a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

Posts tagged “Renoir

Replay: Make way for the Stupid Generation II

UPDATE: Since writing this a little over a year ago, David Coleman, the “architect” behind educational “reform” in U.S. public schools, has only gotten bolder. Having seen his curriculum implemented by most states, he is now turning to post-secondary education. And his business cronies are very much with him there too, because there’s a lot of money to be made turning thinking, questioning children into productive and obedient workers. Just ask these people.

Or to hear the warm and cuddly Mr. Coleman explain it himself, click here.

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When Hollywood newbie Orson Welles was going to make Citizen Kane, he begged cinematographer Gregg Toland to teach him everything about how the camera worked. Toland told him not to sweat it, because he could learn all the technical details in one long weekend.

I guess Mr. Toland didn’t get the memo that instructional manuals are complex reading material that will develop and stimulate our children’s minds more than an education steeped in the classics (which Welles had) will.

475x350The U.S. government, under its new Common Core Standards Initiative in conjunction with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wants to cut out 70 percent of the fiction reading in public schools, because, you know, kids spend too much time with their noses in books already, the little eggheads. The spokesperson for this idea, David Coleman, a businessman with his talons in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other enterprises, says we can’t engage the bright minds of tomorrow in this Brave New World with the dusty minds of the past because this is a different ballgame, a fast-paced one that doesn’t have time for contemplation. “As you grow up in the world,” he says, “you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” I wonder if that thought has ever occurred to him about himself, because that was my first reaction.

Instead Mr. Coleman, and Mr. and Mrs. Gates, want the majority of reading in our high and middle schools to be of instructional or vocational manuals to prepare the kids for their careers. And people are taking this very seriously. So far 46 states and the District of Columbia have joined in. I keep waiting for someone to say, “April Fools” but so far this is being discussed largely with a straight face by people who call themselves “educators.” At the very worst it’s being offered with a “It isn’t as bad as it looks” disclaimer, which I remember hearing once from a Ford Pinto salesman too.

I’m writing about this again because I just bought a Blu-ray player. What does one have to do with the other? Well, I started replacing some of my DVDs with better-looking Blu-rays, and one of the very first to get the upgrade was Jean Renoir’s 1939 satire The Rules of the Game, which is one of about a dozen films I’d have to take with me if I were banished to a desert island, provided my desert island had electricity.

The film is intricately-plotted. I don’t think I fully understood it until I saw it the fourth time, and maybe I still don’t. Every time I watch it I marvel at the nuanced layers of character and social skewering that goes on. Renoir—yes, he’s the son of the famous painter—wanted to show the hypocrisy of both the ruling class and the servants who kowtowed under them. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. At the premiere the audience tried to burn down the theater they were so incensed. The filmmaker made cuts to no avail. Then the French government got into the act and banned the film. When the Nazis invaded a few years later they too didn’t like it (for reasons this time dealing with the relationships between Jewish and Austrian characters) and burned it. (Prints were not found again until after the war.) You have to work pretty hard to piss of the French and the Nazis both!

As I watched I tried to imagine sharing my great enthusiasm for this masterpiece with one of my contemporaries and I realized I couldn’t. They were all ignorant of the social history and social classes behind the story, which takes its premise from Beaumarchais, who ruffled more than a few feathers when he premiered his play. The basic underpinnings continue to be used and adapted into the present, from Robert Altman’s Gosford Park to the somewhat dumbed-down but infinitely more popular Downton Abbey juggernaut. rules-of-the-game_image05Figaro/Rules of the Game/Gosford all show that the very rich and the very poor are anything but very different. But more than that, Rules of the Game is filled with subtle allusions, dry jabs and deft attacks at everyday societal norms not questioned on a regular basis. It’s the work of a brazen dramatist daring to clear his throat at the fancy dinner table and say something that will embarrass the hosts even as the hosts are feeding him duck a l’orange and pâté de foie gras. Yet it’s not stuffy: the blend of high and low comedy (there’s a chase through a chateau worthy of the Marx Brothers) make Rules of the Game as sophisticated as any great novel. And as timeless, because the more things change the more they really stay the same. I don’t think insulation manuals teach that, or teach many of the other facts of life that might make tomorrow’s worker bees a little upset with their overlords, but I digress.

