Grandmaster Flash Beats Back Time

The Netflix series “The Get Down” is bringing new attention to
the pioneering hip-hop D.J. born Joseph Saddler, who, unlike
many of his peers from the music’s early days, continues to work.

NY Times Published: AUG. 26, 2016

Grandmaster Flash might easily have missed the hip-hop revolution. Born in Barbados and transplanted to the South Bronx as a child, he began his adolescence far from the city, in a group home for foster children in rural upstate New York. By the time he returned to the borough’s Fort Apache section in 1971, things were changing fast. Music was getting more percussive; teenagers with spray cans were scrawling hieroglyphic names and full-fledged murals on subway cars.

He was Joseph Saddler then, a nerdy high school student who liked to take appliances apart to see how they worked. In a few short years, though, in the hardest-hit part of a hard-hit city, he helped to invent what many would agree was the most sweeping cultural movement of the last 40 years, and then he barely hung on to see it bloom.

The four-decade roller-coaster ride of Grandmaster Flash, now 58, is a tale as improbable and as distinctly New York as that of hip-hop itself, filled with raw creativity, fame, drugs, broken friendships, lawsuits and, finally, something like smooth sailing. In parallel with the city that produced it, hip-hop emerged in the mid-1970s as a symbol of urban decay and evolved into a gilded spectacle of consumption. Mr. Saddler, the music’s first virtuoso, rode its initial wave, got crushed by the second and rebounded as one of the few from his generation whose careers are still going strong.

On a recent day in Harlem, he spread a wrinkled sheet of paper on the table of a Mexican takeout place as if opening his notes for a lecture. His features have filled out from the angular profile he had as a teenager, but he still looked athletic and lithe. He had just returned from England, where he had D.J.ed for 10,000 people. He was wearing a bright red baseball cap with the letters GF and a T-shirt that said Grandmaster, not exactly incognito.

These are good times for Grandmaster Flash. After a long fall, during which he was addicted to cocaine, estranged from some of his six children and sleeping on his sister’s couch, he has homes in the city, on Long Island and in Atlanta, but spends most of the year on the road, (you can’t call it spinning records) in the United States and abroad. For the past 15 months, he served as an associate producer on the director Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down,” a new Netflix series that features an actor playing Mr. Saddler as a teenager.

The series, set in hip-hop’s gestational period, has brought him back to the streets and parks where he started, now a middle-aged man straddling two eras connected by a sound that people said would never last.

“So here it is, 40 years later, it caught on,” he said. “Pretty euphoric.”

He declined to talk about the bad times or his early record company, Sugar Hill, or the rappers he worked with, the Furious Five, two of whom have called Flash the Milli Vanilli of hip-hop. He sneered at a nearby restaurant called Sugar Hill Cafe, saying the name made him sick.

“Life has been good,” he said. “Even during the times that were really tough, I’m really O.K. People poke holes in me. Some people are mad at me, most people love me. It’s O.K. Nobody’s perfect.”

These days, he said, he enjoys being a father, and lying low when he is back in town. The world is finally catching up to him. “You gotta realize that this thing here, this is the youngest of all the cultures, hip-hop,” he said. “Rock’s been around forever. Pop’s been around forever. This is the youngest, so it’s the least understood. But it is the biggest. The biggest monster.”

JOSEPH SADDLER WAS BORN on the first day of 1958 in Bridgetown, Barbados, the only boy in a family of four girls. His father, who left the family when Joseph was 7, was a record collector and a transit worker who liked to drink and who used his boxer’s hands against his wife and children. Joseph’s mother was a seamstress who spent much of his childhood in and out of psychiatric care.

Joseph and his younger sister entered foster care when he was 8, shuttling first among foster homes in the Bronx, then spending five years at the Greer School near Poughkeepsie. There, he got his first chance to D.J. at a school dance, playing Bobby Byrd’s “I Know You Got Soul” for an interracial crowd.

There are almost as many versions of hip-hop’s origin story as there are people who tell it, but most begin the musical portion — graffiti came earlier — with three Bronx D.J.s who began throwing parties in parks or community centers. Clive Campbell, a slightly older Jamaican from Sedgwick Avenue in the West Bronx who called himself DJ Kool Herc, drew crowds by mashing together instrumental breaks on records, spurring dancers to perform the acrobatic moves that came to be called break dancing or b-boying. In Soundview, Afrika Bambaataa, a former member of the Black Spades gang, played at the Bronx River Community Center. Flash was the third.

