Portraits of Obamas are game changers

Hats off to artists Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley for their ground-breaking portraits of, respectively, Michelle and Barack Obama, unveiled this week and added to the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery. These inspiring works will forever change how we see and remember iconic national figures.

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Super Bowl LII? Sure, why not

Longtime repeat visitors to this space have probably noticed the ambivalent attitude we at Decon Central have toward pro sports in general, and in particular toward the American bacchanalia that is the Super Bowl.

Opinions vary, and this probably puts us in the minority, but we find little more than the spectacle itself appealing. Football is engaging, fun to watch, but nagging background concerns—concussions, drugs, domestic violence—are tempering forces. This and the perennial awfulness of our hometown squad make it all but impossible to pay anything except the most cursory of attention to the regular season, and most of the playoffs.

But then comes the day of the Big Game, the national sport high holy day, and our attention is drawn whether we want it to be or not. Still and all, it was largely undecided until about 36 hours ago whether we’d even watch the game.

What did it was driving by a nearby Very Conservative Drinking Establishment. The kind that Don’t Like Our Kind. Never been inside, but the frequently updated letterboard marquee has always thoroughly telegraphed the managements’ social leanings (how they must be missing that Kenyan Muslim gun-taker). Now their message is simple and succinct, to the point that they couldn’t even misspell any part of it:

The NFL Sucks.

Oh yeah, that. The temerity of taking a knee. The audacity of athletes expressing an unpopular opinion. A certain segment of these United States is turning its back on pro football, and that’s enough for some of us to tune in. So we’re watching the Super Bowl out of pure lefty contrarianism.

Bonus: we’ll get the rest of it. Beer and wings and pizza rolls, wacky commercials and over-the-top hype. And maybe we’ll get some decent football to boot.

Patriots vs. Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Why the hell not?

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Connecting with an ancient artform

One of the most important unifying threads in art, in any art, is that of connection. It is that momentary removal of time and distance between observer and creator, when they become of one mind. Intent is key here, and the phenomenon applies to even the most abstract work—if the audience can discern the thought that spurred the creativity, then the connection is made.

The question then becomes, how long and across how many cultural barriers can such a connection endure? Art is among humanity’s defining characteristics; it seems to have always been that way, with the imperative for conceptual self-expression being a constant, evidently, right down the millennia. We have glimpses of these expressions, on the walls of caves and in carefully unearthed fragments of pottery, from ancestors about whom we know almost nothing. So in viewing that which they have left for us, can we connect with them?

In some ways—perhaps. The art they’ve left us is rich in variety, and surely, in talent. But in many cases the common ground is simply lacking for us to make that contextual connection. We can appreciate a cave drawing of the now-extinct aurochs, maybe, but we can never really understand the frame of reference. Is it a hunting fetish, or an affectionate portrait? Did they fear the beast, or adore it?

There is, however, an exceedingly common cave-wall motif that spurs almost spontaneous connection: the hand prints. They’re ubiquitous among prehistoric sites right across the world, and across unimaginable spans of time. They’re instantly familiar—they remind us of what for many of us was our own earliest artistic expression. And throughout the rest of our lives, when we want to leave behind some personal signifier, a permanent wave, as it were, we leave some image of our hands.

Is that what’s going on in the caves? Is that what our ancestors were trying to say?

I threw that question to one of the people most qualified to answer it. Author and TED Senior Fellow Genevieve von Petzinger is a paleoanthropologist specializing in recurring themes in rock art dating from between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago. Her TED Talk, “Why are these 32 symbols found in ancient caves all over Europe?” is one of the most-viewed on TED’s website. And her recent book, “The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols,” was some of the best non-fiction I read last year. (No hyperbole here, I cannot recommend that book highly enough. Read it.)

Genevieve is cautious, understandably enough,  about trying to speculate as to the mindset of people who are, by definition, unknowable. But when I asked if we can conjecture that the ancient hand representations were personal declarations, a kind of ancient “Kilroy was here,” she kindly and gamely went out on that limb with me.

“The straightest answer I could give you would be that they seem to have meant different things in different times and places,” she wrote to me. “In South Africa the local rock artists make them on cave walls in places where the membrane between worlds is thought to be especially thin, so in some European contexts it’s entirely possible they were also part of some sort of shamanistic ritual. In other places they seem to have been identity marks as you suggested, and the “mutilated hands” (which really were intact hands with different fingers curled under) almost have the look of a hand sign language to them.