Rules of the Game tells us many things, but the over-reaching theme is that the rules are made by the rich and they serve the rich, and one of their most important jobs is to keep this important knowledge from the poor, or to make the poor so dependent that they rationalize the rules away themselves. It’s probably not an accident that the freest spirits in the movie end up either dead or dismissed from service, and the brownest of noses come out in the best shape.

rulesofthegame01As I sat there realizing I could not share my filmic experiences with anyone I knew, I tried to think of what technical manuals educators wanted our kids to read (because literature “doesn’t prepare them for the complexities of the world,” according to Mr. Coleman) that would have equivalent value. Would Recommended Levels of Insulation by the the US Environmental Protection Agency, or Invasive Plant Inventory by California’s Invasive Plant Council to pack the same punch or better-illuminate the world these kids would someday go out into, better? We’ve already been told kids no longer need a foreign language requirement. Then most sociology was stripped from the classroom because it was “too controversial.” Now we don’t need literature either—and indeed, to make iPhone apps, to drive tractors, to sell computer equipment, to write web code that pops up and reminds you to buy certain brands of vodka or SUV, you don’t need William Golding. In fact, Golding may hurt you because you might read it and realize how people who seem to know what’s best are really oftentimes fools.

Back when I was in middle school our history teacher told us that one of the hallmarks of the communist countries (this meant the Soviet Union) was that they merely trained their workers to be drones, cogs in the machine, slaves. They didn’t have free minds, he said. They weren’t permitted to read much literature in school because it was subversive. It caused dissent, unrest, made them think about their situation in life and alerted them to the fact that there might be other places where things were better. Or at least different. That distinguished them from us, he said, and those words were something that really stuck with me.

Now I’m hearing “educators,” and damn if I can type that word without putting quotes around it, want to strip away a good deal of the same material, arguing the purpose of school is to make them efficient workers able to compete in the 21st century. But I never thought public education was intended to turn children into hardworking little machines. Back when I went to school that’s what they did with the hopeless kids who weren’t bright enough for an academic course—they went to a “skills center” three days a week and learned carpentry, or how to drive a forklift, or assemble electrical components on an assembly line. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but I was grateful that I was getting an education in history, literature, science, sociology, music and art. As my college advisor Sari Thomas told me, as Gregg Toland told Orson Welles, you can learn how to be a button-pusher later, in a long weekend.

To be fair there are many teachers who’ve voiced their displeasure. But even their arguments are not, to me, as strong as they could be. Rather than point out that it’s important to “engage” the imagination, and that beauty and feelings are necessary too (they are, but you rarely win with a mushy liberal argument like that) they should point out that Figaro helped usher in the French Revolution, and for that reason was banned in Austria and other countries. (Remember that confrontational scene in Amadeus between Mozart and the emperor?) They should mention that whenever a dictator seizes control, artists and writers are among the first people he rounds up and imprisons or executes. I doubt the writers of technical books get tortured, though judging by some of the manuals I’ve read, they should be. In fact, countless technical manuals would be better-written, eliminating costly mistakes to industry as well as serious safety breaches, if technical writers were better-versed in reading and writing comprehension. Some of their efforts would be funny, if billion dollar decisions weren’t being made on them.

Rules of the Game - ChristineI would wager if half the MBAs in this country were replaced by English lit grads, the bottom line of the Dow and the NASDAQ would actually be improved. As recently as the late 80s, conservative businessman Harvey Mackay, in his bestseller Swim With The Sharks Without Being Alive, urged people to master the written and spoken language by reading voraciously, saying that anyone who was good with words “had it made.” Judging by the wealth of literary references in this and other books he’s written, he’s well-educated and no stranger to the canon of Great Books. He also had no technical training whatsoever and has led one of the most successful (if not the flashiest) companies in the last half century, Mackay Envelope.

