Piazza d’Italia – New Orleans

November 28, 2013

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I remember when this …er..ensemble was created, and the incredible press it got.  “The End of Modernism!!” shouted the critics, and the bravos of the Post-Modern wave.  Eh, what..?

Created to commemorate the contribution of Italian immigrants to New Orleans, not the most prominent group in NOLA consciousness, it’s true, it was declared a masterpiece by some.  What I did not know was that barely a few years later, it was decrepit and unused, a lonely architectural joke in a location where the expected development did not occur.  Some quipped it was the world’s first post-modern ruin.

This self-conscious pastiche has learned a bit too much from Las Vegas and Robert Venturi’s take on it, for my taste.  Fine for the backyard of a trendy summer house or an architect’s getaway, but as a node in a downtown urban redevelopment scheme?  As this interesting recap of the birth, death, and rebirth of the plaza quoted:

 Lake Douglas, a New Orleans resident and a long-standing contributor to this magazine, may have said it best 25 years ago in a piece for Architectural Review. “[The piazza] is a wonderful, capricious architectural joke that one cannot appreciate unless one has a sense of humor to match the architects’, one understands the elements of classical architecture and the confused state of contemporary architecture, and one is privy to the customs of New Orleans,”

Douglas wrote. “Perhaps with the Italian Piazza, pop architecture has advanced into elite architecture, and that may be the ultimate architectural joke.”

It’s all been refurbished now, to the tune of one million dollars, and it looks pretty much as when it was unveiled.  It sits in a lot  between a giant hotel and, I think a parking lot.  Not exactly an eye-catching spot.  Maybe in better weather there is more life to it, but for me, happening on it by chance and instantly recalling the picture of it on a magazine cover years ago, it was as if Disneyland had just landed in front of my car in New Orleans.

NYC Memorials, and Other Matters

September 4, 2013

A beautiful post-summer day in NYC, and I went for a walk during lunch.   Of course, I spent time in the cemetery of Trinity Church, where they’ve taken to putting up small informative signs for tourists, including one in front of the gravestone shown above.  It says Charlotte Temple on it, which is the name of a novel that was wildly popular in late 18th century America, but there is some doubt as to why it’s there.  (Reminds me of a recent article about the pseudo-grave of Nick Beef, next to Lee Harvey Oswald’s final place of rest.)


A NYTimes article from several years ago says that a researcher got the church to lift the slab to see what’s under it, but there is no burial vault, however, that doesn’t mean that no one is buried there.  The little sign says that the inscription may have been carved by a bored stoneworker during construction work on the church.  I like that explanation – the artistically inclined skilled artisan class, and all that.

Further on my walk, I encountered a very odd place for NYC:  the sign in the window says as much – “It’s free.  We know that’s hard to believe in NYC!” The place is a nice modern storefront called Charlotte’s Place, and it has tables, computers, books, and spaces for sitting, talking, meeting, and other sociable activities. It is completely free, and is maintained as a resource for the community, by Trinity Church it seems.  An anonymous grave which might house no one and a free space for anyone, all from Charlotte.

Continuing, I walked past the souvenir shop for the 9/11 Memorial: I have visited the memorial site and walked around, but never been in the store.

In an interview a few years after the destruction of the WTC, Phillip Roth was quoted on the “kitchification” of the event and its victims.  I have commented before on what I feel is a rather ghoulish or morbid preoccupation with this horrible event, so I have not much to say other than that I found the store depressing and faintly nauseating, and, as that phrase I hate goes, “It is what it is…”  Seems appropriate for once.

At least while I was there I noticed this gem of a façade – sorry for the bad pic, but I didn’t have my camera, and only real estate firms had images online – which is at 125 Liberty Street.

Meanwhile, nearby, the slow, laborious work on Calatrava’s Faberge egg of a transit hub continues…  As the article correctly remarks:

It is important to note how the projects within the World Trade Center are unique in the sense that they were, and continue to be, fueled by emotions associated with the 9/11 attacks.

Potemkin Quoins of the Suburban Realm

February 1, 2013


I see a lot of this sort of architectural gimcrackery around my neighborhood.  It’s all EPS, expanded polystyrene foam.  The illustration below isn’t all that different from sales materials of 19th century Victorian gingerbread builders, but they used factory-cut wooden ornament. (Sometimes wood posed as structural stone.)


I am especially taken with quoins; I have always liked them, the massive, protectors of the corners of buildings.



Adolf Loos knew it all, and denounced it with his characteristic verve in this essay from Ver Sacrum (1898), Potemkin Village.  He was attacking the new Ringstrasse of Vienna, with its neo (pseudo) baroque splendor.

