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Dirty Tom, Trump Tower, San Francisco, Venice

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Entrance hall in the 2016 Venice Architectural Biennale: ( 90 tons of recycled debris, from the 2014 Biennale!)

 

Across from me on the bus, an old man sat slumped, chin on chest, eyes closed. Greasy gray hair, white beard, grimy bronzed face. I tried to make out the title of one of the books jammed between junk in his bag on the floor. Elements… (of what?)

The woman next to me murmured something about the plight of the homeless in callous America. I said, that man seems familiar. Years ago at the Presbyterians’ (or Lutherans’) weekly drop-ins, his filthy hair had been brown, and he was known by some of us volunteers, not without affection, as Dirty Tom. Once he explained–he could be quite articulate–that he had always had severe aquaphobia and couldn’t tolerate the slightest contact with water.

Recounting a spell in the lockup ward in the local hospital, Tom had complained of the psychiatric resident, who turned out to have been our neighbor at that time. I remembered the neighbor saying then, “I don’t kid myself about being a father figure and doing good: there are guys in that ward who would like to KILL me.” Dirty Tom was one of them. He claimed that the doc had botched an electroshock treatment, and the young woman had died. I never heard the full story, but the neighbor did switch from psychiatry to family practice.

All of a sudden, the bus jolted, and the man’s eyes popped open, a startling blue in his grimy face, staring straight at me. He lurched to his feet, grabbed his pack, and got off at the next stop.

Recently I met up with a friend from my newspaper days. She, too, had eyes of a startling blue. She had written a few reviews for my books page, but then the paper died, she had a bad divorce, and we didn’t see each other for years. Catching up on each other’s concerns, I cited Syria, and she said that she was working with a young Syrian, through a group helping LGBTI refugees. Given the scope of the refugee crisis, I did wonder (silently) why the focus on such a niche category. Maybe she guessed my thought.“Listen, Francie,” she said, “What are you doing about the HOMELESS now? They’re still there. I don’t LIKE seeing them on the streets. I want you to DO something!”

She was right. After earnest but largely ineffectual years of volunteering, and some advocacy journalism, I had written a satirical novel 51YDCZ5H9VL._UY250_ juxtaposing Berkeley’s homeless with the gourmet revolution. I suppose that I had hoped that it might be read as a moral tract, despite the sappy cover. “Trickle-down gastronomy,” said the NYTimes.. “The epicurean culture collides with the culture of poverty”.  And the culture of poverty and madness, not least on the streets and in the parks of my neighborhood of Berkeley, Caifornia, continues to thrive.

By now, the homeless have come to fill the margins of the shrunken middle class. In the clement climates of San Francisco and Los Angeles, tent cities form new communities under freeway exchanges and in the parks.

Twitch Napier, who is homeless, sits with her dog, Shiva, near tents set up under the 101 Freeway along Division Street, part of a large homeless encampment, in San Francisco.

Twitch Napier, who is homeless, sits with her dog, Shiva, near tents set up under the 101 Freeway along Division Street, part of a large homeless encampment, in San Francisco, Feb. 25, 2016. An order by the city’s authorities to vacate the sidewalk tent camp in the commercial district has rekindled passions over the city’s longstanding homeless problem, which residents say has reached crisis levels. (Gabrielle Lurie/The New York Times)

An estimated one third of the homeless are mentally ill. And many of them are veterans.
During the Obama administration, spending tripled on homeless veterans’ housing and services, and the number in need went down by a third. Like too many of Obama’s initiatives, this has remained in the shadows.

We haven’t yet heard Donald Trump promise every homeless vet a condo. Early this year he did stage a benefit for homeless veterans in Iowa. By no coincidence, it was scheduled opposite a presidential primary debate where he was expected to come off badly. Not many of his efforts at distracting voters’ attention actually work.  Soon enterprising journalists dug up the story of Trump’s repeated attempts to get disabled veteran street vendors away from his Fifth Avenue property, which is already barricaded with topiary bollards. (Suggested campaign: Get unsightly old topiaries off Fifth Avenue.)

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Perhaps it’s not news, but the emphasis now is to get homeless people housed first and treat their problems next. Los Angeles, like San Francisco, has not only a clement climate but a critical housing shortage that makes it next to impossible to find low-cost housing. Also just short of impossible is the treatment of psychological disorders and addictions in transit.

