Tiny Rooms, Elegant and Bloody

Nice piece in the NYTimes about a show at the Renwick called
Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. 

These are dollhouse dioramas, all of grisly crime scenes (how is John Waters not involved in this?), created by Glessner, a self-trained artist and forensic scientist in the middle of the last century, They were, and in some cases still are, used to train detectives.

Times writer William Hamilton, or his editor, had the inspired idea of touring the show with Jennifer Smith, the head of Forensics for the Washington, DC police, picking up on things that civilians would miss in the very detailed, yet decorative little rooms.

In my two visits (both relatively quick) it seemed to sit a little oddly at the Renwick (although the newly reopened museum’s pushing of boundaries of craft seems to me overall positive–the first show in 2016 was fantastic).  The Nutshells’ oscillation between dark humor, sort of a particularly bleak 1950s noir, clashes with the dollhouse presentation, at least for me. Still, the show is undeniably fascinating, and certainly has engaged an audience.  After the Times piece, I bet there will be audiences waiting on Penn. Avenue to see it.

Glessner was a Chicago native, and I wonder whether the wonderful Thorne Rooms–decorative miniatures at the Art Institute of Chicago, were an inspiration? These are done to the same scale as Glessner’s, 1 inch = 1 foot, but portray mostly elegant interior design , Americanrooms from the colonial period through the 1940s. No corpse in sight. My early years were spent in Chicago, and a visit to these was always a particular treat.

Photos don’t really do them justice (in reproduction, they look like the actual rooms you find in historical sites or recreated in museums, but when you consider the 1″ scale, the detail of the workmanship becomes clear:

Virginia Drawing Room, 1754, c. 1940, One of the Thorne Rooms from the Art Institute of Chicago



Arts Advocacy Day

Although I eschew politics on this blog– that is content that is readily supplied elsewhere on the web, today is Arts Advocacy Day, an annual push by the American Arts Alliance to make the case for public support for the arts in D.C. Arts types from all over the country come to visit legislators, attend events, go to trainings, network etc. The date has been set for some time, so the proximity to the release of a budget that calls for shuttering the NEA, NEH, and CPB is probably coincidence.

Over the years as somebody avocationally and professionally involved in the arts, I have been caught up in the fights about the NEA, a perennial target for budget cuts or closure.  A lot of well-prepped advocates are defending the case for the endowment, but fwiw, here are a few arguments and counter arguments that get trotted out on the chance they are of use.

Claim: We should abolish the NEA to save money and set budget priorities straight on the things that are essential, like lowering the deficit.

Response: It really isn’t about the money, which is a trivial amount in the context of the federal budget. Even if all federal arts, humanities, and cultural organizations were shuttered, the savings is so small as not to be noticeable. An analogy would be saying, “I want to pay down my mortgage faster!” And deciding to forgo 3 coffee shop lattes a year!  The $7 you save on your debt won’t make a difference.

Context: Because The cultural organizations’ budgets don’t mean a lot in the context of federal trillions, the argument is sometimes seen as a “draw”–if the money is so little, while do arts advocates squawk so much about it? The reality is that to the cultural sector this is not chump change, and requirements that organizations partner with the community, leverage dollars with philanthropy, for instance matching NEA funds with  non-governmental funds, means there is a lot of bang for the buck.

Claim: I don’t personally care about the arts, nor do I benefit from cultural programs, so why should I be compelled through taxation to pay for something that I don’t even use?

Response: You’d have to work pretty hard to live a life that was completely untouched directly or indirectly by the cultural investment from federal dollars. You can browse NEA and NEH websites to learn about their grants, and you’ll see that when you turn on your public television or radio station, go to your local library, community center, your school, or venue, and you will be partaking directly or indirectly of their effort. The NEA, in particular, does a good job of making sure every state and region is represented, and that the grants they fund are representative of community and state priorities. Also, and related to the first point about the money, the arts, like sports, but unlike other subsidies (corn and sugar come to mind), are a transparent government program and result in programs that don’t exclude anybody. You may or may not like what is on offer, but it’s available and you can see it and participate in it. When you think about it, the arts sector (say, in comparison with the financial sector) is admirably visible and economical, you see the fruits of the investment.