Yes, literally nail on! For these Renaissance and Baroque palaces are not actu­ally made out of the material of which they seem. Some pretend that they are made of stone, like the Roman and Tuscan palaces; others of stucco, like the buildings of the Viennese Baroque. But they are neither. Their ornamental details, their corbels, festoons, cartouches, and denticulation, are nailed-on poured cement. Of course, this technique too, which comes into use for the first time in this century, is perfectly legitimate. But it does not do to use it with forms whose origin is intimately bound up with a specific material simply because no technical difficulties stand in the way. It would have been the artist’s task to find a new formal language for new materials. Everything else is imitation.

Thomas Kinkade – Artist for the People

April 11, 2012

Thomas Kinkade, the “most collected,” “most successful,” most this-and-that artist of America today died a few days ago.  I come here neither to bury, praise, or damn him, but only to mull over the curious intersection of aesthetic and cultural issues that his work occupies.  His paintings bring to mind Walter Benjamin, of course, whom I have belittled in an earlier post.  I should read his work again since I refer to it so often: perhaps I would have a more favorable opinion today.  At any rate, Balzac may have said it best when he foresaw the pickle of modern art in the advancing machine age:

While working for the masses, modern industry progressively destroys works of art that had been as personal for the buyer as for the creator.  Nowadays, we have products; we no longer have works.

And products a-plenty we have by Kinkade!  I believe he rarely sold his original oils, but the reproductions, the franchises for furniture, dinnerware, galleries, pillows, and other items are a business with annual revenue in the many tens of millions of dollars.  He is an artist who is scorned by the ‘critical establishment’, although he claims the hostility is a one-way thing: he loves Franz Kline and Rothko.  The word ‘kitsch‘ comes up frequently in evaluations of his oeuvre.  (Beware, one man’s kitsch is another man’s living room!)

The image at the top is typical of a large number of his paintings, a serene landscape, while others are religious, genre, or even sci-fi almost surreal. One of the few art critics sympathetic to his work quips that he is a ‘conceptual’ artist because his work is driven by his desire to give visual form to his ideas and values:  Christianity; family; patriotism, among them.  Other academics cite the eerie similarity of his career to that of Andy Warhol, who referred to his studio as The Factory, and who made no qualms about blurring or completely rejecting the line between Art and Commerce. (see Heaven on Earth)

Kinkade’s art is a perfect target for the satire of Komar and Melamid, purveyors of ‘nostalgic realism,’ who also did a market resarch project to determine what paintings people want, and created images to meet the need.  Kinkade, judging by his commercial success, has the talent to sniff out what people want and need on their walls without the benefit of professional pollsters.  He acknowledges this, and is proud of it.  As far as he is concerned, what is the point of artists having contempt for the taste of most people on the planet?  Doesn’t he have a point?  It’s just that I would rather look at older art, skipping the contemporary stuff, instead of Kinkade’s art.  But let’s look at a few…

The two images below are very typical of his work, and I cannot bear to look at them.  I find them simply ugly, boring, meretricious, and profoundly irritating.  They are chock full of symbolism according to Kinkadists.  So are Renaissance landscapes and action scenes.  I was just looking at an engraving by Durer of Adam and Eve that Panofsky analyses in terms of the animals signifying the four humours of the body, among other things.  Personally, that rather arcane aspect of art history never interested me.


The seascape below on the left, the style is that of the bulk of his work, strikes me as soporific.  I feel I’ve seen it in countless waiting rooms.  Not painful to see, but nothing interesting.  The one on the right is simply weird, and not too exciting given the terrifying nature of the monster.  It’s a bit too literal for me. [Note:  comments by Sledpress lead me to wonder if this is not actually a Kinkade.]

Okay, with these images below, we have evidence that Kinkade can certainly paint.  Both are rather attractive, though I find the one on the left to be a visual cliché for calendars and more office waiting rooms.  It is very much in the style of Andrew Wyeth, I think, and boy, is he popular!  I like the one on the right, but it is unusual in his catalogue. Technique is only part of being an artist, though a part too much scorned in the modern era.  On the other hand, as professor once remarked to me, we have Bougouereau, who we might call a great painter, and a lousy artist.

Below, a workmanlike urban landscape: glowing, unremarkable, and dull; a rural scene in Guatemala that captures some sense of the place, almost plein air impressionistic – pretty good, but atypical of his production.

The image on the left below is pretty good:  I happen to have a weakness for that type of color and light.  Kinkade is called, or refers to himself as The Painter of Light, a monniker that the Impressionists would have been happy with.  So too would the Luminists of the turn of the 20th century period.  The image on the right by Maxfield Parrish shows Kinkades stylistic pedigree, I think, but he would never include figures in such a bewitching state of languor.