It’s taken decades, but measures to fund construction of special-needs housing are likely to be on the ballot in Los Angeles and probably statewide. Governor Brown has backed a $1.8 billion plan to use funds already in place for construction of housing for the homeless. California’s new director of Housing and Community Development, Ben Metcalf, seems to be that rara avis, an effective idealist, who has worked with successful housing programs in New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

Another highly effective idealist is Alejandro Aravena, winner of the coveted Pritzker Prize, and director of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.

arquitecto Alejandro Aravena premio Pritzker 2016

arquitecto Alejandro Aravena premio Pritzker 2016

I haven’t got to this Biennale yet, but I know that the theme is “Reporting from the Front,” emphasizing the potential for architects, beyond purely aesthetic concerns, to improve the quality of life for many thousands of people who don’t go to museums or biennales for pleasure or enlightenment.  The show, intelligently reviewed this very day by Christopher Hawthorne in the L.A. Times, “collects work from a range of architects operating on the forward lines of what Aravena calls “battles” against inequality, crushing poverty and environmental crisis and puts it on display with the informality of a journalistic sketch.”

The Chilean architect has devised original, low-cost “incremental” housing schemes where the basic half of each housing unit–roof, kitchen, bathroom–is built by the developer, and the rest, according to need (and means) is completed by the residents. Aravena’s firm has put the successful plans for four different projects online as Open Sources.  (Ben Metcalf, alert!)

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Housing scheme in Iquique, Chile

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WAR, PEACE, MIGRATION, and CLICKBAIT

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The Ebell Theater without journalists

 

The elegiac tone of the 2016 Pulitzer centennial celebration, in a slightly musty but historic Los Angeles theater, suited  the program’s somber themes—“War, Migration, and the Quest for Peace.”

The unprogrammed elephant in the room was the general consensus that newspapers are in serious trouble. The Los Angeles Times, hosting the occasion with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is healthier than many metropolitan dailies–but struggling. Its parent, Tribune Publishers, has just received  a $70.5 billion infusion from the ambitious entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, whose other quixotic investment is a cancer cure.

Many states now lack any newspaper reportage from their capitals, much less in D.C. or foreign countries.. Given the digital revolution’s decimation of local newspapers and/or their staffs, coverage of city halls and state assemblies has almost disappeared.  Without journalistic surveillance—familiarly known as muckraking—government corruption flourishes, as it does in any banana republic.

War correspondents’ stories were reliably transfixing.  Terry Anderson, with seven years as a hostage in Lebanon; Shirley Christian, who reported on the conflicts in Central America, discovering that nine of her ten sources in El Salvador had been killed. Journalist-director Sebastian Junger (Restrepo) said that war movies were based almost entirely on other war movies, making Hollywood a major source of military history.

Sadly, there wasn’t much on the “quest for peace”.  The most memorable was certainly the photographer Nick Ut, whose 1972 photo of the “Napalm girl” was instrumental in ending the American war in Vietnam.

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Everywhere,  photography showed up as the most powerful tool in journalism, documenting the horrors of war, the desperation of migration, whether from Mexico or Syria.

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U.S. warriors in training—photo by Craig Walker

The other elephant in the room was of course Donald Trump. Press coverage of his campaign was cited, with curious specificity, as one of the two most shameful episodes in the history of American journalism.( I don’t recall whether the second was inadequate reporting on  U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Vietnam. Any would serve.)

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest explained drily that the excessive, uncritical coverage of Trump is because he is “clickbait”.  Many people, my spouse included, want to know, with their morning coffee, what outrageous position Trump has just taken. In case you’ve been in a remote village on the upper Amazon for the last ten years-the total number of clicks on links to news stories on your computer or phone screen determines investors’ decisions to pay for advertising on the news site.

Someone observed that an important function of the Pulitzer awards is to reassure publishers that it is worthwhile to keep losing money for another year.

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Joseph Pulitzer. by John Singer Sargent

Oddly, nobody talked about Joseph Pulitzer, the very singular Hungarian immigrant who amassed the fortune that endowed the Pulitzer prizes in journalism and the arts. Ordinarily, donors and founders, dead or alive, are respectfully, on occasion even affectionately, noted. The low spot of Pulitzer’s career, his resort to yellow journalism in a circulation contest with William Randolph Hearst, was an early recognition of the “clickbait” principle in print media.

