Gossip about kitsch

These online columns in Boston/New England studies,  always sourced but never peer reviewed, began on WGBH,  Boston’s PBS outlet on Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’Clock News,  moved in the 1990s to the Boston Phoenix as “Skyline” (named by editor Peter Kadzis) and appear now on the BBH website, modeled on the Center for History and New Media blogs at George Mason University.

“Come,  let us gossip about the universe”,  William James is said to have begun one of his lectures,  which strikes me as entirely the right spirit in which to take up the subject of kitsch, the uses of which are baleful,  usually,  but not always.  If,  that is,  Boston and New York — those  “sister cities”  in Baz Dreisinger’s words in the New York Observer — and their younger siblings,  Washington and Los Angeles,  are kept central to the discussion and considered,  not in isolation,  but in context;  each in the light of each other.  Those four metropolises,  respectively America’s intellectual,  business,  political and entertainment capitals — of the Western world as well some say — have for so long fed on each other and so inevitably hold each other up,  they stand out in striking contrast against other,  though sometimes larger,  American cities,  such as Chicago or Atlanta,  that stand alone,  so to speak,  in their own spheres,  for whatever.

If this were twitter,  which I guess has its uses in our soundbite culture,  I would define the exchanges between these four cities thusly:  Boston kitsch is always over-earnest and frequently preachy;  New York kitsch is best  in protest to something , but tends to be here today and gone tommorow;  Washington’s is painfully,  inevitably triumphalist;   LA’s utterly shameless,  tinsel all the time;  in each case,  of course,  reflecting as much the characteristic strengths as weaknesses of America’s citadels of learning,  money,  politics and showmanship.  And as between them there really is less choice than we like to think.  Who among us would turn down the chance to go to Harvard,  make a killing on Wall Street,  sit in the president’s cabinet or make a movie?   Very few.  And good luck to us all.

Meanwhile,  I need to explain where this blog is coming from, which is more or less that  it has lately been difficult in my daily jog to nowhere,  where I think these columns through,    to hear myself think at all.  There is a vogue in Boston,  has been in recent years,  for  using what is a seemingly endless number of  Worl War II Army Surplus vehicles known as “ducks” as tourist barges,  all absurdly named  (my favorite,  talk about the uses of kitsch,  is “Olga Ironsides”),   painted in the most gaudy glow-in-the-dark colors,   all endlessly lumbering past,  clogging our narrow streets and filled with trapped tourists “quacking” Sarah Palin-like at the command of the  ducks clownish tour conductors.  Visitors from around the world deserve better I tell myself,  but the only alternative  is the fleet of   very plastic looking phoney  “trolleys”  that look particularly stupid in a city that still runs the real thing on many streets.

And there is to be found our first dilemma here insofar as kitsch is concerned:  the real thing , however tarted up, but very noisy,   or the phony thing ,  but much quieter?

I will have you know,  furthermore,  that  Boston kitsch is global in more than tormenting tourists from everywhere without discrimination,  as critic   Finian O’Toole underlined when he told his readers in the Irish capital that the last reason they should want to visit the Massachusetts capital is Robert Shure’s sculpture at Boston’s Irish Famine Memorial.  It was,  he warned,  the most  “dreadful piece of kitsch”.

When I read this I thought at once what a hoot it wold be to compare this  fracas with others in Boston’s long history of same.  I thought at once,  for instance,  of when the Irish-American architect and critic of the early 20th century , Charles D. Maginnis, took two Yankee sculptors to task:  Hiram Powers for his statue of Daniel Webster in front of the Boston State House  (“a work of less than mediocrity”)  and William Wetmore Story for that sculptor’s effigy of a Harvard president of the day,  Edward Everett,  work Maginnis described as  “fairly provocative of the withering satire of Wendell Phillips”.