“So how’s that for three different possibilities right there?”

Genevieve told me of sites that include the hands of children as well as male and female adults, suggesting that leaving these marks held deep significance for entire groups. She also posited that in some places and times they might have been ownership marks, staking claims to not just the caves but the entire surrounding territories.

The interesting thing, to me, is that all of these possibilities ring both true and familiar. They are motives we can understand, even identify with. It’s true that we’ll never know with a degree of certainty which ancient artist left his hand-mark for which particular reason. But it’s likewise true that I can’t be certain of what drove Van Gogh. I think I know, and that seems to be enough for his art to connect with me. In the same way, I think I understand why, 32,500 years ago someone stood by flickering torchlight, placed their hand as a stencil on a cool rock wall, and spat pigment all around it. I think I understand what drives that act of creation.

And this melts away the eons. The connection is made.

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Vote like your world depends on it

Pro forma apologies to any committed partisans in the audience, but I’m firmly convinced that the advent of political parties in general, and our sycophantic two-party system in particular, has brought about the incremental ruination of the great American experiment in representational democracy.

It’s not like we weren’t warned.

No less an OG insider than George Washington spoke at length on the subject on the occasion of his retirement from government. I hold the good general in esteem, but without gloss. He was a slave owner—when he governed from New York he was known to rotate his slaves back to Virginia after about 11 months to prevent them from benefiting from a free-after-a-year state law. He was not, clearly, without his cultural warts, and we do ourselves no historical favors by ignoring these. But he could have been king; no one would have stopped him, indeed his fledgling nation would have tripped over itself rushing to crown him. He demurred. So his thoughts on politics and good governance are perhaps worth heeding.

His farewell speech was, in its entirety, a warning against political parties (he was never a member of one, and his two terms remain our nation’s only independent, non-partisan administration). Here’s a taste of that speech:

“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Sound a little familiar?

Despite the stranglehold the two parties currently enjoy, a slim majority of Americans pledge allegiance to neither. A slim majority of Americans also, as a matter of habit, do not vote. Correlation might not be causation, but then again sometimes it is. Independent voters (or non-voters, as the case may be), might skew left or right, in the general direction of one party platform or another, but they shouldn’t kid themselves. The parties’ primary (and secondary, tertiary, etc. etc.) ideology is power. Allegiance is no two-way street. Want proof? Read the news (start here and here).

It’s all a bit discouraging, as evidenced by that aforementioned non-voting trend, but I urge my fellow citizens to 1) take heart, and 2) VOTE. It’s one of the last morsels of sovereignty left to us, and it’s the only one they fear.

Now, don’t think I don’t recognize (and disdain) the inherent paradox. When an anti-partisan votes, he or she will almost certainly be voting for, at some place up or down the ballot, a member or members of one of those suspect parties. True enough, and nearly avoidable. For now. Remember though that the independent movement, though small, is growing. More and more non-affiliated candidates can and will run. Remember also that some candidates, even with a nominal D or R after their names, might truly choose to serve their people above their party—so do your research.

Finally, remember that in absence of a candidate, a slate, or a platform you can support (or vote against, as appropriate), you can always choose to be an issue voter.

They’re not as common as you might think. Some notable organizations have sprung up around particular issues, but they as a matter of course have captured, or been captured by, the political parties with which they’re seemingly most aligned. The result has been that voters who might seek to engage with just those issues found themselves supporting a party, whether they intended to or not.

So beware and choose wisely. And if I might be so bold let me recommend what is perhaps the most portentous issue: the environment. Think if you will that environmental consciousness is the purview of one specific political bent—to some extent that’s true. It needn’t be, though. Conservation was born from conservatism, and in any case planetary survival should be as about a non-partisan concern as one could imagine. Your ideological leanings do not mitigate your need for potable water, for breathable air, for a livable climate.

Let me be one whit bolder, even, and point you toward some fellow travelers: The Environmental Voter Project is a non-aligned movement seeking to mobilize a vast cadre of concerned citizens, and turn them into a bloc bent on saving the earth. No small goal, that, but relevant polling has been encouraging. There’s reason to believe that environmentally conscious Americans, if they show up to vote, can easily tip the next election.