Stanford historian David Kennedy(Pulitzer 2000) decided to end the program with a boyhood memory. His favorite uncle had taken him on a fishing trip with a bunch of his oldest and closest friends, great pillars of the (New Haven) community. Afterwards, driving home, his uncle said, “’You know, all of us were together in France during the war. You wouldn’t believe what they did.’ He meant atrocities. He meant that I couldn’t imagine what normal human beings were capable of in a war…”

This is not to suggest that the Pulitzer celebration was unrelievedly grim. The box lunch, especially the roast vegetable option, was cheering. But it was a pity that the “Quest for Peace” had short shrift in the proceedings, as elsewhere in the real world.

Sad to remember that Barack Obama in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after his eloquent anti-nuclear speech in Prague.  Obama visiting Hiroshima in 2016 was eloquent again and still.  But his administration has cut spending on programs to stop nuclear proliferation, and caved on Pentagon demands for funding of “modernization” of  U.S. nuclear weapons. It’s not entirely clear which of Obama’s potential successors is less likely to lead us into more wars.

Pulitzer and Hearst made fortunes off coverage of the Spanish-American War, but the battles were fought with simpler weapons, and more soldiers died of disease than in combat.

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“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” —Albert Einstein

Nega-centennials, Nega-nations

 

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Putin addressing audience in Palymya

 

 

 

Last week’s well-publicized Russian concert in the ruins of Palmyra just happened to overlap the centennial of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement.  Russia had only a minor role in that hasty, furtive divvying up of Syria and the Middle East to please French and English interests.  As we have seen, the new borders failed spectacularly to transform tribal Syria into a national state on the European model.

In other news, “Czechia” was approved last week by the government, if not the people, of the Czech Republic, as a further clarification of its national status.  Elaborate historical justifications for adding  “Czechia” omit a more pressing motive– that sports franchises want a shorter, snappier name for their teams and equipment.

Czechoslovakia was created somewhat arbitrarily—not unlike Syria—but in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Moose Hall, by a committee of Czech and Slovak activists led by philosopher-politician Tomas Garrigue Masaryk.  Having drafted the agreement, later in the year Masaryk became the new country’s first president. He was nominated seventeen times for the Nobel Peace Prize that a later Czech president, Vaclav Havel, declined in 1991 in favor of the Burmese Aung San Sui Kyi. Just then, Havel might have been depressed about the impending breakup of his country.

 

worldThe Treaty of Versailles has been blamed even more harshly and more often than Sykes-Picot for setting the stage for multinational conflict and carnage after World War I.  Even now there’s some nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, dismantled and replaced by new nations with conflicting ethnic and linguistic minorities.Lebanon and Jordan were no longer part of Syria, and Slovakia no longer belonged to Hungary.

After my enthusiastic review of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, suddenly I began to receive piles of freshly translated fiction by Slavic writers.  I did note that Kundera was born Czech-Moravian, like Tomas Masaryk, Freud, Janacek–and my maternal grandparents. Still, I knew next to nothing about Czech history and literature. Auditing a meeting of Czech I on campus, I found that it was a conversation class, led by a small but dynamic American graduate student.

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Re-enactment of a famous Czech victory where the king of Hungary fled, disguised as a girl. (Duke University Press, 2010 I think)

McCroskyova argued that I would be a better critic if I knew the sound and structure of Czech.  Followed, a slippery slope into unexpected years with the Czech language and culture.

Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we ventured with my mother into communist Czechoslovakia . After a tense crossing at the Austrian border, we stopped in the first town with a hotel. Sehr einfach, very simple, said the young innkeeper apologetically, showing the beds, foam pallets covered with large dish towels. Downstairs, an open kitchen spewed fumes of stewed pork and steaming bread dumplings.  Good beer, we discovered, flowed in the pub.

Next morning, we drove around the Moravian countryside with a map, looking for my grandparents’ villages. And we did find them, dreary, plain rows of stucco cottages, sehr einfach.  Our German was useful.

At a bus stop in Mohelno, my grandmother’s village, we got directions to the cemetery.  My great-uncle Antonin was there—according to my mother a cocky, annoying fellow, who traveled more than once to California to sponge off his relatives. Several other Peskovi were on the memorial obelisk to World War I dead.  On the horizon, a cluster of Russian nuclear reactor towers discouraged any idea of picturesque rusticity.

In the nearby village of Rohy, I was surprised to see my grandfather’s family name, Pozar, above the entrance to the most imposing building there. (Later I learned that pozar means fire, and the building was presumably the firehouse—whereas Rohy means simply Crossroads.)  Outside Rohy, a wizened German-speaking farmer stopped hoeing long enough to point to a barnlike building on the opposite slope, as the Pozar place.  My grandfather’s eldest brother Alois had become the head of the family.  That Alois was a hard man, said the farmer, confirming the reason my grandfather, youngest son, had left home.