Critics today,  I fear,  are much less fierce.  There are exceptions — Boston Globe art critic Christine Temin was  blistering in her review of Shure’s work  (“reduces a great tragedy to a sentimental cartoon”)– but most,  like Marty Carlock,  in her excellent guide to Boston’s public art,  are content to point out Everett’s “trite declamatory gesture”  (he looks to us today like he were giving the Hitler salute)   and leave it at that.  More measured,   but more pointed,  Maginnis-like,  is art historian Keith Morgan in his superb new guide to Metropolitan Boston architecture in the Buildings of  the United States series,  who laments that  “the sidewalk cafe tables and seating form a lively public space diminished by the excessively literal Irish Famine Memorial”.   I will just add that Victorians took such criticism  seriously and perhaps we should.  The Everett,  afterall,  was removed from the Public Garden and banished to the suburbs.

It is hard,  of course,  to seperate the cause. which may be a noble one,  from the artistry of its expression,  which can end up disrespecting that cause,  and either or both from  level of education any one person’s response will signify.  Kitsch is notoriously hard to define.  Tasteless,  cheap,  shallow,  mass produced,  sentimental,  formulaic, maudlin,  melodramatic,  over literal —  any one of these things in any number of combinations can trigger the charge,  never mind specific subdivisions,  like totolitarian kitsch  (beyond our ken here)  or questions of age.  I refer here throughout to adult as opposed to childrens experience,  for example,  though it may be significant than my favorite definition in this whole area is Milan Kundera”s:   “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession.  The first tear says   ‘How nice to see the children running on the grass!’   The second tear says:  ‘How nice to be moved,  together with  all mankind,  by children running on the grass!’  It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch”.

Then, too,  to return to the sculptor of the famine memorial,  Robert Shure,  who has an excellent reputation as a restoration specialist stone cutter , has been responsible for a wide spectrum of work.  His best is the boldly modeled  relief of the  wheelchair runner  on one of the bollards of landscape architect Mark Flanel’s fine Boston Marathon monument in Copley Square.  The huge bronze bear Shure modeled for  the sidewalk in front of a nearby Back Bay shop is certainly hard to dislike.  His statue of Cy Young, the legendary Boston pitcher,  at Northeatsern,  reminds perhaps that even in Boston baseball is,  afterall,  entertainment.  His Massachusetts Firefighters Memorial behind the State House,  however,  has more in common with the famine memorial.  It is not understated.

A problem with kitsch is the awful influence on us all of that misleading old maxim wrongly attributed to Plato that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As if there could be beauty without truth.   But another old maxim — degustibus non disputandum  (there is no disputing about taste ) — is very close to  the heart of the matter.  Equally important,  we seem today to lack the sort of tastemakers like Isabella Stewart Gardner or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who managed to make accessible to a wide public without being threatening the most aristocratic tastes,  never condescending or dumbing down the matter and running the risk of disappointing , a particularly cruel thing to do to the  less privileged and therefore in this respect most vulnerable.  Not,  of course,  that it matters anymore in a pop dominated  cultural landscape  where the ‘high prole’ is as often encountered today as the aristocrat, never mind the confused climber.

The fact that in the history of sculpture  moderns  have come to understand ,  in Daniel Robbins’s words,  that  “form and space alone  can carry content,  idea  and  emotion without  [the necessity of] recourse to representation” ,  is  beside the point if you don’t get that point.   Certainly it was the issue that underlay the mother of all such furors in American art  in the late 20th and early 21st century,  the fracas that erupted in the early 1980s over Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

“CHRISTIAN  KITSCH”

She was only 21 when in 1981 Lin’s design  for the Washington memorial was accepted.  A graduate  of the Yale School of Architecture,  Lin early developed strong Boston area connections ,  teaching at Phillips Exeter,  briefly studying at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design , and working for  a Boston-based architect notable for his brilliant but unforgiving modernism,  Peter Forbes,  also a Yale graduate,  for whom Lin was a designer in 1983, the year the Vietnam Memorial  was dedicated.  At those exercises her name was mentioned not once according to Louis Menand,  an indication of how controversial was its purely abstract form,  which conceded nothing to the traditionalist representational school of sculpture that fifteen years later,  however,  scored so conspiciously in   being accepted as the underlying premise of  the  design of Boston’s Irish Famine Memorial.