“I say the Bronx created it,” he said. “We all played a part. Herc was first, the founder. Then Bam had the most selections. And I just came up with a way to deliver the music, technically speaking. So the three of us together sort of figured it out.”

Their launching pad was a city in shambles, nowhere more so than the Bronx. In 1975, police officers and members of other public safety unions, responding to calls for layoffs, created a pamphlet, Welcome to Fear City, that warned: “Until things change, stay away from New York City if you possibly can.” President Jimmy Carter toured a blighted stretch of Charlotte Street in the South Bronx in 1977, as helicopters buzzed overhead to assure his safety. Amid the decline, Flash had a child and a job delivering garment patterns, making ends meet by spinning records at parties in parks and school gyms.

AT THE MEXICAN RESTAURANT, Flash walked patiently through what he called the Quik Mix Theory, the turntable breakthrough that started it all: 4bf = 6rc = loop. Four bars forward equaled six rotations counterclockwise equaled a loop. He could start a beat on one turntable, let it play for four bars, then switch to another copy of the same record on a second turntable. As the second record played, he would rotate the first record counterclockwise for six revolutions, putting the needle back at the start of the beat, ready to go when the record on the second turntable finished its four bars.

How to do a break mix Grandmaster Flash 1983 HD Video by eerdeherrie
It took him nearly three years to perfect the formula, he said, but when he did, people thought it was magic. To him, it was more like the map of the human genome.

“This is my math and my science,” he said. “I’m actually readjusting time. I’m taking this break, it’s 10 seconds, I’m making it 10 minutes, you don’t know when it’s beginning or ending.”

Voices could now rhyme over the beat without being interrupted by a record’s verses and choruses. “This was the birth of rap,” he said, only partly overstating the case. “So this Quik Mix Theory caused the whole culture. It’s scary to think about sometimes. But that’s what it did.”

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But first someone had to rap. Flash tried emulating the patter of disco D.J.s, who talked while they spun, but he was too busy with the turntables, so he left a microphone for people from the crowd to talk. “Many people failed,” he said. A local resident named Robert Keith Wiggins, calling himself Cowboy, started spitting call-and-response rhymes to Flash’s beats, exhorting crowds to say “ho” or to “throw your hands in the air and wave ’em like you just don’t care” — lines that would become hip-hop staples for decades to come.

“Flash was so far advanced beyond everybody else,” said Carlos Mandes, 57, a D.J. who called himself Charlie Chase to signal that he was chasing Grandmaster Flash for supremacy of the Bronx. “He was fast, he was precise. He was an inspiration.”

Chris Stein and Debbie Harry of Blondie caught Flash at a party in the late 1970s at the Webster Avenue Police Athletic League and were knocked out.

“Flash had megaskills,” Mr. Stein said. “He did a lot of show-offy stuff, scratching with his elbows and behind his back. His timing was always precise. The whole thing was furious energy the whole time. It was eye-opening.” When Mr. Stein later raved about the music to people in the business, he said, “I’d say 100 percent said it was a fad and that it would go away.”

Gangs ran the Bronx in those years: Savage Skulls, Black Pearls, Black Spades, Seven Immortals, Savage Nomads, Roman Kings, Ghetto Brothers, Persuaders. A group of former Black Spades known as the Casanova Crew provided security at Flash’s parties; they were as rough as anyone who might cause trouble.

For Mr. Saddler, the pieces fell into place quickly. He became Flash, from his short-lived graffiti tag, FLASH 163, and Grandmaster — like a martial arts expert — for the way he cut up beats. More M.C.s joined, until they had become the Furious Five: Cowboy, Melle Mel, Kidd Creole, Scorpio and, the last to arrive, Rahiem. The parties got bigger and wilder.

“It was the most amazing spectacle of my adolescent life at that time,” said Guy Todd Williams, 53, a.k.a. Rahiem, who saw the group in 1978 and joined the next year. “They were entertainers. You didn’t just come to hear them, you came to see them as well. What he was doing musically on the turntables was unprecedented at the time.” At one party, Mr. Williams said, Cowboy started teasing a friend who had enlisted in the military, mocking the march cadence, “hip, hop, hip, hop.”

“That’s where the term derived from,” Mr. Williams said.

FOR A CITY IN DISTRESS, hip-hop was an embodiment of disorder and a creative response to it. Even the performers did not see much future in the music beyond their local parks and rec centers, or the mix tapes they sold to peers. There were no instruments and no singing, and the musical accompaniment came from others’ recordings — how could anyone make records out of that? The few entrepreneurs who started signing rap groups to record contracts were as unconstrained as those making the music.