After the Berlin Wall fell, I followed closely, along with many others, the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution, and was lucky enough to see Vaclav Havel’s very moving inauguration.

In 1992, I returned to Prague to research a piece on the state of the arts in post-communist Czechoslovakia.  Long story short: deprived of government subsidies and samizdat glamour, publishing and the theater were in serious trouble. Do I repeat myself?–the Golden Age of Czech Arts turned out to have been under Soviet domination. Also, at that point Slovakia was already chafing at the dominance of the Czechs. Even Havel’s remarkable human skills failed to keep the Slovaks in the federation.  In 1993, from the troubles leading to the Velvet Divorce, two countries emerged—the Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

Federations of any sort, from fourth-century Greece to twentieth-century Europe, often have short lives. The Hellenic League against Persia fell apart after sixteen years, and the Weimar Republic after fourteen.  Empires seem to hang on somewhat longer, maybe by definition.  An empire has one hegemonic state, while federations involve, theoretically if not actually, equal sovereign states.

In any event, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and of Syria are episodes in an endless kaleidoscopic shifting  of national borders, altered to suit the interests of the reigning powers.  Once, land and treasure were the prizes; then oil. Although some say that we are entering the post-oil era, it isn’t clear what prize every country seeks now.  When Donald Trump wants to Make America Great Again, what does he mean? Not, surely, a state walled against immigrants, who now animate Silicon Valley, colleges, finance, and the arts, or are farmers, like my Pozar grandparents, who came to Galveston and then California in hopes of a better life.

Czechoslovakia

In a couple of years it will be the centennial of the Pittsburgh Agreement that established the new state of Czechoslovakia.

This occasion may not be much marked.

 

 

 

 

 

The Panama Papers, Now Playing

Screen-Shot-2016-04-17-at-11.29.48             Map from  ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists)

 

“The Panama Papers” could be the title of a mid-century noir starring Humphrey Bogart or maybe Alec Guinness. In fact it is an ongoing opportunity for our failing news media to research juicy data on global tax evasion by the rich and unscrupulous here and abroad. The 11.5 billion documents are from the files of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and incriminate evenhandedly heads of state, corporations, and figures in sports and the art world. The prime minister of Iceland resigned immediately following exposure of his offshore bank holdings, and David Cameron has had to defend his father’s dealings. Putin seems to be condemned by association, and Bashar al Assad’s cousins are definitely enmeshed. (Much more will be revealed by the ICIJ on May 9.)

                                               Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca

 

Our press, after reporting, often gleefully, on the rowdiest and least morally serious primary campaign in recent memory, now has an opportunity to reveal to the U.S. electorate the shady investments and slippery connections of donors and politicoes at home and abroad.  There are no Clintons on the Panama Papers list so far, but some of their closest confreres have been named. Bernie Sanders will not have needed a tax shelter, and no doubt Donald Trump has other ways to protect his billions. Still, we can expect an exciting round of  follow-the-money discoveries in the coming campaigns, in addition to the usual salacious reminders of sequential marital difficulties on the part of the major candidates.  

Moral seriousness seems to be in short supply these days, not only in journalism and politics. This puts into high relief Adam Hochschild’s fine book on the Spanish Civil War. While the topic may seem remote just now, as the world warms, the Middle East implodes and Europe falters under the waves of its refugees, Hochschild focuses on a related issue: when is intervention in a foreign war justifiable?  

The poorly armed Spanish Republicans were unable to prevent Generalissimo Franco, backed by Hitler and Mussolini, from taking over. If the U.S. had officially joined Russia in reinforcing the ragtag Spanish Republican army, might that have forestalled the slaughter of the Second World War?  If the U.S. had more heavily armed an elusive “moderate” Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, could the bombing of that hospital in Aleppo have been averted?  It seems safe to say that in each case, the only certain outcome would have been greater bloodshed.

During demonstrations against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I remember a spirited peace march through through San Francisco on a sunny day, with my parents, husband, and two young children. It was one of the few times that I saw my father, an embittered veteran of World War II, suspend his cynicism.  And we did eventually get out of Vietnam, whether or not our antiwar protests were crucial.

 Demonstrations against the U.S. war in Iraq seemed less spirited, but then we were thirty years older, wiser, and sadder. Today, our weaponry and soldiers are still in Iraq, as well as Syria and Afghanistan—although many of the U.S. tanks and missiles have ended in the hands of the Islamic State and al Quaeda. But there are always more where those came from, given that the Uncle Sam is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, by far.