Context: Government is a dirty word for many: some people on principle want the least possible government and are ideologically are opposed to anything that spends one cent more than is absolutely necessary. This stance has the value of being consistent in its absolutism, but the rub is that we don’t have now, nor will ever have, consensus on just what is “absolutely necessary;” a requirement that every government dollar spent be equally meaningful to every taxpayer is not a reasonable position. In fact, governmental institutions exist in part to provide a means to have this debate and to make the best trade offs. It’s not an argument to simply assert “it is inappropriate for government to do this,” full stop. In a democracy we have a mechanism to discuss, debate, and legislate what we think necessary and appropriate. “Government just shouldn’t do this,” does not a democratic argument make.

Claim: Government shouldn’t be in arts and culture because it makes artists beholden to government influence (plague of ‘official art’ argument you hear from some lefty artists) or alternately, why should citizens subsidize what the market will judge valuable in its wisdom? (a market ideological case, from the right typically).

Response: In the first case, the government cultural organizations are not Commissariats for Culture that make some grand pronouncements on acceptable and unacceptable art (and have enforcement power). Instead, in the words of the enabling legislation, the cultural agencies offer “encouragement and support”–often seed money, but in no way prohibiting other activity in the cultural sphere. Yes, there are sometimes content questions (and contentious ones, I suffered through the soap opera of the Mapplethorpe flap a generation ago). As well, government employees are often not the main decision makers: at the NEA applications go through peer review processes (like NSF or NIH), and there is a program emphasis on the art forms  (theater, visual arts, etc.) rather than on some specific content areas, much less individual artists to be championed or not. (The NEA stopped  individual grants decades ago).

The second question is related. To me “let the market decide and stay out” draws on the faulty assumption that the only elements at play here are these reified entities of government and the free market. This misses that there is another realm of human projects, personal and collective, that fit squarely in neither of these (or a combination thereof). There are lots of things we do–cultural, athletic, social, community, religious, civic participation etc.–that are outside of either domain, yet are valuable, for some people perhaps the most meaningful dimensions of the life. So while the government has no place telling the artist what to create, nor can or should the market, which is in fact not a reliable barometer of artistic taste, longevity much less value. Arts and cultural activity certainly benefits from philanthropy and occasionally even from market success (but both of these are often exaggerated: philanthropy to the arts is a steady 5% of all giving, dwarfed by health and education gifts and for every Hamilton or Chorus Line that go from non-profit to commercial success there are scores of works that don’t or don’t in the time required).

Context: It is certainly fair to argue that government has no business in this “middle place” between federal priorities and the market. But that’s a radical claim, and would sweep away a lot of things that matter to people. Arts is a bit player in this middle place, which encompasses the entire realm of non-profits, some of which get federal funding directly (although are usually out the line of public fire because their funding is not explicit). Even more significant, all non-profits get an enormous boon (and indirect subsidy) from the exemption from taxes. This exemption comes because these organizations are working in the civic interest, something that might not be done through market means, and it is in the spirit of a generous republic to make this easier, not harder. This is embodied in the law that established the non-profit taxation policy. (That there is grousing from time to time around whether this status is open to abuse by political organizations or charities, is beside the point here. This is a component of civic society that is beneficial, and widely supported).

Claim: I really just don’t like the arts. They do nothing for me; and if I stop to think about it, seems like an upper class thing–going to a fancy performance that has nothing to do with my life, that people shut me out of. The idea that dollars are going to that world turns me off.

Response: It’s too bad that we are stuck with “the arts” as a phrase, since it does evoke the Astors going to the Met, an image that is easy to get turned off by–eliciting a reflex, “really, that organization needs my money? Come on.”  But the picture is far larger and varied than that. Consider the Summer with Shakespeare program at A Noise Within Theater in Pasadena, CA.

Now you may not be as inspired and moved by that video as I am. But it is part of what the arts are about for many, and I’d ask you to see that as just as much a picture of this varied world as the swells in their evening clothes at the Met. (And for what it’s worth the NEA’s focus on making a difference in communities means there is a lot of emphasis on just this kind of educational programming, and less for what might be termed the arts one-percenters—a complete opposite to the financial sector bail out policy.)


