Putin on the Potomac (a painting, a prank)

New York City artist Brian Whiteley is laying claim to an epic prank executed last month at Donald Trump’s very own D.C. profit center, the Trump International Hotel. The hotel, located near the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, on the site of the Old Post Office (the site is still owned by the federal government), opened just 13 days before the 2016 election, and is the epicenter of a host of Trump-related controversies and alleged conflicts of interest.

Whiteley, who has something of a history of targeting Trump through art, says he checked into suite 435 of the hotel on the first of August, and hung his painting of Russian president Vladimir Putin on the wall. The painting shows Putin in a state of menacing repose, with the White House behind him and to his left. Whiteley says the painting, and its temporary residence at the Trump International, is a “commentary on the cult of authoritarianism” that he says the Trump regime engenders.

Per Whiteley’s account, he and an unnamed accomplice stayed one night in the suite, and after hanging the painting they went out for dinner and drinks. They met a party of Trump supporters, out on the town celebrating a birthday, and invited them back to the hotel. Whiteley and his partner say they didn’t call attention to the Putin picture, but they saw that several of their guests noticed it. One of them said, “Putin, fuck yeah.”

Whiteley says he left the painting in place after checking out, and returned a month later to find it still on display. He believes numerous hotel patrons must have stayed in the room during that interim, but none seem to have questioned its existence. Around the beginning of September he convinced lobby staff to allow him to return to the room, then unoccupied, telling them that he’d left something there during a previous stay. A doorman accompanied him, and summoned hotel security when he saw Whiteley removing the painting from the wall. Whiteley was able to prove the painting was his and that it was covering hotel-owned art (which Whiteley left undisturbed), but he says he was questioned at length and was unceremoniously ejected from the hotel.

Officials from the Trump International deny that any of this ever happened.

Read the full story at Hyperallegic.

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Labor Day ’18 – a movement on the cusp

If you’re a worker, today’s your day. Labor Day is more than just the unofficial end of summer—it’s the annual recognition of the irreplaceable role that callused hands and dripping sweat and unyielding grit have played in building our civilization. So today’s your day: enjoy your acclamation.

Tomorrow—get your ass back on the line.

Sparse celebration is about all we can expect, because that’s all the paymasters are willing to give. Like everything about the labor movement it has to be demanded in order for it to be received.

The policies of the present administration, not to mention those in conservative state legislatures all across the country, seem to have labor on its back heels. From anti-union right-to-work laws, to tax policy favoring the rich at the expense of working families, it feels as though prospects have never been darker for the foundational class of American producers.

That’s an illusion, though. Suppression from above is hardly a fresh phenomenon—what we’re seeing today is a culmination rather than a new development.

That pamphlet above dates from 1947; an eyeblink, really, after the industrial “arsenal of democracy” was mobilized to save the world. Workers were seeking a collective share of the promised peace dividend, and the Chamber of Commerce, clearly, was not having it.

So that was just an early example of the demonization of labor, but it was hardly the last. The same pols and pundits who pay lip service to the nobility of the individual worker—you’ll hear plenty of that today—sow distrust and discord when those workers collectivize and seek strength through their numbers. So it has ever been, so it will ever be.

The only answer to that, from a labor standpoint, is to stay strong and keep on keeping on. Remember that nothing, including your own dignity, has been given; you’ve had to claim it. You’ll have to continue doing that to beat back the current attacks.

This includes staying informed and getting engaged. It means not buying into the politics of divisiveness, and not voting against your own interests. It means looking beyond the present frays to a brighter future that you, and only you, will create for yourself and your family.

Labor Day reminds us that we’ve built whatever freedoms we enjoy, and that more work, unending work, is required to sustain them. And it reminds us that tomorrow when we’re back on the job, that’s Labor Day too. And so is the day after that, and the day after that.

Get informed:

5 Myths About Labor Unions

The Labor Movement: Facts & Summary

Working Families

AFL-CIO

Industrial Workers of the World

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A 15-storey tribute to Johnny Cash’s Folsom Blues

Half a century ago Johnny Cash gave two performances at Folsom Prison near Sacramento, California, and thereby shone a rare light–for that time–on prisoner rights and the need for prison reform.

Contemporary graphic artist Shepard Fairey is also a champion for prison reform. He has recently unveiled his salute, in the form of an expansive wall mural, to his spiritual forebearer, The Man in Black. Painted on the side of the Marriott Residence Inn in downtown Sacramento, it features an image of Cash in the style of a famed 1968 photo by Jim Marshall, taken at Folsom Prison. Fairey has positioned his work so that Cash’s gaze is directed toward Folsom, some 20 miles away.