The Whitney Museum of Art in NYC scorns Kinkade, and the hostility is returned.  He’d like to build his own museum (an anti-art museum, to his critics) right next door.  But as Heaven on Earth points out, The Whitney began as an institution championing American Regionalism – Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Reginald Marsh, etc. – against the effete strains of European modernism, an art historical irony.  Kinkade has affinities with this sort of art, as shown by his American slice-of-life image of the Indianapolis 500.  Reginald Marsh painted crowd scenes of American’s at play, but he was very prone to showing sex and violence, not in Kinkade’s line.

So Kinkade gives people what they want, and what they want is based on their unchallenged preconceptions.  Does art always have to be new?  Must it épater le bourgeois always?  (And are Kinkade’s buyers actually the same group as the bourgeois  so reviled by the avant garde?  One critic locates his market square in the working class, whatever that is these days in America.  That’s a nice culturo-politico irony too.) Where is it written that art must challenge the ideas of the day?  That’s a prejudice of the avant garde that developed during the 19th century and that is shot through with intellectual and political elitism, even when it’s directed at championing what it sees as the causes of the masses.

Much of the “great art” that is universally applauded by the cognoscenti, even as they condescend to it from the pinnacle of today’s art, was produced exactly as Kinkade’s was.  That is, for patrons who knew what they wanted, and wanted nothing else. Much of the art then was boring, and we don’t see it in museums:  we see only the best of it.  Think of all those Dutch still-lifes and landscapes: they aren’t all masterpieces!  Some of them seem to have been churned out pretty much by the numbers.  Kinkade simply adapts that approach to the age of consumerism, and broadens the reach of his patronage to include everyone!

Behind the critical disdain for his work is usually an intense strain of snobbism and elitism, and a failure to acknowledge that these days, we are all part of a market, a lifestyle segment, a target demographic, even if we don’t embrace the fact, even if we are acutely aware of the fact, even if it is a very small and select group after all.  Scorn and ridicule are out of place here.  If people like this stuff, then…so what?  If you find it boring, spend your time and money elsewhere.  Is there anything new under the sun here that should get you all hot and bothered?

A matter of taste, again…

February 7, 2011

Victory Arch - Iran/Iraq War .

Disgusting, vulgar, obscenely kitsch – some of the comments that are heard about Saddam Hussein’s Victor Arch, which is now being restored in Baghdad.  One scholar wrote an entire book on the subject of Saddam’s artistic output. [Edward Said felt that the author, Kanan Makiya, an erstwhile booster of the GWB invasion, had tainted motives for his critical tirade.]

One man’s kitsch is another man’s living room. Tolstoy had the same opinion of Napoleon as we have of Saddam, but Boney is a “great man,” and his monuments are gawked at with admiration and reverence by millions of civilized westerners

Napoleon celebrates Austerlitz


January 10, 2010

Iguan-erot:  (noun) Images of women with lizards, primarily iguanas, intended to produce erotic arousal or laughter.  [Derived from iguana + erot(ic);  “Among the most bizarre manifestations of displaced erotic force is … R. von Craft-Dubbing, Psychopathis Sexualis, 1901]

The Wave

November 15, 2009

Another view of Mount Fuji

As I posted earlier, I have been venturing into Japanese flower arranging.  The pull of the Japanese minimalist aesthetic is very powerful for me, and I was first introduced to it in college when I took a survey course on Japanese art.  I have thought about it a lot, and I decided to write my professor a thank-you note about it – thirty years late.  It took a bit of doing to locate her – her name has changed – and in searching, I came across a talk she gave about this famous print by Hokusai, “The Great Wave.”  [Complete talk  here:  Totebags, Teeshirts, and Tableware: The Domestication of Hokusai’s Great Wave.]

In her talk, she addresses issues of the commercialization of art, mass reproduction of images and commoditization for the consumer economy, cultural appropriation of icons, and the history of japonisme in Western art.  The latter has been known for a century among art scholars as an important influence on Art Nouveau, Impressionism, and other trends, but it was brought to the fore in the public mind with one of Thomas Hoving’s first “blockbuster” exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Among the ironies Professor Guth points out is that in Japan in the 1970s, Hokusai, and the Ukiyo-e genre in which he worked, was not exactly a universally lauded high point of Japanese culture.  Indeed, he was considered a practioner of a rather disreputable art form, and not a member of the high-art pantheon, not the least  because he worked in woodblock prints, a medium intended for popular mass consumption.  Ukiyo-e, the floating world, is the culture of the pleasure district, if not the red light district, and one of his more kinky essays in that direction is shown here:


Imagine this on display in a high-profile exhibit of loan works from Japan during its heyday as the International Bogeyman of the American economy!