Notice and heed the caveat, and vote-vote-vote. We can break the American deathgrip of partisan inequity; and, just maybe, we can start healing the planet. There’s a lot each of us can do toward both those ends, and we’re each perhaps responsible for exploring the possibilities. But there’s one indisputable duty, one that no citizen should in good conscience ignore. Please, please vote.

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Elegy for an extinction – sculptures bid farewell to a forest

The eastern hemlock was once one of the most ubiquitous conifers on this continent. By 2030 it will likely be gone forever. Sometime in the 1950s an invasive parasitic insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), was accidentally imported from east Asia, probably Japan. The aphid-like adelgid has no natural predators in the Americas, and hemlocks and spruces here have no resistance to it. For half a century only cold weather checked its spread, however a warming climate has brought an east-coast explosion of the pest. In 2009 the HWA reached New England, the primary range for the eastern hemlock. Existent stands of this stately evergreen have been decimated, and hopes for its recovery and survival are dim at best.

Sometimes all you can do is say goodbye.

Harvard Forest is a 3,000-acre research preserve operated by the university, and located near Petersham, Massachusetts. It is home—for now—of one of the largest surviving stands of eastern hemlocks, although these too are under sustained attack by the HWA. In an effort to educate the public about species loss, and to also offer a somber salute to a dying friend, Harvard Forest is hosting Hemlock Hospice, an art and science collaboration focusing on this slow-motion ecological disaster.

Created by artist David Buckley Borden and ecologist Aaron Ellison, the installation consists of 18 deeply symbolic naturalistic sculptures, situated throughout the forest and intrinsic with both dead and living eastern hemlocks. These are augmented with educational kiosks describing the storied past and mournful fate of this tree, and the broader ecology  that exists with and around it.

Hemlock Hospice is an open-air, self-guided installation, and is scheduled to run through November, 2018. The Sixth Great Extinction, meanwhile, presses on.

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Golden Globes as presidential auditions?

All due respect to Oprah, but haven’t we learned a little bit about the fitness of media personalities for high(est) office?

Assuming the underneath of your rock receives decent broadcast signals, you probably know that Oprah Winfrey accepted the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award during the Sunday, January 7th Golden Globe awards. Her acceptance speech was met with paroxysms of coastal joy, leading to swift and sure talk of presidential aspirations. Oprah says she’s interested. #Oprah2020 is trending. An early coronation like this can be enough to shut down the party primary process altogether.

Don’t get me wrong. Oprah Winfrey is intelligent and capable, and at the tops of her industry for good and plentiful reasons. For our first woman president, we could do far worse. For our second TV star turned president, well, we have done far worse. So no, I don’t think Oprah would be anything like a trainwreck.

But what she wouldn’t be is as well versed in policy, law, foreign relations, military matters, and the thousand other minutiae that our next president needs to be steeped in from day one.

We cannot afford another president with a learning curve.

Unfortunately what we seem to be seeing here is the moneyed elite of the American left—possibly with nothing but the best intentions—falling into another self-inflicted, election-losing trap. They’re cheer-leading themselves, and each other, and assuming that the rest of the country is inclined to join their pep rally. Most damning, they’re committing the cardinal electoral sin of not being serious.

Times have never been more serious. The interim between now and November 2020 won’t get any less so. We’ll need serious solutions from serious candidates. If we’re stuck with this insult of a two-party system, and I suppose that for now we are, then we need an opposition party that mobilizes ideas, ideals, knowledge, and fortitude. We need an opposition party that can and will fix what’s wrong with our nation and our society.

If they’re instead glomming onto the first famous face willing to run? What exactly is that in opposition to?


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Resolution Revolution

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In the small amount of informal surveying I’ve done (friends and family, mostly; so perhaps not a representative demographic but surely an awesome one), I’ve found that most of us don’t muck about with New Years resolutions.

And perhaps there’s reasonable justification for that. Maybe there’s a feeling of artificiality, or maybe even self-sabotage, in designating this one wintry season as the time to stop doing this, or lose a few pounds of that. Some of us might feel that self-improvement, in whatever form, needs to be a year-round endeavor, and that focusing on it only when the calendar ticks over is at best merely dabbling in personal transformation, and a willful delusion at worst.