Enjoy below Shepard Fairey’s description of the mural and an overview of its creation. And below that, enjoy even more Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues:

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H.P. Lovecraft’s not-so-private horror

Howard Phillips Lovecraft would have turned 128 this week. As it was, he died in 1937, aged just 46, but if he’d enjoyed such startling longevity we likely wouldn’t be discussing today what infernal bargain was keeping him alive, but rather if age, perspective, and modernity had made him any less deplorable.

H.P. Lovecraft is rightly recognized as the father of ‘cosmic horror,’ and a strong cornerstone of the entirety of the horror genre as we know it today. Giants like Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman cite his influences, and his Cthulhu Cycle continues to slo-mo morph right before our eyes, from a cracking good monster story into a modern-day mythos.

But here’s the thing. H.P. Lovecraft was an out-and-out, wholly committed racist. His racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, and bigotry were, from all evidence, core facets of his character.

So the question becomes, can you separate that from his writing? It’d probably be a cop-out to say this is an individual choice (even though it almost always is). And it can’t be denied that some of his stories (none worth naming here) were blatantly and explicitly bigoted—there shouldn’t be much argument in shunning those works wholesale.

But the others? The majority of his corpus doesn’t seem to advertise his prejudices, although the cynical might presume that as long as the protagonist was WASP-y and male, all was right in Lovecraft’s world, and he could bring on whatever was eldritch and wrong with that world.

Elsewhere in this space I’ve discussed similar, dreadful failings in another American author, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, too, brought his personal prejudices into his writing—again, not all his writings, but enough to make his readers all too aware of who and what he was.

And I like Hemingway—I like him a lot. I read and re-read A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Dangerous Summer, and many others, usually several times per year. But on the other hand, I read The Sun Also Rises and To Have and Have Not each only once. The gratuitous racism in each, frankly, turned me off and I’ve never wanted to read those books again.

The way I’ve compartmentalized that—which mirrors, probably, the way I’m compartmentalizing Lovecraft—is either a defense mechanism or an apology for men who neither asked for nor earned one. But it’s where I’ve landed on this issue.

As with the work of Ernest Hemingway, I’ll probably continue to enjoy the Lovecraft stories I like, while shunning the ones I find objectionable. And I’ll advocate for historical honesty: we should remember these authors as they were, warts and all.

Along the way I’ll honor and support anyone compelled to take it further. If you want to burn Lovecraft in effigy I won’t light your torch but I won’t douse it either.

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RIP Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942 – Aug. 16, 2016)

She was one of a kind with pipes of gold. Her privacy was preserved, for the most part, throughout a long and heart-breaking illness. She died today at home in Detroit. May the Queen of Soul rest in peace.

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They stole the crown jewels! (This is not a metaphor)

Here’s an obligatory disclaimer: thievery is bad, mmkay? And we endeavor not to encourage or glorify roguish behavior in any form. Even if it’s in really, really badass form.

On July 30th a pair of pilferers pulled off a daring daylight heist, in the form of a smash-and-grab in the Strängnäs Cathedral, near Stockholm, erstwhile home of the Swedish crown jewels. They seized two crowns and a golden orb, all dating from the 17th century, then made good their escape.

And oh what an escape. They pedaled away from the cathedral on bicycles, then transferred their loot onto a motorboat (possibly jet skis; accounts vary) and disappeared somewhere on the area’s sprawling network of lakes and waterways. They remain at large.

We repeat: thievery is bad. By the transitive property of criminal law, thieves are also bad. We condemn them.

But they stole the crown jewels, and escaped on bicycles and boats. Damn.

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A symphony for the people

I’ve boasted more than once about the state of the arts in my beloved hometown. We’re at the resilient epicenter of a rust-belt renaissance, and we take our public arts very seriously. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this burg loves to put on a show, and its citizens love to come out for it.

So come out we did, the fam and I and a couple hundred kindred, on Sunday evening to enjoy the Akron Symphony performing for us first under a perfect summer evening sky and then finally, poetically, under the stars.

I can’t quite express for you how much this 90-minute fanfare meant to me, or how much I treasured it—mostly because I lack the 75 or so strings, woodwinds, brass and the rest to recreate for you just what I experienced. The program was as eclectic as you could ask for: orchestral classics like the overture from The Barber of Seville, and Gounod’s Funeral March of the Marionette (cast your mind back and remember the opening theme of Alfred Hitchcock Presents). There was true Americana from Sousa, Gershwin, and Bernstein. And there were surprises—dancers on, below, and about the stage, and some familiar film-score selections, like West Side Story, Vertigo, and even Star Wars.

