I’ve been reading Harold Brodkey. Okay. Don’t beat me up. I know he's self-indulgent, beyond baroque, masturbatory, etc. His characters are hyper-verbose and unapologetic about contradicting themselves. They are good and bad; guilty and not guilty. But at least he was intelligent. And every once in a while he says something brilliant and is even willing to admit he stole it from someone else. Like this one: “I think style is usually just the way someone gets past the pain of amateurishness.” I loved that remark. Style is the earmark of New York Culture. Artist John Currin and his wife were recently featured in the New York Times Style section. Not a painting to be seen...just their trendy staged apartment and their photo-shoot-ready attire. Two nerds transformed by ‘stylists’ into ‘icons’. Many more people will know their clothes than their artwork which is more or less worthy (another subject).
So stylists are the new spin artists, the new public relations power-mongers, the machinery which drives the Culture of Amateurishness we have become. Which makes sense--- because we have time for tweets but not editorials, texts but not letters; lunches are short, food is microwaved, internet speed is breakneck...even agricultural crops are souped up because people don’t have time to wait for seeds to germinate naturally. We are full-grown children...emotional dwarfs zipping around from relationship to relationship. We don’t have time to become ‘professional’ in the traditional sense. We are a half-baked society with empty wallets and full closets to testify to our enormous style.
So yesterday I went to this exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory of quilts--- not just any quilts, -- exclusively red and white quilts which was a sort of tradition because red-dyed cotton tended to outlast other colors and most of these were centuries old. The incredible thing is, at first this graphic carnival--- like looking at sheets of stamps or a roomful of flags. But as you began to navigate the space, and to focus in on the individual quilts, you realize that each one is the product of thousands of hours of patient, tedious work-- piecing toward a whole, stitching meticulously during spare minutes in an era when spare minutes were rare. Not to mention the last thing these seamstress/artists would have imagined is their intimate work publicly displayed in a palatial-sized urban hall being i-photo’d by thousands.
Very few quilts are signed, except the ones which bear embroidered names of church-members or family trees. They are surviving soft testimony of some kind of self-less diligence and pride of craftsmanship, mixed with an undeniable protestant work-ethic thing, and also some kind of love. They all radiate this human, imperfect, elegant hominess we seem to be missing. The feeling that millions of old fashioned minutes are sewn with the cares and worries and dreams and sorrows into these now-precious things we with all our stylish crap forgot about. Nothing we buy at Tiffany will ever compare. Personal ego-less masterpieces which altogether defined a certain ‘culture’ which to this audience was more a charming relic than nostalgia. For me it was like a giant Valentine. Straight to the writerless heart.
So outside into the Park Avenue March cold and the in-your-face super-sized sculpted colored flowers and insects which now grace our mall like cartoon monsters or Koons cousins. Grotesque monuments to our culture of juvenility. What happened to carving from a block of marble? Now we get these mould-made Nara giant smooth dolls without even the ‘character’ of trolls. Just huge unedible candy people. I thought the death of culture began when the M&M store opened in Times Square. What is wrong with people? Does the Emperor need to be stark naked?
The quilts... not facebook. The humanity-- the confiding, confessional thing...after all, people slept under these, sweated out illnesses, made love, conceived children.
So, tonight I'm back from another rock and roll extravaganza-marathon gig. I returned to a seething voicemail-lashing from my unequivocably brilliant writer/editor neighbor for reading Harold Brodkey. It was heartwarming. Not like the quilts, but otherwise. And at least I admitted it (Brodkey-esque?).
As a self-confessed amateur professional, I say signing autographs is overrated. All of us who’ve slept with celebrities know that. And getting compliments is like the first drink for an alcoholic. Accept them only if you’re willing to antidote it with a dose of self-pity. Because you need it. But to be berated by someone of truly superior intelligence is like a blessing. Maybe a Jewish blessing but a blessing nevertheless. You are worth it.