Again, maybe. But to those friends I’d respectfully point to the histories of every culture, of all of our ancestors. The ringing-in of a new year has always been a time for reflection—for a tallying up of the pluses and naughts of the year past, and of the charting out of a better way for the year to come.

And it can be argued that there’s never been a more needful time for that kind of reflection and adjustment. Anno dead-to-me 2017 was objectively awful, and I feel safe in declaring that I’m not the only one who thinks so. Something has happened over the last 12 months that seemed to inject into us all a junkie-sized dose of anger and unease. It seems to cut across all boundaries—even the zero-sum winners in the political and economic spheres appear unable to enjoy the fruits of their victories. They too are as pent up with this unnamed apprehension as the rest of us.

I fear this is a recipe for disaster. I fear this is how societies begin tearing themselves apart.

You might call it naive to think that a banal tradition like new years resolutions could have any impact on that, and maybe you’d be right. But I have to hold on to some related suppositions: That we haven’t gone off the rails so far that we can’t find our way back. That all of us, collectively and individually, have both the ability and responsibility to make that effort. And that we’re best positioned to do so when we’re living our best possible lives.

So if it helps, don’t bother calling it a resolution for the new year. And maybe don’t get so granular with the prescriptions and proscriptions. It could just be a matter of striving to do better, to feel better, to try your best. Those are highly personal, individualized programs, but if I might generalize, I can offer a few suggestions.  Be less sedentary, be more active. Strenuous exercise is of course off the menu for some of us, and all of us have some limitation or other. But all of us can do something. So push yourself, a little. Get your heart rate up, and generate a bit of sweat. Next week, generate a bit more.

Expand your mind. Learn something new. You have at your disposal unimaginable resources for self-driven education, so by all means, use them. Educate yourself about something that compels you, that fascinates you. Then educate yourself about something that’s dry and boring, but vital for the future of our people.

And relax, recharge, and rejuvenate. Do so often. Breathe. Meditate. If “meditation” sounds too tie-dyed and new-agey for you, then call it something else; it’s nothing more than your well-deserved and thoroughly necessary quiet time, for the purposes of getting your shit in order. So attend to that.

At midnight, 2017 will be behind us. There’s no reason to think 2018 is going to be all that better, but then again, there’s also no reason it can’t be. And it will be, if we choose to make it so. If we resolve to make it so, you might say.

Happy new year, and do not fret. We got this.

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Creative resistance

At the time it sure felt like 2016 was the culmination of the old “May you live in interesting times” hex. But just as the new climate-change normal leads us to designate each year as the hottest on record—but only until the next one—this waning 2017 is well on track to ante-up the 2016-level of awfulness we thought we knew so well.

The ways in which this is true are almost too exhausting to enumerate, but let’s start with the culture wars, which have scorched the earth more completely than ever this year. With the Trumpian brand of conservatism seemingly triumphant, the cultural warriors that count themselves as the MAGA rank-and-file have felt emboldened to roll back not just the agents and elements of social progress, but the very clock itself. Welcome to neo-nazi yesteryear.

The irony is that the kleptocrats at the apex of this treasonous pyramid do not, near as I can tell, care one whit about social issues, or even about traditionally defined conservatism. The do care about power, and its attendant keys to the national treasury. They’ll hold the former and plunder the latter by way of a culture war, and through the agency of the self-deceiving crypto-conservatives who believe that a Supreme Court seat, and a regressive Department of Education, and state-sanctioned religious intolerance, and a thousand other culture-war battlefronts—are all worth the price of a Trump presidency.

That’s more than an assault on democracy, it’s an assault on reason; and pity though we might the slow-counters who’ve run that math and somehow came away liking the numbers, what we cannot afford to do is offer them any quarter.

So resist, my friends. Let 2017 be remembered as the year we began resisting at every turn.

The overarching goal is to put an end to this illegitimate regime and see its architects frog-marched into the cells they’ve so thoroughly earned. That’s a long, heavy lift; I’m not sure how long it’ll take or how successful or satisfying its outcome will be. But that’s the prize upon which we’ll keep our eyes.