Finally: a request not to be selfish and instead to refrain from presuming about what others should or should not find rewarding and worthy of government support. You may not find the arts rewarding, but I think watching that video you can see with a little imagination why some people do, and why this might be a benefit that goes beyond a narrow sense of what “the arts” entails.

I can give you a personal analogy in which I have to set aside my own lack of interest, and use a little imagination to see things as others might. I am not–and this will shock you, I know–much of a sports fan (despite growing up with a sports-mad father and a LOT of exposure to every sport imaginable. Hope sprang eternal in his chest, alas unrequited*). But for me to say “sports doesn’t mean a thing to me” and then to jump to the assertion that it it’s not worth a penny of tax support for those to whom it means a great deal–maybe is one of the most important things in their life–is just callous, that it can just “go take care of itself.” (And before you say that gotcha there is no “National Endowment for Sport,” sports gets lots of direct and indirect funding from federal and other levels of government–but this rarely makes the headlines that the NEA reliably does.)

But I have the ability to summon imaginative sympathy (maybe because of being an arts guy?) and I realize whether something is deeply meaningful to me is not the criterion about whether to zero it out–I can consider whether it is meaningful to someone else as well. Part of what makes Summer of Shakespeare described above in that video valuable to me is the same thing that makes a youth baseball camp valuable to another person, and the theater camp or the basketball camp should not live or die based only on the numbers and a deceptive and highly selective argument about what “appropriate” use of federal money is.  Start there, and you end up nowhere.

*Just for the record, my English professor father loved (and loves) literature & poetry more than baseball or golf, and even I can get into tennis (well, a little). As for my mother, she was an arts lover through and through, but watched golf on TV, even by herself (i.e., not with my father present), which is at least as hard to explain to a non-believer as my habit of listening to the Met Opera on radio every Sat afternoon.

Sackler: The Art of the Qur’an

Saw a wonderful exhibition at Washington’s Sackler Museum (part of the Smithsonian), “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

The artifacts themselves are stunning examples of book art–appreciators of the idea of craft will be engrossed–and the organization and copy of the exhibit is an elegant balance of viewpoints, culture and context. Lovely to be there on a busy day (Chinese New Year celebrations were also going on, with lots of kids bustling around) and to hear people discussing linguistic history and also praying.  D.C. at its best with the diversity of the world sharing awe and delight.

Also, should you be so inclined, the Smithsonian has created a related free iPad App. A good idea for these works, which are the ultimate in intricate & beautiful detail.






Commonplace Book: Ian Patterson on Julia Blackburn on John Craske

Great lead to a piece about a new bio of an unknown (at least to me) British primativist painter and embroider, John Craske,

In the final pages of The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald imagined ‘the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread’. Sebald was talking about weavers, but the feeling must be common to all sorts of artists, and to researchers, too. Getting hold of the right thread when you’re trying to find out about a life or anything else is a matter of luck: you don’t know what will lead somewhere useful or join up with other threads until it does. Every time you look back over fruitless archive searches, unhelpful conversations, dead addresses, unanswered emails, the intricate design you’ve imagined becomes pointless or malign and you feel like abandoning the project altogether. I don’t know of many books that give a better sense of the frustrations and excitement of research than Julia Blackburn’s account of her attempt to find out about John Craske.

Not sure if artists feel this way, but as a researcher, it rings true. More about Craske here; the LRB review–lovely piece–is behind the firewall.

Beautiful Picture: Diagram of A Newspaper Office, 1922

Check out this fascinating 1922 diagram of the long gone Washington Star‘s building on Penn. Ave in DC. Linked from “Ghosts of DC” where you can find the full file with amazing detail. Quite a sizable library! But the noise from the linotype room, just above the writers, must have been intense–and I assume the whole building shook when the presses were running. Not something that happens with a blog, alas.


After the Fall

A fascinating short about the restoration of Tullio Lombardo’s Adam, a Renaissance sculpture that crashed into hundreds of pieces 12 years ago at the Met. The restoration, which looks astonishing, involved materials science, 3-D imaging, and engineering innovation.