The important question of justifiable intervention in a foreign war is only too relevant, fiscally and morally, to the current presidential campaigns., “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk” by White House correspondent Mark Landler  (NYTimes Magazine, April 24) examines at great length the evolution of her belief in military solutions, including her long-term friendships with various army generals. of which David Petraeus is the most photogenic.

 

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Landler scarcely mentions Hillary’s controversial role  in Libya, perhaps because the Times had recently covered it in an earlier pair of in-depth articles. The Times, which has endorsed Clinton, seems to have displayed unusual initiative in publishing these pieces, which conclude that American voters may be presented with “an unfamiliar choice, a Democratic hawk versus a Republican reluctant warrior.”  Donald Trump claims that he was an early opponent of the Iraq war, which he said would destabilize the region.  Fact-checkers report that he said no such thing at the time that he said it.

However these distorting, disheartening campaigns develop in the coming six months, unpacking the Panama Papers should result in more transparency about global networks of money and power.Whether the electorate’s responses will be too jaded to make the logical connections, time will tell. But after the election we can always look forward to the movie. For his part, Ramon Fonseca jauntily says that he plans to use the material in a novel.

On Easter: Greek Migrations Now and Then

In our high-end junk mail was a glossy invitation to an autumnal Aegean Odyssey,  exploring  Island Life and Ancient Greece aboard an Exclusively Chartered Small Ship (an intimate 110 suites and staterooms, 95% with private balconies). Closer reading revealed that only the western Aegean islands would be featured, giving a wide berth to those near the Turkish coast.

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On the deck of M.S. Lyrial. [ Note French flag and panama hat.]

In other nautical news, last August the Greek government chartered a ship large enough to evacuate several thousand  refugees, mostly Syrian, from the islands of Kos and Lesbos, to mainland Greece. The first headlines called it a luxury ship, headed for Thessalonica, or maybe Athens. Later, the “luxury ship” was identified as a car ferry, which dumped the refugees among thousands of others thronging Athens’port of Piraeus, waiting for passage to more prosperous venues.

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Last week, the port of Piraeus had 5,000 refugees who had crowded into its passenger terminals since the beginning of the year. Reports vary as to whether the new EU-Turkey migrant exchange agreement has made any measurable difference.  Meanwhile,  Greek anger at the influx has mounted, not least among the Athenian chambers of commerce and industry. President, Constantine Michalos said pre-bookings in Kos, Rhodes and Lesbos, the islands most overwhelmed by the waves of refugees, were down by 60%. “A perfect storm is brewing,” he said. “Tourism is our heavy industry, our only hope. If the refugee crisis, this global crisis, escalates, and tourism–the only sector that is booming — is hit, then frankly we are doomed.”

When Piraeus fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1456, it was known as the ‘Lion Harbor’ after its guardian beast, sculpted in the fourth century BCE. This noble feline was looted by the Venetians in 1687 and still flanks the gate to the Venetian Arsenal.

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Lion of Piraeus

 

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Not the Lion of Piraeus .  

Viewing the Arsenal lions with a young Hungarian friend who had been on a humanitarian mission, before the Arab Spring, building a school and a library– in Burundi.

 Yes, another Panama hat

 

 

Some  three thousand years ago, delegations of Greeks, driven by famine and ambition, came to consult the current Delphic Sibyl about seeking a better life. Evidently, the oracle shrewdly directed them to colonize as far away as southern Italy and Sicily. The Greek colonists brought with them essentials such as the olive and weaponry, but also their Olympic gods and their alphabet.The city states in what was called Magna Graecia soon became as powerful as those on the Greek mainland.

Feckless students on winter holiday in Athens, we too made a pilgrimage north to Delphi and picnicked irreverently on the altar of the Sibyl above the laurel canyon. Somewhat later, we did the same with two of our grandchildren.

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(If Alma-Tadema had painted either of our picnics)

We happened to arrive in Athens that second time just as the Greeks, according to our local guide, were choosing to abandon the euro rather than tighten their belts.The Greek government was forced, as part of the bailout conditions, to cut nearly $10 billion from public spending in 2013.   They had built a stunning new museum next to the Acropolis to house the Elgin marbles, which remained, of course, in London.  There were strikes on Omonoia Square, and more were feared. Germany suggested that Greece might sell off some of its delightful islands to reduce their staggering debt. A Russian oligarch paid $100 million for the island of Skorpios as a birthday surprise for his daughter.