What that all added up to was a certain, perhaps unexpected, informality. There’s nothing stuffy or pretentious about music in the park, and that means it and everyone involved is relaxed and relatable.

One of the most charming examples of this was the children’s music instructor stationed near the base of the stage. Early on our conductor, Eric Benjamin, invited the cohort of “mini maestros” to come down for a lesson in waving the baton. On the first pass, the symphony started up just a tad too early. “Hey, stop,” the instructor shouted. “The kids aren’t ready.” The orchestra gamely halted, waited, and began playing again only when the children prompted them to do so.

The conducting lesson also led to one of the most unexpectedly thrilling parts of the evening for me. I was admittedly a bit jealous that I couldn’t wave my own baton, but I nonetheless led my daughter down into the tutelage environs so she could give it a go…and thereby found myself closer to an orchestra-in-action than I’d ever been, closer than I’d ever thought I could be.

It became then a full-sensory experience, one I’ll never forget. It became an encompassing onslaught; I could feel the music. It was a sort of forced synesthesia, and not at all in a bad way. Notes and measures and bars gained mass and density, right there in front of me.

I rode that out for a few numbers, and that was long enough for me to get a grip on my rhapsody, to begin paying attention, and to even snap a few pics. One thing I noticed then, that I hadn’t been able to see from further up the lawn, was just how contented the musicians appeared. Most were smiling, and all of them were displaying this sense of repose that can’t be faked, that can only come from someone in the throes of doing exactly the thing they live and love to do.

We, that lucky audience, were invited and encouraged to take pictures (no rude flashes though, please), but we were adjured from all types of recordings. I’ll admit I found myself tempted to flout that, if only to share with you some pale representation of what I saw and heard and felt. In the end I opted to do as asked, reckoning that they’d given so much I’d be a true chancre to do otherwise. I have since confirmed that the Akron Symphony has a YouTube channel, and I’d accordingly direct you there. I’ve also embedded their preview of the upcoming season below.

But in recognition of the facts that my words can’t do them justice and compressed video format can only one-up me around the margins, I’ll offer the most obvious advice, advice I’m sure comes through by way of my enthusiasm: Go see them for yourself!

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A pox on all our houses

I won’t go so far as to say this country has become ungovernable, but it surely isn’t being governed. That’s become evident as we wrap up a jaw-dropping couple of weeks. The madness coincided with Trump’s foray off-shore; he started off predictably enough: gratuitously insulting our closest allies, and doing his level best to implode the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Trump views NATO the same way he looks at everything: transactionally; and he seems to be convinced the U.S. is getting the worst of that bargain. I’d bet my life that Trump is blissfully unaware that NATO’s Article 5, the mutual-defense clause, has been invoked exactly once in the treaty’s 70-year history: by us, in the aftermath of 9/11. Our allies honored their commitment and came running.).

The real bombshell (or a barrage of them) came days later, as Trump sat down and rolled over in Finland. The story has been well-told by others, and is being busily revised as we speak by the White House, so I needn’t remind you of the horrifying tableau of a sitting U.S. president being so thoroughly dominated by that grim personification of KGB perfidy. Might not be fair to call Putin grim, though—normally that rictus he calls a smile comes nowhere near his eyes…but on this occasion, watching Trump dance for him, he seemed positively joyful.

Trump has been spinning, as he does, recasting the meanings of “would” and “wouldn’t” but more importantly, defending himself. He’s the toughest on Russia there’s ever been, he says. The summit was the greatest success, he says.

Advisory for Trump: when members of your own damned party are so befuddled by your behavior that the likeliest explanation they can come up with is that you’re being blackmailed—then no, the summit was not a success.

Of course, not all Republicans have been that forthcoming. A distressing number are still in lockstep with their leader. Most fall somewhere in the middle: willing to offer some mild rebuke for the hellscape in Helsinki, but not much more. They seem to be approaching it like they do the totality of Trumpdom: just waiting for it to blow over.

The Democrats aren’t exactly holding the high ground, however. The opposition party is united in disdain, but I haven’t seen or heard much from them other than zippy tweets and sound bytes. And much worse—they’re fundraising off this. That’s parasitic.

And it’s ample evidence of what a stain that partisanship has become on the fabric of our republic. This is not hyperbole: a chief executive who plainly and blatantly serves the interest of an unfriendly power is a clear and present danger to the nation. The only people who can possibly stop him—or even mitigate him a little—are overwhelmingly self-serving or ineffectual, or both. What we need now are patriots who’ll work together for the sake of the nation. What we have is a mob that can’t get out of its own way.

