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Boston Art, Marathon Bombings, Robert Lowell

Things That Got Me Thinking

By: Martin Mugar - 10/07/2013

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Poet Robert Lowell.
Poet Robert Lowell.

But so it goes for the narrators of the art world.The ones who create the still space, the gallery, where art survives.The gallerists decide: they tell the story of  who is in and who is out and as one gallery director recently told me, who will have the chance to move up the feeding chain to New York and greatness .They can start someone on the race to the top, to glory but how does it happen that one makes it, another doesn't. The problem is that the world is a very messy place. Good citizens worship at the alter of predictability.They go year in and year out to the Marathon or the July Fourth fireworks. It provides a socially acceptable venue for a little contained uncertainty.

One day some brothers from a part of the world most good Boston citizens have never heard of kill and blow off the legs of some of the spectators of the Marathon and almost end forever the fairytale of Boston, the Hub of the universe, the Athens of America. Before the perpetrators are caught our President comes to the city full of bromides and crass boosterism to pretend that we are going to bounce back, if only we tap into the enthusiasm we apply to our world championship teams.

We love our routine: every year the Red Sox will start their race to the World Series and the Marathon will proclaim  the notion and primacy of bodily strength and perseverance,  good Yankee self-reliance and discipline.And out of the blue really angry and delirious and, god forbid ,undisciplined boys who looked so all American with their love of sports and drugs stain the pretty image of the fantasm that is Boston. But don't worry: words and more words can be poured on the fire and everything will be allright .Before the victims are buried the President and the mayor describe the city as the sports mad parody of itself and proclaim it is "Boston Strong".

At the beginning of one of my favorite novels , "Voyage au But de la Nuit" by Celine we find Bardamu at place Clichy musing about the the nature of the universe with his friend Arthur Ganate. Ganate makes the claim that the passers by are not on their way to accomplish anything of any worth, they are just walking about from morning until the evening.The proof being that when it is cold or raining they are fewer in number and are probably in the cafes drinking their cafes-creme or their beers.

So it is with the art scene. The galleries, the content providers, need only content,the more contentless the better, maybe just inert content.They are just circulating like the "gens de Paris".And the artists figure this out early on. Just play the game, just show up as Woody Allen suggested. Look earnest and wear the art of the day like some hip T-Shirt. Just be sure to not be anxious or worried about the messy state of things or if you dare do so,  just do so with a certain amount of ice in our veins or as the French say: sang froid.

I recall a visit years ago to a Boston gallery.The work on display was some overly tense and fastidiously wrought sculpture by Christopher Wilmarth. The press about him talked of exquisite poetry and magic, where all I saw was someone suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder. I think he deserves all the accolades he has received but I can't help myself:  It made me nervous. The use of glass made me think that  the hidden and the dark where light cannot penetrate  had been wiped clean. How that happened I don't know? Medication, enlightenment, pure rationality? In the gallery were a couple, who appeared  to be collectors .They were being told the story of Wilmarth by the gallery director.I don't know if the story included his suicide at the age of 44. Their clothing had the same fastidiousness and precision of the sculpture. Excellent cloth,well pressed shirts. It extended to the man's nicely trimmed moustache. From the quality of the cloth I could discern that they could afford to be collectors of art. I imagined them both lawyers finessing contracts day in and day out, cool, calm and collected.They were the sort of people that were destined to buy a Wilmarth. They were people for whom the dark and hidden was not to be considered at all in their well-oiled lives.

This past year, a friend and I had some fantasies about showing in a certain Boston gallery. The gallerist even came by to our show leaving positive remarks in the guest book. All looked up and up. But the initial enthusiasm never translated into anything concrete. My gallery mate pointed out the ingenues the gallery would show and we would scratch our heads in disbelief. What he showed was so dry and predictable. My gallery mate's emotions run deep and reached back into history, with oracular depth. The void hovers around his work and almost devours it. The paintings were the artist's soul turned inside out. But we forgot to consider the clients of these gallerists,  Boston's rich and monied class, the ones who made their money playing the stock market or in real estate, All is calculation and ratiocination.Nothing messy or scary, or, if it is, make sure you keep it at the level of a hint or a sleight of hand.The numbing redundancy of affectless work.

Occasionally, Boston looks at its soul and sees sorrow and loss and does not cover it over with bombast and rhetoric. So it was with Robert Lowell 50 years ago.

At the beginning of the Sixties Boston was reduced to a parking lot with the onslaught of urban renewal. The tax base was no longer there to support the city so the Federal Government came in with cash to knock down the 19th century and to replace it with anonymous buildings reminiscent of Soviet bloc architecture. The high tech boom was years away and the Boston I remember was not a pretty place. Robert Lowell, influenced by the "Swan" of Baudelaire, who himself bemoaned the Haussmannian demolition of Paris, wrote probably his greatest poem about New England and Boston  and by extension Modernity: "For The Union Dead". So much of America can easily absorb modernity since there was little before it to resist it. Boston already had three centuries of history and much of that architecture still remains. The clash of the new and old was obvious and it was easy to side with the nobility of the past. The overarching metaphor of the poem is the transfer of the reptilian and ichthyan kingdom from the contained Aquarium to our modern world. It is not a pretty picture. But then again maybe the Boston Intelligentsia  has been engaged in a concerted battle against the "dark downward vegetating kingdom" that Lowell secretly longs for. Judging from what passes for art in Boston, they have won. Repeat after me: Despite the Marathon bombings the world is not a messy place.

FOR THE UNION DEAD by Robert Lowell, 1960

Relinquunt omnia servare rem publicam.

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles,
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking lots luxuriate like civic
sand piles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin-colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse, shaking

over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

The monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its colonel is as lean
as a compass needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die—
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small-town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year—
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets,
and muse through their sideburns.

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
showed Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, "the Rock of Ages,"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

Reposted with permission of Martin Mugar.

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