But on other islands…

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A mountain of discarded lifejackets on the island of Lesbos

Lesbos has seen other migrations.  An estimated two thirds of the island’s 90,000 residents are descended from Greek Orthodox Christians expelled from Turkey in the 1920s. This heritage helps to explain their compassion toward today’s refugees.  In any event, residents of the island are nominated for the Nobel peace prize, and the hotels are all full of NGO and  UN humanitarian workers.

Another bulletin from the lively port of  Piraeus:  a majority interest in the port facilities has just been acquired by a Chinese shipping company, Cosco, which will put some 368 billion Euros into improving the shipyards and cruise ship facilities.

Has anyone suggested commandeering  all available cruise ships (and car ferries) in the Aegean, for temporary housing of the refugees, to be financed of course by the European community?   Cruise shipping lines might be amenable to charging less per capita, since the Mediterranean/Aegean cruise trade is down.

Meanwhile, another sort of boat people are helping Syrian refugees, in the Canadian community of Cape Breton.  Vietnamese refugees, now educated and embedded, are giving real money to aid the new Syrian arrivals.

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The Tran family,  Cape Breton

Back in Syria, survivors of the civil war have been forced across the seas into uncertain futures. Tourism was strangled by the civil war that has been destroying its ancient monuments as well as its population, forcing the survivors across the seas into dicey futures.In 2010, across from the most impressive of Syria’s Crusader castles, Krac des Chevaliers, we tried to sleep in a busy inn where they were scrambling to build rooms for the hordes of tourists expected in the next season. That was before the castle was taken over in turn by the rebels and the government.

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Krac des Chevaliers March 2014

In pre-history, as students wandering around in the bare hills behind Thessalonica, we were hailed by an old couple who invited us into their little shack for tea. Seeing our loden coats, they must have thought we were German. And in German the old man told us about his work on the (…) canal during the war and the old woman gave us dusty almond cookies. This was a strange feeling, suspecting that we had been welcomed for the wrong reasons.

Question:  should we have admitted, as we never did, “Wir sind amerikanische?” And now, are  Germans any more welcome than Americans, in Greece–or anywhere?  Just wondering.

 

Art thou Art?

Yes, a splashy opener—

 

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Pont Neuf wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1985

 

Some of us can remember when the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude was as often ridiculed as respected.

Now we are slouching toward the centennial of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, when he introduced a piece of shapely plumbing as a work of art called Fountain, and “signed” by R. Mutt, its manufacturer. Although Fountain was not admitted for exhibition, it created a great stir–even in 1917, in the middle of the so-called Great War. Duchamp meant to mock all things bourgeois, not only artistic pretense, but the materialism and nationalism which had led to the war. On balance, that urinal is reckoned one of the most influential artworks of the twentieth century.

Much later, Duchamp claimed to have renounced creating any art, “retinal” or conceptual, and passed his days playing chess.  Not until the end of his life did he reveal his secret project,  L’Étant donné, an erotic peep show tableau now installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My granddaughter, Frances Dorothy, then a student at Penn, took us on a tour of the museum and its Duchamp collection . “What do you think of this ?” she inquired slyly, pointing to the door with the peep holes.

LED (cropped) at Philadelphia Museum of Art

LED (tastefully cropped) at Philadelphia Museum of Art

Tempus fugit.  A dozen years earlier, during our whirlwind tour of the Uffizi Gallery, Frances Dorothy’s central concern had been finding the door marked Uscita. We were in Florence to attend the wedding. belatedly cancelled, of a dear old friend.  The ceremony would have been in the Palazzo Vecchio, but the actual supper was in a wonderful country restaurant featuring wild boar and beefsteak. Alas, Frances Dorothy had just become a vegetarian after touring the market at San Lorenzo adorned with gory carcasses.

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Not actually the San Lorenzo Market–obviously further north

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quite recently, an old friend, a very distinguished art historian, remarked that artists these days are not making art at all—at least not art for her.  She said this not acerbically, in fact rather wistfully.  I was trying to interest her in Sarah Meyohas, a young artist I had just met who was working on what seemed to me big questions of art and value.

Waiting for the return shuttle from the Frieze art fair on Roosevelt Island, Sarah and I had started to talk, and didn’t stop until the bus ejected us on Fifth Avenue. This small, fresh-faced young woman with a student’s fall of long brown hair, had degrees from Penn and the Wharton School of Finance, and was about to get her MFA from Yale. She had already had shows of her work and wide press coverage of a quirky concept she had developed called Bitchcoin, a cryptocurrency where virtual shares are sold in the work of an artist, in this case Sarah. She had also been toying, she said, with the idea of replacing the international gold standard with an art standard. This was on hold.