So rounding back to the beginning: are we ungovernable? Perhaps based on the system we’ve subjected ourselves to, we’re getting exactly the government we deserve.

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On this date…he threw away his shot

On July 11 1804, founding wunderkind Alexander Hamilton committed history’s most misguided act of chivalry by deliberately firing over Aaron Burr’s head during America’s most famous duel.

Burr, who was only the first U.S. vice president to shoot someone will in office, didn’t share Hamilton’s understanding of the Duel Commandments, and shot him in the breadbasket. Hamilton died the next day.

As a result we have a helluva story, and a Tony-award winning musical. What we missed out on was the probable presidency of one of our country’s most extraordinary geniuses. Crappy bargain, all things considered.

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The art of the Fourth

Happy birthday, America. Enjoy this retrospective of Independence Day in the arts…

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The way of no attachments

It’s been a quiet few weeks here at Deconstruction Central; perhaps you’ve noticed. There may or may not be a reasonable explanation for this…I guess it all depends on your definition of reasonable. I might partially blame it on a sort of paralysis born of these strange and swirling times of ours. What commentary can you make on culture, when the culture seems to have gone mad? And what can you say about art when art is failing to save us?

Oh, but those excuses ring hollow, even to me. So I’ll say just this: I took some time off to regroup and decompress. I suppose I’m nearly there.

In lieu of anything insightful to say, then, p’haps I can just share with you a glimpse of this little project that occupied a bit of my time this week past? The missus and the child were kind enough to obtain for me (as part of my massive and much-appreciated Fathers Day haul) an unpainted Buddha ceramic. It was a veritable blank slate, in a way that I think Siddhartha himself would have appreciated. I opted to go a strange route with it, and I think he might have been good with that too.

Is it an unwarranted mixing of the Eastern paradigms? Have I taken Shakyamuni down the path of the Tao, without his express approval? Maybe. But sometimes paradigm-jacking isn’t just acceptable, sometimes it’s called for. Sometimes you just gotta shake things up.

If you should meet Buddha on the road – give him my best, and tell him I said so.

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RIP Anthony Bourdain (June 25, 1956 – June 8, 2018)

This one stings. Today and in coming days we’ll be hearing a lot of descriptions for Anthony Bourdain: celebrity chef, TV host, travel guide…but to me he’ll always be remembered as an extraordinarily gifted writer.

Not sure how Bourdain preferred to think of himself—the tragic fact he took his own life hints at some conflicts that weren’t readily apparent to the world. But I do recall hearing him laugh once when someone called him a celebrity chef. He said something about not having worked as a chef in a while. “But when I was, I was a working chef. There’s a big difference.”

He could be caustic, critical, devastatingly witty…and also sensitive, charming, and always blindingly intelligent and insightful. But now it’s clear these were public faces—the private might have been very dark, very different. We just don’t know.

We know only that he leaves behind a young daughter, who must be broken by this. We know that his good friend Eric Ripert found his body, and will surely be haunted by that for life.

We know this truth: suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems. We know it leaves behind grief and anger, confusion and havoc.

I don’t want to judge Anthony Bourdain, because I don’t know what brought him to that terminal place. I want to remember him as a storyteller, as one of the most interesting people who lived in these very interesting times.

Everything’s a little darker this morning, and it’ll probably stay that way unless and until this makes some kind of sense. I suppose all we can do is hope he’s found the peace he felt was lacking.

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Weekend craftiness

So here is a purposeless little project I wrapped up this weekend—because sometimes I feel the call to make something, even if that something has no practical value whatsoever. Sometimes the making is simply for the making’s sake.

It started weeks ago when I found a wind-felled limb from a nearby maple tree, which included this odd curlicued branch. Didn’t have any sort of notion what I’d do with it, but I cut it off and brought it home, trusting that inspiration would chime in sooner or later.

And so it did. I’ve been wanting to dip my toe into lapidary for some time, and accordingly noticed that this ovoid chunk of petrified wood (which seemed apt for this project) fit rather well within the loop—even better once I stripped the bark and sanded the wood. Then I got recursive: a setting within a setting. There’s a dimple in the lower-right face of the petrified wood, so I affixed within it a small meteorite fragment. There is also (you can just see it in this image) a peridot gemstone set into short end of the maple branch. Interestingly, peridot can sometimes be found within meteorites, although judging from the price I paid for this specimen I have to assume it’s mundanely terrestrial.

