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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.