In the meantime, though, let’s not shrink from more modest goals. Let’s do everything we can to fight the culture war everywhere, all the time. Let’s get creative in that respect.

I hold up as inspiration the city of Memphis: like much of the south this city hosts an inordinate number of Confederate war memorials—not, for the most part, erected in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but mostly dating from the latter half of the 20th century. They were a slap in the face, in other words, to the Civil Rights movement.

Recognizing them for the civic embarrassments they are, Memphis has been trying for years to decommission them. The city has been stymied, though, by a 2013 Tennessee state law that prohibits the “removal, relocation, or renaming” of statues, monuments, or memorials located on public lands.

So Memphis got creative.

Over the last several weeks, Memphis has transferred the ownership of several city parks—ones in which particularly egregious Confederate statuary are sited—to a non-profit, non-governmental entity that was created specifically for this purpose. That non-profit has been busily hauling down the racist monuments and carting them away.

You can almost hear the neo-Confederates howling.

Trump will undoubtedly howl too, although as noted it’s highly unlikely that this Queens, NY land developer and reality-show host really cares all that much about southern culture and heritage. His legions (30% and dwindling) do care, though, so he has to seem to care as well. He’ll howl, they’ll howl…and we’ll howl right back.

That’s how this war will be fought, folks. It’ll be slow and unseemly, and the bad guys will occasionally win.

That doesn’t change the imperative. In a war with these stakes, there’s no battle—not one—not worth fighting.

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That you, Banksy?

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It’s probably a little more common to snap a credible picture of Nessie than it is to catch the world’s most elusive street artist in action. But a British tourist in Bethlehem thinks that’s just what he’s done.

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The photo to the left was captured last week by Jason Stellios of Essex, near a Banksy-sponsored project which is said to mark the anniversary of the creation of the modern state of Israel. Stellios says that at the time he didn’t recognize much significance in the picture he took—just another cargo-shorts-wearing, middle-aged stencil spray-painter. But in the following days, when he learned that the grotto-artwork (“Peace on Earth *terms and conditions apply”) now features prominently on the landing page of Banksy’s website, it occurred to him that he might have captured something extraordinary.

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Well, maybe. But Banksy has been notably adept to date at avoiding identification. Should we believe that one lucky tourist put an end to that, in broad daylight, with the man of mystery himself glancing furtively over his shoulder and looking for all the world like Anthony Bourdain starring in a spy-spoof? Say it ain’t so, Banksy. Say it ain’t so.

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The kid stays in the picture – Met declines to censor 1938 painting

Given recent cultural shockwaves around the eternally fraught subject of sexual politics, no one should be terribly surprised that a painting which appears to depict a suggestively posed prepubescent girl is now in the spotlight, and in the cross-hairs.

Those cross-hairs take the form of a popular petition, around 8,000 signatures strong, presented this week to New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The target is Thérèse Dreaming, a 1938 work by French-Polish modernist painter Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola).

Balthus’ work is perhaps deserving of such scrutiny—he had a reputation for unsavory representation of young females (his earlier work The Guitar Lesson is far more questionable—and be warned that link is decidedly NSFW).

Artist’s intentions aside, we should ask ourselves whether potential objectification is, or should be, within the mind of the beholder. One interpretation could be that Thérèse is simply dreaming, or daydreaming; her innocence and lack of self-consciousness has eased her into a physical arrangement that others might sexualize, but for her is just the wholeness of the here and now. Balthus and others of malicious orientation might attempt to overlay their perversions on children, and I fully agree we should protect them from that. But I think we do them a disservice if that protection comes at the cost of their innocence and agency. Let a kid be a kid, in other words.

In any case, and possibly because the petition itself was rather ambiguous (its title included the phrase “Remove Balthus’ Suggestive Painting,” but the text contradicted that, and merely called for The Met to “more carefully vet” its collection), the museum declined to take action. Specifically, The Met confirmed that the painting will remain on display, and welcomes the conversation it has sparked.

Which, I assert, is a pretty admirable position. Art should challenge, and we need to talk about those challenges. Yes, the exploitation of vulnerable populations is reprehensible, all the more so because it’s been done with impunity for most of human history. We’re at a watershed moment where that impunity is being knocked back on its heels. But is there risk of overreach? And might that overreach include artistic censorship?