There you have it. A successfully completed project lacking any objective other than to marry together some unlikely materials, and to give me something unusual to place on my desk and look at. I’ve decided to give it a grand name, inspired by its components from the past, and from afar: Space Time Continuum. Not bad for a stick, eh?

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Remembering Belleau Wood – a century of sacrifice

On Memorial Day we honor those service members who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. It’s fitting and fortuitous then that Memorial Day 2018 falls so closely to the centenary of the pivotal First World War Battle of Belleau Wood. Between June 1st and June 26th 1918, American Army and Marine forces fought alongside the French and British to stop an all-out German offensive. U.S. casualties included 1,811 killed, and more than 7,000 wounded.

Earlier that year the war’s Eastern Front had dissipated; Russia had undergone its revolution, and the victorious Bolsheviks sued for peace. Fifty German divisions were freed up for transfer to the west. By March they were arrayed against the Allied defensive lines within 100 miles of Paris. The German Spring Offensive was intended to break through and isolate the capital before the newly arrived American forces could be completely deployed. It was a solid plan, and it very well could have won the war.

Throughout May elements of five Imperial German divisions attacked all along the line around the River Marne. On the first of June they broke through around Chateau-Thierry and entered the Belleau Wood sector. They surrounded on three sides American forces, including the 2nd Division and a brigade from the 6th Marine Regiment, which were guarding the Paris-Metz Highway. These were reinforced by reserves, including the 23rd Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and the Marine 6th Machine Gun Battalion, all of whom endured an overnight forced march to take their place on the line. They were all that stood between Paris, and the German Army.

The Americans held.

The battle raged for 26 days, at times devolving to bayonet charges and hand-to-hand slaughter. The French and British lines recovered, stabilized, and they were able to reinforce the beleaguered Americans. The Germans were pushed back from Belleau Wood, and the salient left from their breakthrough was enveloped and eliminated. The Germans retreated from France, and in October began suing for peace. On November 11th 1918, World War I ended.

The bravery of American forces at Belleau Wood had repercussions beyond what they could have anticipated, beyond even the beginning of the end for the German-Austrian Central Powers. It marked the rise of the United States to world-power status. It prompted the realpolitik remapping of Europe. And it heralded the mythic prominence of the U.S. Marine Corps, reportedly referred to as Teufelshunde (“devil dogs”) by awed opposing German soldiers.

On Memorial Day 1937 the Aisne-Marne military cemetery, located near Belleau Wood, was dedicated. It includes 2,288 Allied graves, 251 of which inter unidentified remains. To this day, and hopefully for all time, American, French, and British citizens honor these graves and give thanks for the sacrifices they represent.

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Innovation to the rescue

Here are a couple inconvenient truths for you: anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) climate change is a fact, and we’re now way past the tipping point where behavior changes can avert disaster. So what is left to us?

Glad you asked.

Though the notion might be controversial to some (those with reasonable concerns about Pandora and her boxy precedent), it seems to me that innovation—science and technology—are the only viable solutions. Sure, they’re what spawned this catastrophe—in a less enlightened time we embraced the all-encompassing use of non-renewable energy without consideration of side effects. Aside from the willfully ignorant, we now know better. We’re now capable, I think (I hope), of leveraging technology to fix the mess we’ve created.

Cast your eyes toward Goodyear, venerable tire maker, corporate anchor of my hometown. They’ve recently introduced the Oxygene, a concept automotive tire based on current, available technologies that would reduce waste, promote sustainability, and actively reduce atmospheric carbon.

The Oxygene’s superstructure is semi-rigid, non-pneumatic, 3D-printed from powderized rubber waste. It houses a living sidewall, a colony of moss growing inside the tire, that’s watered by moisture picked up from the road, actively scrubbing carbon dioxide and releasing pure oxygen. And more: the photosynthesis actually creates energy—enough to power lights, road sensors, and LiFi connectivity.

If that all sounds too good to be true, well, this is where we remind ourselves this is a “concept” tire. Whether or not the Oxygene ever goes to production remains to be seen. Fingers crossed.

The point is valid, though, and it’s worth emphasizing: engineers and designers are working this problem. They’re grappling with the realities of climate change, and they’re creating viable solutions. The Oxygene tire might seem far out, in every sense of the term, but it harnesses proven, existing technologies. There’s no reason it, or something like it, can’t start converting carbon today.

Goodyear isn’t alone here. Dozens of companies are designing all manner of active carbon scrubbers. Other would-be Captain Planets are building ocean skimmers to remove the floating trash that pollute our seas, and genetically engineered organisms that can consume discarded plastic and spilled oil.

It’s lateral thinking. It’s a new, innovative approach. And it just might save the planet.

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