There was,  to be sure,  the intervening Vendome Firefighters Memorial on  Back Bay Commonwealth Avenue,   finally dedicated in 1997,  which critic Christopher Millis in the Boston Phoenix was perhaps unduly harsh in calling  “a comic book version of the Vietnam Memorial in DC”;  certainly sculptor Ted Claussen’s inspiration was better than whatever was in Robert Shure’s mind later  at the famine memorial.  And,  too,  in 1984 there was unveiled Ralph Helmick’s fine monumental bust on the esplanade of Arthur Fiedler,  built up of aluminum layers of varying thinkness   that , while recognizably  Fiedler,  as one gets  closer and closer  becomes more abstract.   And all the while MIT,  for example,  was deploying distinguished abstract sculpture (including Alexander Calder’s)as  widely   about its campus .  But  the prominent downtown location of the famine memorial insured it would attract  an attention all out of proportion to its artistic merit.

The contrast between  the Washington and the Boston memorials , meanwhile,   documents the fact that,  intellectual capital or no,  Boston is  not  untroubled  by pockets of influential philistines ,  of the same sort as   are perhaps more conspicious in the in the political capital,  where despite the  eventual triumph of Lin’s  design,  which Menand aptly remarks  “in its detatchment  [is] a little Zen”,    she was forced to accept very problematic representational statuary on either side of her memorial,  one of which she  derided as “kitsch” publicly.    Others there were who described Lin’s memorial as an “open urinal” , one antagonist  according to Menand suggesting it be signed  “designed by a  gook”.

Interestingly,  it was in the business capital ,  under whose not unimpressive intellectual auspices  there appeared  , in between the Washington and Boston memorials , what in my opinion was the best discussion of these issues ,   though as it happens  in the realm not of sculpture but of music,   when in  1986 a review by J.  M.  Cameron of Jaruslav Pelikan”s  “Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture”   provoked a furious discussion aptly titled  “Christian kitsch”,  spearheaded by a letter to the editor from Herbert McArthur .

Now this is a large subject.  What is the difference between reinactors of various  Civil War battles  (and all those tour guides in Colonial costume on Boston Common) and Christians waving palms on Palm Sunday ?  Albert  Hammenstede,  the distinguished Roman Catholic scholar,  pointed out some time ago  the perils of historical reinactment,  observing that  such a custom  as bringing gifts to the  Christmas crib,  for example —  just as innocent as watching the children running in the field, no? —  because it  “reveals something but conceals nothing, therefore offends good artistic and consequently good liturgical taste”.

Because the subject of   Christian kitsch is so large,  including  not only such things as  “the epicine statues of Jesus,  the twee pictures of the infant emerging from the [altar] tabernacle and simpering at the congregation”,  but   also “musical kitsch”,  of which,   notwithstanding the  frequent musical mediocrity of the modern liturgy,  “the 19th century … is the great source”,  the discussion was wide ranging.  And because Pelikan  had in this respect emphasized a particular hymn — “I come to the garden alone” — Cameron took up Pelikan’s criticism of the hymn’s  “individuality”  and “sentimentality”  as a particular sin and bluntly pronounced it  “a kind of nastily flavored religious jello,  a fouling of the sources of religious feeling”.   Indeed,  because he found it  “as though the image of Jesus is caught in a cracked discolored distorting mirror in a fun house”,  Cameron went so far as to imply the hymn was  “un-Christian”.

To this McCarthur protested that  “his grandmother,  a devout Baptist, would have disagreed with the learned authority about  “I come to the garden alone”.  Though she had undoubtedly never heard the word kitsch,  “she  would have understood mere aesthetic distaste”,  the letter writer wrote,  because “she knew that better educated people might find her tastes too simple”.  But she would not at all have understood the assertion that her much-loved   hymn was un-Christian,  nor did he,  she being a near saint.  Said learned authority replied tellingly,  disputing that aesthetics were at at all “mere”,  and going on to explain why:  “My scorn was for the text of  ‘I come to the garden alone’,  not for those who sing it”.  Then, he pounced :  “I think kitsch presents us with a serious theological problem and stands … for something amiss in our culture:  kitsch is a form of lying,  and religious  kitsch lies about what is,  for the believer,  the deepest reality.”  Amen.