After her Yale graduation, she planned to open a gallery in her apartment, show her work in London, and prepare for a solo show in Chelsea, on stock performance and financial gambles as art.  For a week she sat at a computer in the middle of the gallery and invested each day in a chosen low-performing stocks until her investment moved the stock value up or down and she could record its movement on one of the canvases in the gallery. She wore a specially designed investor costume of gold pinstripe over banker’s gray.

During that week in January, the stock market plummeted drastically. One of her brothers called to say, wryly, “Sarah, whatever you’re doing, stop it!”

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The aforementioned art historian friend wrote long ago a particularly controversial book, Rembrandt’s Enterprise:The Studio and the Market, describing Rembrandt’s “commodification” of himself, what he had done to brand himself and make ends meet. The arch-conservative critic Hilton Kramer said that Alpers’ s book  made Rembrandt’s work seem “just another counter in the dialectic of material culture.” Many critics, however, welcomed her perspective and the opening to chronicle the history of the actual creation and marketing of art.

In his later life, the atheist Duchamp was more explicit in his contempt for art as well as religion. In an interview he says, “The word ‘art’ etymologically means to do”, merely indicating “making” of any kind, while our bourgeois western culture manufactures the “purely artificial” distinction of being an artist.

Duchamp readymades like the urinal were intended to skewer fake aesthetics. He is quoted as saying, “I threw […] the urinal [and the bicycle wheel and the bottle rack] into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.”

Interestingly, the original urinal was never in a public exhibition after its initial production in 1917.  Somewhere along the way it disappeared, and only handmade imitations appeared in the many exhibitions celebrating its influence on art in the last century.

Duchamp noted in a New York interview that “People took modern art very seriously when it first reached America because they believed we [Europeans] took ourselves very seriously. A great deal of modern art is meant to be amusing.”

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Marcel Duchamp, by Ai Weiwei

 

Meanwhile, Sarah Meyohas is developing some serious new ideas about art and land value.

 

Early Postcards from Aleppo, Belated Cease-fires from Munich, and Picking Up the Pieces

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Ancient Phoenician city, Amrit, founded 3000 b.c. Near Tartous, a fishing town on the eastern Mediterranean, of doubtful strategic value.

 

And more recently……

 

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Last week from Munich came a triumphant announcement by foreign secretaries Kerry and Lavrov of major humanitarian interventions in Syria, to be followed in a week by a cease-fire. Celebration was muted, and within hours the news was qualified, deprecated, and disparaged by almost everyone not involved in the negotiations, and some who were. Shortly before the news of the projected ceasefire, Bashar al Assad had declared that he would persevere until he had retaken all of Syria, beginning with Aleppo.

Given that neither a military nor a political solution is in sight, and none of the players seems deeply concerned about civilian casualties, the war will simply continue until the entire countryside, not just parts of it, becomes a sandy quarry for shards of ancient civilizations.

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In 2010, near the so-called Dead Cities, left over from Roman settlement; probably by by February 2016 reduced to gravel

 Perhaps the Bedouins will survive, with their camels. th

 

And the Alawites, with their dubiously valuable coastal bases at Latakia and Tartous.

 

Assad on guardian's door of Tartous museum 2011

Assad poster on door of Tartous museum in 2010

 

Shortly after January’s blizzard, exiting the Met Museum, I happened on a small display of postcards—faded pastel photos of Aleppo, Damascus, and Hama taken sometime during the French Mandate. These were a poignant contrast to an afternoon spent taking in many square yards of luminous Titians and Tiepolos, Brueghels and Rembrandts–not to mention the various treasures in the new Ancient Near East section.

Selections of the postcards were on offer in an envelope marked For the Syri an Relief Fund of Save the Children, $25, cash only.  This last is either an ironic or realistic touch, given that in 2015 the so-called international community pledged $10 billion for Syrian refugee relief, of which less than half actually materialized. According to the U.N., last year’s biggest donor, Kuwait, provided $75 per capita for Syrian relief, followed by Norway with $28. The United States and the European Union provided less than $5 per capita, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did no better.

An old postcard view of the famous Aleppo citadel shows it largely overgrown and silted up.  It appears much better preserved now, even after the most  recent shelling of the citadel, by the government and/or by the insurgents, than in the early photos during the French Mandate. One explanation is the extensive restoration of the ancient site initiated in 2001 by the admirable Aga Khan Foundation, a non-profit international development agency established in 1967 by Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, who is the worthy son of the less worthy but colorful playboy who married a movie star named Rita Hayworth.