“It’s ghoulish the way they sucked money out of these kids,” said Steven Ames Brown, a lawyer who sued and won royalty settlements from Sugar Hill Records and its owners on behalf of the Furious Five and other groups. “No one got paid anything until we started suing everybody.”

For Grandmaster Flash, barely out of his teens, the parties where he performed meant status, women and enough money to start a cocaine habit, which grew along with his paychecks.

“We all began to dabble with cocaine,” Mr. Williams said. The money also led to arguments among group members, who complained that Flash was being paid more for shows than they were, and briefly parted with him to work with Mr. Mandes instead. (Two group members, Melle Mel and Scorpio, declined to be interviewed for this article because of their differences with Flash.)

The fights escalated with their first recordings, in 1979, which were credited to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, even though studio musicians replaced Flash’s turntable work on all but one song. Now people who never went to a Flash party, who knew only the recordings, were becoming the group’s fan base — so why was Flash getting top billing and building his name? The group’s biggest hit, the landmark socially conscious rap “The Message,” featured only one of the Furious Five, Melle Mel; most of the group hated it.

The bottom also came quickly for Flash. By November 1983, not four years into his recording career, he had split with the group and was strung out and broke, selling his possessions for pennies on the dollar and making mix tapes for drug dealers in exchange for drugs. Once, in a dingy basement on 127th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, where he had gone to freebase cocaine, he heard the latest record by his old M.C Melle Mel, “White Lines (Don’t Do It).” He smoked away the next two years before landing in a coma in St. Barnabas Hospital, weighing just 118 pounds. It took a decade, and the death of Cowboy, wasted by drugs or illness, to climb back into the light.

“At 23, I was flexed,” Flash told David Ritz, who wrote Flash’s autobiography. “At 28, I was taking the train.”

NEW YORK IS A CITY of reversals and redemption. The smoldering South Bronx wasteland depicted in “The Get Down” now teems with new construction. The number of homicides in the 41st Precinct, the one known as Fort Apache and still one of the city’s poorest areas, fell to three last year, from 44 in 1990, Police Department statistics show; robberies fell to 226, from more than 1,000. Five people were killed there in the first seven months of this year.

In 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first hip-hop performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the induction, Jay Z put Flash in historical perspective, saying, “What Les Paul and Chuck Berry did for the electric guitar, Flash did for the turntables.”

Hip-hop, whose evolution rendered the group obsolete, evolved again, opening a path for Flash not as a young revolutionary but as a keeper of the old tradition. In music’s least nostalgic genre, there is now a place for oldies and legends. “Last week in England I decided to go ’70s the whole night, and I couldn’t leave the stage,” he said. “So I’m just really sure this ’70s music is something people want to hear today.”

If so, “The Get Down” — the first six episodes were released this month — aims directly at that hunger. Funk beats ooze from the soundtrack; long scenes dissect the Quik Mix Theory; bullets fly across barren streetscapes. For Flash, the series has functioned as a homecoming of sorts, even if you can never return to adolescence.

“It’s sad how people paint the Bronx like it was some kind of O.K. Corral,” he said. “I think it was a city of experimentation. We left no stone unturned musically. Life was a lot simpler then. I didn’t see a whole lot of problems in that period. Maybe it was because I knew how to handle the corral. But I do know that when I came out in the park, all the gangsters, all the gang members and everybody would come to the park in total, total peace. The biggest gangs would buy soda, chips and popcorn for like 500 people. You’d see guys with a reputation for being super-ruthless, but they were the kindest guys to my audience. The police officer would be right across the street drinking a soda, because anybody that could be starting trouble was right in the park with me. So they allowed us to play until 11 or 12 o’clock.”

With “The Get Down,” he said, he hopes to convey that dimension of hip-hop’s formative period. “I think it’s a great time,” he said. “I’m excited for people to take a look. I ain’t trying to change anybody. I just say, Here’s what it was.” Four decades after its inception, he said, hip-hop is now “a billion-dollar business.”

“Somebody has to say, where did this thing come from?” he said. “Who baked this cake? Why not ask the baker?”

His silence on aspects of the past aside, he said he was not bitter about the money he never earned from his hit records or concerts, or the wealth earned by the stars who followed him.