“LANDMARK  KITSCH”

It is entirely possible,  however,  that something much more complicated than lying is going on.  “The airhead aesthetic of post-modernism”,   architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable has written in a lovely turn of phrase,  was but one aspect of a situation Huxtable nailed ten years ago in her Unreal America , where she wrote of the culture wars:  “Kitsch won”;  and didn’t  just blame populists either,  but also sophisticates:  “taste rides a roller coaster of popular vernacular and esoteric avant-garde.  High culture borrows from low,  changing low art into high art in the process,  as in Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculpture’s of hamburgers and … clothespins,  which imbued those banal onjects with wit and cultural gravity.  The more adventurous culturati”,  she concludes,  “have embraced the archetypal kitsch of pink flamingos …  Thus we have a circular aesthetic.”

It plays out,  moreover,  in an arena in which my old friend Phoenix editor Peter Kadzis scores a hit with me when he suggests replacing Boston’s famine memorial with  precisely one of Oldenburg’s potato’s,  and I am less startled than charmed;  and then distinctly shamefaced.  I wonder if melting down Shure for Oldenburg would be, artistically or otherwise, an improvement.  Being avant garde is such a two-edged sword. Shamefaced too should be those who  tried  to grant landmark status to New York’s entry in our capitaline  kitsch foursome here,  the old Huntington Hartford Museum on Columbus Circle.

Designed by Edward Durell Stone,  it is a building Huxtable, in another lovely phrase,  characterized as a  “die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops”,  and critical opinion generally agreed with her that the attempt to  “inflate Stone’s kitsch to masterwork status [was] absurd”,  to quote Chicago Tribune critic Patricia Trebes.  The New Yorker magazine scathingly  headlined  its discussion of the matter “Landmark Kitsch”.

Some there are ,  of course  — British architectural historian David Watkin  to be exact — who would also call Frank Lloyd Wright’s Manhattan  Guggenheim Museum  kitsch  (“science fiction kitsch” is the phrase he used) but that is,  I am  persuaded,  a  very ill considered attitude of mind.   That exterior form will never be reshaped in the way Brad Cloepfill has the old Huntington Hartford’s  now it has been transformed into the Museum of Arts and Design,  a facade  Huxtable  is again the one who is quickest to spring to the defense of,  praising it as  the work of a  “very cool,  very restrained architect with a minimalist sensibility” — quite like Peter Forbes —  “out of sync with a public increasingly de-sensitized by today’s can-you-top-this-hyper sensationalism”.  More and more,  it seems,  the only place all of us can recognize kitsch is Dubai.

Boston has nothing in this league at all,  though Huxtable’s criticism that  “cities of strength,  like Chicago and Boston,  mock themselves with a foolish fashion parade on the skyline”  does bring to mind  a few Financial District skyscrapers —  Philip Johnson’s In ternational Place,  for example —  where history is used as akind of wallpaper.  There is,  furthermore,  99 Summer Street by Goody, Clancy,  which  my friend Mark Pasnik of  Wentworth Institute assures me in his circle has been tagged  “Wendy’s World Headquarters.”   Mostly, though,  Boston is more subtle.    Bless critic Robert Campbell  for noticing in Houston at the elegant Menil Museum there that he found  “there was no museum store selling kitsch examples of pseudo art like the store of [Boston’s] Museum of Fine Arts.”  Then again,  there is Salem,  on Boston’s North Shore,  where a whole town has been  “bewitched by kitsch”

The culprits here as elsewhere were,  of course,  Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown,  who had,  alas,  their Bostonian   followers too,  readers of  “Learning from Pop”  and ,  never mind Los Angeles or Hollywood,  “Learning from Las  Vegas”.   Yet the fact that Venturi made what  Carter Wiseman called  “an intellectual’s case for anti-intellectualism”  was not as seductive to Boston as he might have hoped  (Venturi’s idea of a miniature Trinity Church in the middle of Copley Square’s park never went anywhere).    But the fact that Venturi was inspired  by the Italian Mannerists of the 1500s ,  especially Michelangelo, was more interesting .  Leading what Watkin  described as  “a mannerist phase [of modernism]”,  Venturi insisted,  in  another phrase of Watkin’s,  on the importance to architecture of  “the presence of the past”,  and that is where  Bostonians,  always alert to their history,  listened too closely,  and  where  in consequence  the Post-Modernist movement had its greatest impact on the city–  historic preservation.