Hard questions, with no easy answers. And that’s why we need to talk it through.

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RIP David Cassidy (April 12, 1950 – Nov. 21, 2017)

A little bit of the seventies died yesterday. Rest in peace, Keith P.

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#ItsOnUs – This mess is our mess, fellas

The change in dynamic has been palpable and unstoppable, ever since Harvey Weinstein was outed as a sexual predator. Sure, there’d been naming and shaming before that, with varying level of impacts—Cosby acquitted, Fox News gutted. But the Weinstein story opened the floodgates, with the accusations now coming at us in a fast and furious pace.

There’s enough of that in the public realm now that we can begin to categorize it—although doing so risks generalizing incidents that might represent the most objectively awful moments in some victims’ lives. Still, it seems to me, that the behavior reported falls into one of these tiers: criminality (i.e., you belong in jail, and hopefully that’s where you’re headed), dehumanization (you’re accustomed to treating men, women, and children as your personal playthings), disrespect (you’ve treated people with anything less than the dignity, professionalism, and respect that they deserve).

There seems to be a descending hierarchy of gravity there, but that’s nuance, and perhaps, legality. Some of that behavior will land you in jail, some won’t. But make no mistake, it’s all wrong. If you have the slightest moral compass, even if you’ve somehow convinced yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t need to control yourself, you know it’s wrong.

So men (because let us accept this fact: the overwhelming majority of perpetrators we’re talking about are men), if you’ve crossed any of those lines, at any point in your life, you know you did it, and you know it was wrong.

Those living the very public lives, celebrities and the like, who are guilty but not yet named-and-shamed, must be sweating bullets right about now. Because they also very well see that the floodgates are open, and that their time in the pillory is surely just around the bend.

But here’s the thing that implies this momentum can change all of society, not just Hollywood: You don’t have to be a celebrity to be a scumbag. There are a lot more faceless, everyday harassers and abusers among the general population, than there will ever be publicly shamed within the pages of The New Yorker.

That doesn’t mean the shame isn’t coming. The tide is turning—it has turned—and we won’t be getting away with neanderthal behavior much longer.

I said we. I am guilty of treating female colleagues with less than the level of dignity, professionalism, and respect that they deserve.

I’m not writing this to purge myself of culpability, or to make it about me in any way. So I won’t go into a lot of details, other than to say that the behavior I’m admitting to was decades ago—I’ve changed somewhat since becoming a husband and father. I also don’t think it ever rose to the levels of criminality.

None of that excuses anything, though. Because, just like every man who acts this way, I knew I was doing wrong. I did it anyway. How can there possibly be an excuse for that?

I say, therefore, that this is on us, we who act wrongly, have acted wrongly, who condone such acts, who stand idly by while it happens to others. If we’re guilty we’ll carry that load forever; we cannot change what we’ve done. But we can now begin to be agents of positive change.

Start with your own admission, to yourself if no one else. If you’ve done wrong, you know it; you need to dredge that guilt up to the light of day and examine it, probably for your very first time. Recognize what you’ve done, make amends, never do it again.

But don’t stop there, because this thing seems to have a generational life of its own. No male mentor ever told you not to act like a jackass? Well yes, you shouldn’t have needed to be told that, but don’t let that stop you from breaking the cycle. Tell your sons, tell the young men who admire and respect you: Do not act this way. Treat your co-workers, treat everyone, with dignity and respect.

No one deserves to be treated with anything less. Those of us who’ve crossed the line, we knew that, but somehow it wasn’t enough to stop us. But now we can be sure that real consequences are coming: unemployment, public disgrace, jail time. If we can’t change our ways, and we can’t make others change theirs, then this will be the very least that we deserve.

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This Van Gogh has been hiding a secret

Call it a hazard of painting plein air (or maybe call it, “stilled life”). Vincent Van Gogh, mostly known for his sweetly tragic tenure, is nearly as celebrated for his extraordinary oil-painting technique and masterful interpretation of nature. Like the majority of his landscapes, Olive Trees (1889) was created outdoors, in the elements, amidst the artist’s inspiration. That setting, along with Van Gogh’s habit of deeply layering whorls of paint, has produced a 128-year-old surprise.