I’ll close with a borrowed thought, from two columnists at The Washington Times. Their excellent article on the Common Core Standards ended with this:

We lost our literary heritage once — when Rome fell and the world descended into the barbarity of the Dark Ages. The great works of antiquity really were lost in this period, physically lost. How sad that after our medieval ancestors took such pains to recover and preserve that heritage, we are starting again to lose it. Yet the books are no longer lost.

We are.

That hit me so hard that I’m going to repeat it.

We lost our literary heritage once — when Rome fell and the world descended into the barbarity of the Dark Ages. The great works of antiquity really were lost in this period, physically lost. How sad that after our medieval ancestors took such pains to recover and preserve that heritage, we are starting again to lose it. Yet the books are no longer lost.

We are.

Part I of this blog post is here.

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To have lived in exciting times…

I recently went to two art exhibits, both in San Francisco: they feature Picasso, as well as Matisse, Renoir  and other members of the “Parisian avante garde” of the early 1900s. One, at SFMOMA, deals with how the Steins — that’s Gertrude & Company to you — left San Francisco early in the 20th century to live in Paris. There, they became friends and patrons of up-and-coming artists, particularly painters. They bought works from them for a song, or sometimes just a supper. Not many years later they were able to sell these works for a pretty penny, or franc. It’s hard not to feel envy surging through the veins when one reads on Wikipedia, “The joint collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein began in late 1904 … They spent … at Vollard’s Gallery, buying Gauguin’s  Sunflowers and Three Tahitians,  Cézanne’s Bathers, and two Renoirs. And they probably still had change to get some steak tartare afterwards.

Eventually the Steins found themselves priced out of the market of the artists they’d helped to create.

But before that, the Steins opened their modest apartments at 27 Rue de Fleurus to everyone interested in the new art. People were invited to come on Saturday and view the works, but it was more than just that. Siblings Gertrude and Leo Stein discussed the concepts behind the work. Sister-in-law Sarah Stein even took art classes with Matisse, and kept a journal, later published, of everything he taught.

Portrait of Sarah Stein (Matisse).

It isn’t just this crowd, though. In Paris they were all talking about the new music, the new literature, the new everything. Seemed to go well with the new technology of the new century: the aeroplane, the automobile, the wireless. Everyone from Debussy to Stravinsky to Diaghilev to Nin was causing a stir, and people were talking about it, in some cases fighting about it.

There have been other periods like this too: among recent times, the late sixties stands out, of course.  But to me turn of the century to the 20s seem like one of the best examples of this. Maybe I’m biased, but to me for every breakthrough and insight in the 60s, there were a hundred examples of faux art and pretension, even if some of it sold for a lot of money to the nouveau-riche. Sorry, but most of the 60s revolution strikes me as fueled more by brownies than by ideas. The ideas had already been birthed in the teens and 20s, and were just coopted by lesser intelligences in need of its own secular religion, in everything from The Beatles to Berio. So shoot me.

Imagine going to one of these gatherings and talking about, and arguing about, the ideas contained in this art. Imagine seeing the changes right before your eyes — the way a painting by a newcomer that you bought three years ago for a few coins is now a masterpiece, the artist you once shared breadcrust and red wine with is now a celebrity, and it all started in your parlor. You were in the center of it. You saw intellectual concepts be born, and advance and mature. You.

The Architect’s Table by Picasso, 1912.

One would think, with all the communication and travel advantages of today, that we’d be full of burgeoning movements. But we don’t seem to be. As I left the museum exhibits, and watched people in the gift shop looking at refrigerator magnets, night-lights and coasters of what used to be eccentric (and unsettling) art objects, I thought about why this was so. Or rather, why it is that art movements now 100 years old continue to intrigue us.

One of the thrilling things about being alive back then, I concluded, was that we were just starting to break the rules. Oh, to have lived in exciting times: women were starting to dare do the things men did: drink, smoke, vote, wear pants, skydive. Okay, getting ahead of myself maybe, but society was changing. Virginia Woolf and her Bloomsburyians were up to such radicalisms as having coffee after supper instead of tea in the afternoon. Imagine! Next they just might burn their bras and start dancing to this new “jazz music.”