That is another and even longer  blog.  Sufficient here to hearken to how Huxtable drew out the meaning of her previous remarks in this connection:   “for a maverick movement begun by little old ladies in tennis shoes fighting bulldozers in the urban renewal demolition wars of the 1960s,  historic preservation has achieved some astounding successes”,  she  declared , “but when the vernacular expanded to the popular and  kitsch joined high art in the pantheon of taste,  nothing,  potentially,  was unworthy of  serious consideration and a good argument could be made for  [preserving]  almost any building….Objective scholarship was sidelined.”  Preservation extremists did the rest.  And that,  in Boston,  is a graduate course.

“KITSCH  OF  GENUIS”

Four vectors — Boston’s famine memorial,  Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington,  New York’s Huntington Hartford Museum,  LA’s Hollywood Bowl  — intersect here,  sometimes as opposites  (the famine and Vietnam memorials),  sometimes as parallels,  as in the last case,  wherein across a continent there is a telling parallel in the experiences of the Hollywood Bowl and the Boston Pops .  And there’s the big game,  suggesting a shift in context here from the standards of religious kitsch to those of patriotic kitsch,  where  Boston surges to the forefront.   For global kitsch you can’t beat Tchaikovsky — unless its Longfellow,  but that too is another blog —  on the Fourth of July in Boston.  “Kitsch of genuis”  is the way Hermann  Broch characterized the Russian master ,  something   American maestro  Arthur Fiedler,  showman of genuis,  figured out verty quickly.  Indeed, such was Fiedler’s repute,  when Walt Disney launched his Disneyland in 1971 it was  the Boston Pops maestro who conducted the musical festivities.

Today,  however,  to see  “kitsch of genuis”  doubled , and then doubled again , you do not have to go any further than the Boston esplanade every Fourth of July..

Back Bay born,  son of a Boston Sumphony musician,  educated at Boston Latin School and at several musical academy’s abroad,  Fiedler was famously open to the most populist of innovations,  of the sort one might expect more often of Los Angeles than  of Boston.   The Hollywood Bowl’s  first outdoor bandstand,  for instance,  appeared in the same year,  1928,  as the Boston Pops’  first outdoor “shell”,  and Fiedler’s style,  it is not too much to say,  out razzle-dazzled Hollywood every time.     Edward Rothenstein,  the  rather austere New York Times  music critic,   admitted once that though the covers of Boston Pops albums in Fiedler’s day put him off  — the maestro,  who condemned what he called  “damned sobbism”,  appeared theron as everything from a gold-suited troubadour to a mink-coated rake —  kitsch,  kitsch,  kitsch — Rothenstein finally came round to realizing that  despite Fiedler’s leadership of the pops movement in America,  “his musical achievements set a high  standard,  one that no contemporary pops conductor [could] match”.   Yes,  Rothenstein wrote,  he cringed at the pop  arrangements..  But the classical work was  “restrained,  finely shaped and insightful”.

Fiedler certainly knew that Boston and Tchaikovsky went back a long way.  It had not,  to be sure,  always been an easy relationship.  When he came to the U. S. in the 19o0s,  to dedicate New York’s Carnegie Hall,  Tchaikovsky  did not visit  Boston,  for whose august musical mentors the Russian composer  was,  how to say it,  never going to be  Bethoven.   It is true that Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto had been given its world premiere performance in Boston by Hans von Bulow in 1874,  but  the composer had by the 1890s rather a Bohemian reputation in Boston as elsewhere,  a reputation which somewhat limited his influence then but had long since ceased to matter when in the 1970s  Fiedler,  concerned about declining audiences on the eve of the American bicentennial,  heeded the advice of a friend,  Boston businessman David Mugar,  that a little Tchaikovsky,  a little canonfire,  some nearby church bells and,  above all , fireworks  , were just the  “bombs bursting in air”  to spark the Pops’ Fourth of July celebration.