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The citadel of Aleppo has been destroyed countless times since the original temple was built on the plateau in the first millennium B.C..  Most of the remaining structures date from the 12th century, when the son of Saladin the Great excavated the moat, built the massive gateway and ramp, and most important, dug a deep well and a reservoir. The citadel’s slopes were faced with shiny, slippery limestone to discourage attacks, especially by night.

In 1260 the Mongols took the citadel anyway, beginning a series of invasions, from the Mameluks, who added a ring wall with 40 towers but lost it to the Ottomans in 1516. There followed three hundred years of Ottoman peace, which some now recall with nostalgia, and people moved back up to inhabit the citadel.  But an 1822 earthquake leveled the citadel’s buildings to the ruins that were being mapped and restored when the Syrian civil war began.  The Aga Khan conservation project focused on the outer walls and the Ayyubid palace complex within, while the Ottoman barracks became a well-equipped visitor’s center and cafeteria.  The restoration was more or less completed in 2007 and presumably now serves the present convenience of the Syrian Army. Neither foreign journalists nor independent archaeologists have been inside the citadel since the war began.  The extent of new damage during these latest years of fighting have inflicted will not be known for some time…..when a new assessment and reconstruction can be imagined to begin.

Is there anything to be said about these repeating cycles of feverish creation, violent destruction, and eventual restoration? The persistence and ingenuity of human efforts to repair and restore seem the only positive element of the terrible wars and natural disasters that have ravaged empires ancient and modern.

After the disastrous Florentine flood of 1966, an international rescue effort was carried out by art historians and students we recognized, even in their wading boots and mackintoshes, in the television coverage.  (Cf. my account,”Restoration,” which I just located online, in J-stor.) Eventually, much was learned about art restoration, but much less about flood prevention, and some say that the Arno is as much of a threat now as it was in 1966. 

There’s no way to make a transition to the disasters of September 11, 2001, where we had an agonizing, close-in view of the New York attacks. On that morning, we happened to have planned to breakfast downtown with a former student of my husband’s who was then city commissioner of culture.  In the ensuing months and years, this remarkable woman had the heavy burden of coordinating much of the Ground Zero project planning and construction. But the terrorists’ mastery of 20th century destructive devices left much less of the World Trade Center to work with than the ruins of the Aleppo citadel.

A group called The Future of Syria is already planning the details of the reconstruction of the country if and when the war ends. At this point they are estimating that the recovery will cost at least $100 billion.  Comparing it with the much-praised Marshall Plan for postwar Europe, which cost the U.S. $130 billion in today’s dollars, the Syrian plan seems a realistic if distant investment.

Today, this brutal conflict seems uniquely horrible in the number of innocent civilians killed, injured, and driven from their homes, but in the long view, perhaps it is not. Since 2014 there has been a lively debate, set off by Steven Pinker, as to whether our present bloody era is more or less violent than any in human history.

In any event,  the Syrian civil war is a kalaidoscopic fragmentation of its conflicting forces, rebel entities all vying to represent “The Opposition” to the Assad regime in a series of variously stalled peace talks. Research has shown that in any civil war, the greater the number of warring factions and of their international sponsors, the longer the war will last.   The Islamic State alone has at least four names, including ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh, and it has carved out for itself a role as the common enemy of all the groups fighting alongside or against the Assad regime. In North Latakia alone, dozens of insurgent groups have emerged, including irregular militias like the Muqawama Suriya and the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba, Jabal al-Akrad, and Jabal al-Turkoman. (Note that Jabal means hill or mountain.)  I can’t resist adding that the A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion was the name of a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade, now shifting to the First Coastal Brigade.

“Men and nations,” said the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, “do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”
The Syrian postcard benefit project was the bright idea of a conservator on the Metropolitan museum staff, Jean-Francois de Laperouse, who works primarily with the Ancient Near Eastern and Islamic collections.  How much pain he must be suffering during these years of destruction of a culture that he knows so well.

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His 18th-century ancestor was a famous explorer who mapped, among other places, the Pacific Coast of North America.

Comte Jean-Francois de la Perouse

Comte Jean-Francois de Laperouse

 

 

I would like to include here an interview with the living Laperouse, but I had to leave the wonderful museum, and return to the coast mapped by his ancestor.

Again: the cards are $25 each packet, payable in CASH.

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