During recent study to update the artwork’s catalog entry, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which has owned Olive Trees since 1932, discovered the remains of a small, very dead grasshopper locked within the oil paint in the lower foreground. The carcass is essentially microscopic, and is not visible to the naked eye.

Curators contacted investigative entomologists, in hopes that examination of the insect might offer insight into Van Gogh’s process, and perhaps might identify the season in which Olive Trees was painted.

Unfortunately little could be discerned—the thorax and abdomen of the grasshopper are missing, complicating species identification. The experts did note that the surrounding paint did not seem to be disturbed, suggesting that the grasshopper was already dead when it landed on the canvas. Most likely it was wind-borne.

Interestingly, this was a phenomenon that Van Gogh seemed to be familiar with. In a letter to his brother, penned a few years before the creation of Olive Trees, he wrote, “…I must have picked up a good hundred flies and more off the four canvases you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand…”.

So is there a lesson to be learned from this well-traveled bug’s misadventure, or is it merely an art-history curiosity? Hard to say. Maybe it simply presents an apt metaphor: Do you yearn to learn more about Van Gogh, about painting, about art, about life? Then all you need to do is take a closer look.

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The process

It’s rainy and cool here in Deconstruction Central; seasons are changing and the wheel of the year is looping back to its wintry starting point. It is a time of adjustments.

And how we adjust, the process of adjusting, couldn’t possibly be more personal. It’s a puzzle we all must solve, each in our own way.

Another purely personal process, and a related one, is that of creation. Let us all create, and let us all do it our very own way. I cannot think of a better time to engage in creation—it can’t help but to ease this path we’re on, and to help us face these changes with clearer minds and somewhat less burdened souls.

With that in mind, let’s give a hearty thanks to artist extraordinaire Samantha Schumaker for this glimpse into her process. May she help light the spark of our own creative fires….

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A tale of two Renoirs

Let’s begin with what we know: Pierre-August Renoir completed “Two Sisters (On the Terrace)” in 1881. He made no copies.

We know that, in the present day, two separate entities claim they own this original Renoir masterpiece. One is the Art Institute of Chicago. The other is the president of the United States.

The Chicago Sisters has hung in the gallery since it was donated in 1933 by Annie Swan Coburn. Coburn purchased it in 1925 from dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who in turn had purchased it directly from the artist upon its completion in 1881, for 1,500 francs (source).

The version that hangs in Trump Tower may or may not boast such bulletproof provenance. Trump isn’t saying. He insists that his is the original Sisters (he is in fact said to boast often about owning an original Renoir) but declines to share any particulars of its purchase or its history.

We’ve explored in this space often the fraud and deceit that’s endemic to the art world. Well-meaning patrons, cognoscenti, even world-class institutions can and do get taken by talented forgers far more often than most of them would care to admit. Both claimants to the ownership of “Two Sisters (On the Terrace)” would likely be embarrassed should it be revealed theirs was a fake. We can only speculate which would be more averse to embarrassment—and what lengths they might go to avoid such an admission.

To date Trump has resisted all suggestions regarding unbiased authentication of his Renoir, continuing to simply insist that it’s the original. He’s content, evidently, that his word alone should settle the matter.

And so in lieu of employment of the scientific method, we can only once again turn to what we know, and let Occam’s Razor do the rest. Who is more credible, Trump or the AIC? Which is more likely to admit a mistake? Which of them seem most likely to stick to their version of the story, no matter where the facts lead us?

It could very well be that Trump owns the original Renoir, and that the Art Institute of Chicago has been and continues to be snookered. But that’s hardly the point. The point, the overarching lesson—and it’s one that has implications far, far beyond the art world—is that Donald J. Trump has so thoroughly destroyed his own credibility, through his own actions, his personality, and his pathologies, that the razor wielded by Occam pretty much insists to us that Trump is lying. Every time, all the time.

Our own American pathology includes this defensive tic: All politicians lie. It’s one of the ways we force ourselves to accept that which should be completely unacceptable.

But here we’ve gone through the looking glass—here we have a elected specimen that lies so often, reflexively and in the face of easily proven opposing evidence, that we have to assume he lies with every word. If Trump tells you it’s sunny, do yourself a solid and grab an umbrella.

And his Renoir? I’ll be prepared to believe it’s genuine only on the day he publicly declares it a fake.

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