The result according to critic Andrew Druckenbrod was that Tchaikovsky’s barnburner became in 1974 the  finale of that years Pops Fourth,  and when “a massive,  celebratory piece [is] pushed by the nation’s premiere outdoor orchestra, ” the result was  that  “it captured the public’s imagination”.  As Carey Goldberg pointed out in  an excellent historical survey of  all this in The New York Times,  “a revolution in Fourth of July concerts also started in Boston”,  culminating in the 1976 Bicentennial  Pops,   when over 400,000 people attended,  according to the Guiness Book of Records  “the largest audience in history for an outdoor concert.”

It is also likely that Fiedler knew, as we have largely forgotten,  that he was following in the footsteps of  another showman,  one Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore,  for Boston  actually rejoices  in a long and venerable history of what only can be called grand musical kitsch of global dimensions stretching back to the years after the Civil War when Gilmore chose Boston,  the heart and soul of the Union cause  in that war,  as the site  in 1869, for what he modestly announced would be “the greatest musical festival and the grandest celebration ever witnessed in the world.”

Brahmin Boston winced.  Timothy Dwight,  America’s leading  musical tastemaker of the era,  announced that he would leave town.  Gilmore,  he protested,  was nothing more than  “a caterer in music to the popular taste”.

But that was hardly to  properly take the mans measure.  As Walter Muir Whitehill observed,  “the American passion for bigger and better elephants has scarcely even been more startlingly seen ….  Gilmore had the genuis for the super-colossal that was in the next century to flower in Hollywood”.   Sufficient to say that his National Peace Jubilee,  attended by U. S. president Grant,  and yet another festival a year later,  both dedicated to celebrating the new worlds emerging after the end of the U. S. Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in Europe,  were attended by people from all over the country —   all offered special  train fares so they could attend —   and culminated in  Verdi’s Anvil Chorus sung by a chorus of thousands supported by an orchestra hardly smaller,  in a huge temporary  coliseum built in what is now Copley Square.  This extravaganza was  conducted by no less than Johann Strauss,  the Waltz King himself,   who came from Vienna.  A hundred fireman,  as the crowning touch,  beat out the Anvil Chorus with sledgehammers on —  what else? —  anvils.  By any standard  whatsoever that must surely rank as the greatest kitsch ever.  Absolutely.

KITSCH  PARRIED

Literary kitsch is simply too large a subject to encompass here.   But ever since  the 1920s ,  when the  Boston area entrepreneur Wallace Nutting began to aggressively market his hand tinted color photography books,  the picture book has reared its mostly ugly head on every side  and  as the picture book today has no literary pretensions whatsoever it finds its rightful niche here.   Today in almost any  store  within range of the tourist trade,  and certainly in all the big bookstores,  there is always by the main entrance a massive display of gaudy color picture books,  not very different from the pictorial calendars sold nearby,  relieved only by those small black and white post card filled historical souvineer booklets that are, if anything, worse.

There  is,  to be sure,  some very respectable history here.  The picture books  of the distinguished photographer  Samuel Chamberlain,  a master of the black and white photograph whose Boston area picture books of the 1930s and ’40s are collector’s items today,  are a case in point.   Even Nuttings hand tinted pictures have now a certain value as period pieces.  And  just to muddy the waters further here,  and testify  further and in yet another medium  how well   even kitsch may be parried,  there is now arrayed along with all the junk at your favorite book emporium one book worth buying:  Boston  Beheld by Brenton Simons,  the CEO of the New England Historical Genealogical Society,  published recently by the University Press of New England.

Simons’s book depicts Jane Austen’s Boston,  in the sense that it is a visual image of the book  Austen might have written had she run into Charles Dickens after his return from his  Boston visit of 1842.  “Tremont Street”,  “View of the State House from Boston Common”,  “Old Tremont House”,  “Brimestone Corner”,  “New South Church and Green” —  all  these paintings or prints in superb but not hyped-up color from about the 1830s and ’40s   constitute a kind of American  “Masterpiece  Theatre”.   “The bricks were so red”,  quoth Dickens of his Boston,  “the stone so very white”.   And so  they are in  Simons’s book.  There is even a running text,  instead of captions.  And I for one will not rest untill I learn more of Gloria Gilda Deak :  “Boston is like Paris,  Istanbul,  Budapest and Rome”,  she observes ,  “a place that owes its handsome silhouette to the vertical majesty of hills rising from the base of an undulating river”.