Just listen to Debussy’s études and preludes, and how radical they were compared to everything that came before. It’s the aural counterpoint to Picasso’s or Matisse’s or Cézanne’s paintings. Stravinsky dared to tell Parisian audiences in 1913 that ballet music could be something radically different from what they’d ever heard before, the same way Picasso told them the painting above was of a table. When you have rules you are breaking, you have a gauge, a position, a point of view, that exists. Debussy’s music strikes us — still — as so fresh and new when we know what led to it and how it was different.

There’s a problem with revolutions, however: they soon become the status quo. And new revolutions happen. Nothing wrong with that in the abstract. But when the rules have been broken repeatedly and radically, the new revolutions…well, they have nothing much to rebel against.

When was the last time a painting shocked? Or a piece of music, or a theater piece. I don’t mean for shocking social content so much as technical considerations, though even socially, it’s hard to stun audiences in the age of Piss Christ. Anything goes. It seems quaint now, it really does, that Stravinsky’s Le Sacre caused people to nearly bludgeon one another at the premiere. Today the biggest controversy would be that someone’s cell phone went off during the concert. When artists start hurling paint at a canvas in such a way that it’s literally indistinguishable from road kill, how do you lead a revolution against that?

I’m not trying to put the genie back in the bottle. I’m not a Philistine. (Well, perhaps I am. Perhaps some of the “avant-garde”ists actually are too. Who’s to say?)  In one way the journey to where we are now was inevitable. If there’s going to be one artistic revolution there will be more, and if we begin to go from order to chaos we will continue towards more chaos until it is the reigning element. But if we stay steadfast with order and rigidity, art stagnates and rots. Those are your choices. Oddly, they meet full circle eventually.

Friends.

And I think that’s why we’re not seeing our Bloomsbury groups and Stein art Saturdays much anymore. When we do have them, they are either obvious marketing grabs or self-conscious attempts to harken back to the past — or both. They have all the authenticity of petroleum companies supporting public television because they claim to care about culture.

I keep telling myself that perhaps I am wrong about all of this. Maybe there are groups that meet today, movements that are fomenting, and I’m just missing it. But these movements should bear fruit, and I don’t think there’s been a serious artistic movement in the last 25 years, at least in music or painting or film. (I can’t speak about theater.) We seem to keep dipping into the past, however: retrospectives are big business, and we leave them with big coffee-table sized books commemorating our experience. That thinking seems so out of step with the Steins and Bloomsbury Groups and beat poets and so forth. Has even revolution been coopted, marketed, T-shirted? Will it not be televised because it’s already out on Blu-ray and Netflix? Or has the academizing of it all served to kill it, putting it, like the tidy, sanitary music of the only jazz composer to win a Pulitzer, Wynton Marsalis, under the shiny glass of museums? No sooner do movements get off the ground than they become categories — marketed, taught and placed on a shelf somewhere. A dangerous jazz composer like Charles Mingus would never be handed a Pulitzer.

I thought at one point the Internet might change all this. But it is devolving into the shallow, narcissistic world of social networking, which is just guerilla marketing taken to extremes, instead of creating a true place of community: an “interest” you can click “like” to and them move on to Mafia Wars is not a community. I know I personally have unfriended a couple of people who used to be interesting, curious, seekers when I knew them back in pre-internet days; their communications are now exclusively the marketing of themselves in an effort to get people to notice them — ultimately why I’m not sure.

But blaming the tweet is a cheap way out. These issues are not new — social media merely makes it easier for them to happen. What is new is the fact that there hasn’t been a real revolution in a long, long time. And the radicals are today as familiar as the gift wrapping paper that many of their works are now reproduced on. I don’t know what the future will bring. Maybe we’ve reached the end of the line for what we traditionally term “art.” Maybe not. But I do envy those salons, those informal gatherings, those heated arguments and unveiling of new works and ideas and thoughts. And judging by how hard mainstream people today try to imitate them and their lifestyles today — in hair, dress, deportment, lifestyle…but alas, never in actual revolutionary change — I’d say so do many, many others.