists. At opening receptions at this gallery one can see the artists lined up like Playboy escort bunnies, all of them in heavy makeup and heels and of course killer ringlet hair cascading down their shoulders and framing exposed cleavage. Every time I go to this gallery I think I’m attending another chic Nicole Cashman party.

I may be stereotyping, but when I imagine women artists I immediately think of peasant head kerchiefs, big bracelets, flannel shirts, or dangling Georgia O’Keefe earrings.  The glamorous Hollywood celebrity look is new and raises the question:  Are these women really the bored wives of wealthy hedge fund husbands, as somebody in the art world once suggested? This hedge fund art really has no distinction yet what comes to mind is the (wallpaper patterned) “art” that real estate agents plaster on the walls of rehabbed homes and offices before they hold an open house.

“In art,” as Picasso once wrote, “the less people understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous, and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales…. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term….I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times…”

What an admission! And yet the narcissism of our times gives untoward courage to scores of anonymous Picasso wannabes who have no trouble calling themselves artists.

All of which leads me to the philistine question: Can there ever be too much art?

          There is so much new art in the world now there could never be a museum large enough to contain it all. How can we save all of this stuff? How do we catalogue it? Art is being produced everyday, every hour and at amazing speeds.  And it is coming straight at us from every strata of society, even the sidewalks of Center City where one can see street artists sitting curbside with their exhibitions lined up along Chestnut or Walnut Street. “Art for Sale,” their signs say.  At $5 a piece the pieces are relatively cheap. Buy now, because you never know when the maker of these street absurdities and puzzles may hit the Picasso jackpot. (Yes, it’s better than playing the slot machines at Sugar House).

     So, yes, art is everywhere, even in hair salon shops where the owner/manager displays his art, beautifully framed because of the expensive prices of his cuts.  Or: go into a doctor’s office and see the doctor’s new hobby. It’s drawing or painting and he’s turned the walls of his waiting room into a small gallery. He’s an artist and—surprise! -- His pieces are beautifully framed because of his high patient prices.

      There’s flea market art; there’s also the grassroots art of the city’s many small artistic clubs like The Sketch Club and the Plastic Club, where members have monthly exhibits. These exhibits have a dual purpose; they present the work of new or lesser known artists, and they serve as ad hoc community centers because these gatherings are also parties with food, wine, and sweets. Art parties are always a good thing, even if they attract more non-artists than artists and bring in the city’s whacko reception addicts who track down all the free food and drink events in the city with the determination of a house detective.

      As for who is really an artist, I’ll defer to Scott Berkun, who said, “An Artist will risk many things, wealth, convenience, popularity, fame or even friends and family to protect the integrity of their ideas. If you’re not risking anything, and mostly doing what you are told, you’re probably not an artist. “

   So much for those Hedge Fund ladies. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Most of Modern Art is a Fraud; Slapstick Theater on Broad Street; Banning Donald Trump; Bad Book Politics at the Philadelphia Free Library

ICON MAGAZINE City Beat, January 2016

A Philadelphia Inquirer article chronicling the demise of art galleries in the city got us thinking. (1) Philadelphia is not New York. (2) Most of the population here is lowbrow. (3) Much of what passes for modern art stretches credibility. Are galleries closing because, as some have suggested, people are finally discovering that much of modern art is a fraud? At one opening recently we attempted to discern the “there there” of the work of a stiletto wearing New York-based artist in town to promote her abstracts. In some Center City galleries this is what the art world has become: bored wealthy Sunday lounger types taking up the brush as their Hedge Fund husbands foot the bill for a dilettante lifestyle. What do these “artists” produce? Intricate floral shower curtain designs; pink line graphics hinting at Victoria’s Secret underwear or splashy decorative pieces reminiscent of the “art” that real estate agents love to hang on rehabbed condo walls. The price tag for these gems is the cost of a week’s trip to Paris: $8,000 and up. Oh yes, the New York artist’s pieces did not sell. She left the opening early—and in a huff. 

    Magadalena Elias’ Everything is Illuminated exhibit at the 3rd Street Gallery on 45 N. 2nd Street got us thinking of the old gobelins tapestries that used to hang outside government buildings in France in the 1600s. Gobelins were hung from hooks as banner art when a dignitary was in town, and sometimes they were used to warm the walls of a room. Elias began weaving gobelins after the death of her good friend, Karen Lenz, but gobelin-making has been in her genes since childhood, inspired mostly by her grandfather. “In my mind’s eye I could visualize him sitting in his favorite chair, working on something he called gobelin.  As he worked, his peacefulness radiated outward and I wanted to share in that peacefulness, so I began work on my first piece, “The Inversion of Don Quixote.” Unlike that Hedge fund artist in stilettos, Elias sold three pieces in an hour but not at $8,000 a piece.    

 A taste for Sherlock Holmes mysteries is like a taste for liver and onions-- you either have it or you don’t. Add slapstick to the mix (The Three Stooges and all those pies thrown at high society dinners) and you have a comic book. The rocket-paced methamphetamine rush of Ken Ludwig’s Baskervulle, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, had us wishing we were watching Eugene O’Neill, Tom Stoppard or Tennessee Williams. A million costume changes, men with twirling mustaches, flowers that fall from the sky and land stem first in the ground, or sound effects that recall Grofe’s The Grand Canyon Suite, cannot replace a substantive narrative. While pro-slapstick fans and assorted kiddies in the audience loved the Ludwig carnival, there was no standing ovation.  The real Holmes mystery that night however was the dangerously downsized post show reception that has us worried about the financial health of one of our favorite theaters.

Michael Nutter’s cat fight with Donald Trump originated with his wish to ban Trump from Philadelphia. But banning people (and books) because of the ideas they represent only produces underdog heroes. (Philadelphia’s Friends Central School, a venerable Quaker institution, has already banned Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn because of inappropriate language). Some say the ex-mayor had to go out with a bang, and Trump was an all too- easy target. We wonder how a Trump ban would operate. Would it include spending millions to set up barriers along the Parkway? How about armed guards, Jerusalem style, along Broad Street?  Modern cities are not medieval fortresses with walls, so if Trump wanted to break Nutter’s ban he’d have to disguise himself as a Sanctuary City illegal immigrant. Then he’d be welcomed with open arms.    

Andy Kahan’s author lecture series at the Free Library has brought celebrity writers to the city with Oprah Winfrey-style pizzazz. But locally-based authors who want to jump on Kahan’s Central Library bandwagon with their new books have to swear off all other lecture circuit venues for the duration of their publicity tours. Central’s demand for promotion monogamy-- one book = one venue-- is an ingenuous way to help keep “local” authors permanently local and under the radar.   

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Philadelphia's Mayor Jim Kenney reinstates the city as a 'sanctuary city.'

Helen Gym raises a 'Power to the People' fist.  Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer photographer