It is true that the text at various places lapses into young fogey land.  Yes,  much beauty has been lost.  But much too has been gained.  And, no, not all Boston’s skyscrapers are po-mo kitsch.   Yes, one does regret the loss of the Tontine Crescent.  But Boston brick in Eero Saarinen’s hands has not prooved less graceful in its results than in  Charles Bulfinch’s. These are, however,  the weaknesses of the books strengths.

But let us  return to public art to conclude our gossip about kitsch with just the opposite case than we began with,  a consideration of the figure of Mary Dyer in front of the Boston State House , a figure that shames the viewer all the more for its lack of bathos in the comment it makes on one of Boston’s ugliest historical episodes :  the hanging on Boston Common in the 1600s of four Quakers,  including Dyer,  a middle aged wife and mother,  for no other reason than her religion.

Dyer is portrayed sitting at Meeting,  hands folded and head bowed in Quaker worship,  while “the simplicity of the style”,  in Penny Balkin Bach’s words,  “reinforces the aura of quiet determination”.   There is an  air of extreme quiet about the sculpture that seems to extend out to all the activity around it it.

It is sometimes true that like its cousin,  irony,  kitsch can  indeed double back and reverse and even throw up what is sometimes called   “the reverse of the reverse”.   It is also sometimes true that popular is not always pop,  pop not always kitsch,   and that kitsch sometimes touches genuis.   But Mary Dyer , as  sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson has portrayed her,  knows nothing of any of this.   She sits in judgement on us all,  I feel,  as only very good art can,  and in the words of Judson,  who one is not surprised to learn studied in Paris under a pupil of Rodin,  Dyer does so  “solitary and exposed,  as though the only safety was within”.   And that is  all the answer there is  —  or ever was — to kitsch.

Comments/shand-tucci@comcast.net

SOURCES

Bach,  Penny Balcan. PUBLIC ART IN  PHILADELPHIA (Temple,  1992). A copy of the Dyer sculptur stands outside the Friends Center in Philadelphia.

Brock, Hermann.  GEIST AND ZEITGEIST (Counterpoint, 2003)

Cameron, J.  M. “The Historical Jesus” in NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (Feb. 13, 1986)

Cameron, J.  M. reply to H. McArthur, “Christian Kitsc” in NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (May 29, 1986)

Campbell, Robert.  Houston’s New Menil Museum”, BOSTON GLOBE (Apr. 5, 1988)

Carlock, Marty. A GUIDE TO PUBLIC ART IN GREATER BOSTON (Harvard Common Press, 1993)

Dreisinger, Baz. “Gay Old Time” in NEW YORK OBSERVER (May 5, 2003)

Druckenbrod, Andrew.  “How a rousing Russian tune…” in PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE (July 4, 2003)

Goldberg, Carey. “A Revolution…” IN THE NEW YORK TIMES (July4, 1998)

Hammenstede, Albert. “The Liturgy as Art” in LITURGICAL ART Second Quarter 1936)

Huxtable, Ada Louise. THE UNREAL AMERICA (New Press, 1997)

[Huxtable, Ada Louise] Rosenbaum, Lee. “Lollipop’s Revisited” in CULTURE GRRL (Dec 10, 2008) www.artsjournal.com

Kundera, Milan. THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (HarperCollins, 2004) First appeared in English in 1984

McArthur, Herbert. “Christian Kitsch” in NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS (May 29, 1886)

Maginnis, Charles D. “Sculpture” in FIFTY YEARS OF BOSTON (City of Boston, 1930)

Menand, Louis. “Relunctant Memorialist” in AMERICAN STUDIES (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002)

Morgan, Keith N.  BUILDINGS OF MASSACHUSETTS / METROPOLITAN BOSTON (Virginia, 2009)

Millis, Christopher. “The good, the bad…” in THE BOSTON PHOENIX (Aug. 21, 1997) If Claussen popularized Lin’s work, Lin in the view of some, popularized Richard Serra”s TITLED ARC

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