Guth takes a broad minded view of the inevitable mixing of art and commerce, tracing the ways in which museums aided the transformation of The Great Wave into one of the most recognizable images of Japanese art today.  She dismisses the attitude of one critic whom she quotes early on as saying that museums must hold the line between art and mass-consumption, accepting the situation of today.  After all, anytime you put a person in front of art, you never know what kind of experience they will have.  An opposing view, whether from the right or the left of the political spectrum, decries the degeneration of cultural capital in favor of profit, spectacle, kitsch…etc., sharing a remarkably similar lack of confidence in the power of ordinary people to evolve imaginative responses of their own to art works.

I became aware of the ubiquity (highlighted at this blog) of the Hokusai print myself when I noticed the logo of a clothing line with which my son was obsessed during his skateboarding phase.  I don’t think I have seen another example of the appropriation of the image through such abstraction.

Quiksilver logo

Everywhere at home??

October 31, 2009

The entrance to hell?

One of these days, I’m going to visit the strange Park of the Monsters at Bomarzo, Italy. If I go, will I be greeted and led to the Hell’s Mouth by a sultry nymph with delightful long legs like this one?  Will my wife, and all my family obligations and history melt away, my middle age fly off to leave me youthful and desirable, my heightened emotions and vigor to be quenched in a unique, bizarre, erotic embrace within some weird grotto?

Not likely…This renaissance (Mannerist) oddity is nicely photographed and discussed in this fine book which I own.  I’ve known about the park for a very long time, but it seems that it was forgotten by Europe for centuries, until being rediscovered and somewhat restored by the efforts of Salvidor Dali and Mario Praz.  Popularity followed, and now it’s a “family destination” for tourists.

The image is from a catalog for Schneider’s of Austria, a clothing manufacturer, that was all shot in the garden.  What is going on here?  Their slogan is “Everywhere at home.”  This reminds me of the classic formulations of kitsch consciousness, i.e., that everywhere kitsch-man goes, everywhere he looks, he sees himself.  Thus, he is never open to new, genuine, experience.  Do I believe this?  Ich bin ein kitschmensch!

Fashion advertisement, and in this case, a pretty high-end, classy example of it, trades on all sorts of moods, half-understood cultural allusions, snobbisms, innovations, cultural quotes, etc. to endow the product, the look, with a feeling, a cachet.  Moody, hip, sophisticated, mannered, mysterious, cultured, refined and esoteric, sooo European…These are a few of the things this catalog has to say about Schneider’s clothes.  And you know what?  I buy it, all of it!  I want that raincoat I saw in Century 21!!  I’m a pretty unremarkable dresser, and I don’t think my appearance turns any heads, but I look at other people’s looks a lot.  Sometimes I become fixated on a woman’s coat, a man’s shoes, a purse, a pair of glasses…okay, it’s probably 80/20 when it comes to the time I spend on women/men – it’s not just fashion that catches my eye.

I’ve never been able to figure out or come to terms with exactly what is going on here.  It feels dreadfully superficial, even childish or stupid in a way.  On the other hand, it feels totally human and natural.  Does there have to be a moral evaluation involved?

I told my wife once about an incident when I was twenty years old, and I saw a Panama hat in a window of a shop in Europe during my summer travels there.  The “vision” of that hat stayed with me for days.  On the long train ride, I imagined myself wearing it in all sorts of situations – how it would make me feel all sorts of ways just by being on my head.  (Hats – the mediator of the man-sky interface.) She rolled her eyes.  That’s one reason I married her.  She keeps me somewhat tethered to reality.

Bring on La Maniera. Hail to La dolce vita!


Kitsch Police

January 5, 2009

I just purchased this resin figurine of the mysterious bird-postman in The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch.  It came very nicely packaged with minature folding reproduction of the complete triptych, inside and out! 

The Kitsch-mavens, e.g., Gillo Dorfles etc., say that all transposition of art from medium to medium is inherently kistch, or at least risks it mightily.  Mona Lisas on bath towels, Venus de Milos in plaster replicas with ashtrays, collectible procelaine minature versions of scenes from the Old Masters…all kitsch.

Ich bin ein kitschmench?  Is there anything inherently kitsch in my enjoyment of this tchotchke ?  I think not.  I study art history, and I like it! There is no confusion in my mind about the relationship of this figure to ART and the works of H. Bosch.  I just think it’s really cool!

Check out the others avaialble at Parastone.