“I’m so glad I didn’t come in at this time,” he said. “I didn’t mind spending the 10, 12 years building a solid foundation of what I do, and have people follow me, so that when I got into the lions’ den, which is the industry, I didn’t get eaten up. So it’s a good thing now.”

He gestured out the window to the new buildings rising on 145th Street. Most of his peers now perform sporadically, if at all. Some, like Cowboy, are gone. If Flash no longer rules the Bronx, he enjoys a different, broader kind of success.

“I accept change,” he said. “Forty years ago that might have been a grocery store. Today it’s a Caribbean market. If you don’t accept change, change will leave you behind. So I’m good with change. Oh, yeah.”

Thanks to Jonathan Maghen

August 28th, 2016
The Spoil of Destruction

Mann, in 1941, at his Pacific Palisades home, with his wife, Katia, and two of their grandchildren.
The house Thomas Mann described as “so completely my own” could be torn down.

By Caille Millner
The Paris Review Published: August 25, 2016

Thomas Mann’s house in Pacific Palisades, California, is up for sale. The news came as a surprise: the house, designed by the modernist architect J. R. Davidson, was believed to have a reliable owner with Chester Lappen, the lawyer who bought it from Mann in 1953, and his heirs. As late as 2012, they’d expressed no interest in selling. Things have changed.
Mann, who escaped the Nazis for America in 1938, had the house built to his cultured specifications. Davidson, Mann’s fellow countryman in exile, called the style “nostalgic German.” Photos of its flat roof, grand windows, and unadorned pillars offer an effect that’s warmer than the era’s Southern California modernism. But for the few who can afford it, 1550 San Remo Drive may have more worth as an address than as a building. The home has been marketed as a potential teardown.

“Create your dream estate,” the real-estate listing reads, with no mention of Doctor Faustus (1947) and The Holy Sinner (1951), the exquisite nightmares Mann created there. Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic, spoke to Joyce Rey, the seller’s real-estate agent. She said the house’s value was in its land, not its history or architecture.

Germany has greeted the sale announcement with consternation—and shock at Los Angeles’s lack of interest in protecting cultural patrimony. Some have demanded that the German government purchase the property. The emotional response is understandable: while most of Mann’s existing residences in Germany have been protected and restored, options for protecting historic buildings are restricted in Los Angeles. And clearly, as a group, the Angelenos don’t share Germany’s passion for discursive, symbolic novels.

Mann himself would’ve been devastated by the news. Though he wrote powerfully about the dangers of romanticism and nostalgia, he suffered from those same forces. After he moved back to Europe in 1952, he was known to long for his California sanctuary. The patio, the ocean, the seven palm trees on his property—“the house was so completely my own,” he said.

Still, he may not have been surprised. Mann had already lost one grand estate by the time he arrived in California, and Doctor Faustus, the late great novel of his exile, is haunted by the loss of homes both past and present.

Born into a well-off family and gifted with early literary success, Mann was able to commission a luxurious villa on Poschingerstrasse, in Munich, in 1913. He lived there with his family until 1933, when accusations that he was an enemy of the state overtook him. When the Mann family left for a lecture tour (in honor of Richard Wagner), the German police seized his house and expropriated everything inside—art, furnishings, Mann’s many creature comforts.

From abroad Mann watched in despair as his own dispossession became the self-imposed fate of his country. Faustus is written under literal fire: the narrator, Serenus Zeitblom, relates the story of the composer Adrian Leverkühn while the Allies are bombing around him.

“I sat here in my study, turning ashen, shaking like the walls, doors, and windowpanes of my house—and writing this account of a man’s life with a trembling hand,” Zeitblom says.

By Faustus’s end, Zeitblom is huddled in a “hermit’s cell,” like Dostoyevsky’s underground man. Domesticity has been eradicated; the comforts of a grand home and culture are no longer possible. “The war is lost, and that means more than a lost campaign, it means that we in fact are lost—lost, our cause and soul, our faith and our history,” Zeitblom says. The country’s glittering cities, birthplaces of Goethe and Schiller and Heine, lie in waste.

Part of what makes Faustus so powerful is the way Mann delineates the social and cultural devastation of these cities and these homes. More than any of his other novels save Buddenbrooks, Faustus is obsessed with interiors: rooms, floor plans, furniture. An example is the loving care with which Mann inventories the Schildknapp home’s study in Munich. It’s “wainscoted, with uncarpeted plank floors and stamped leather covering the walls beneath the beamed ceiling, and with pictures of saints in the low-vaulted embrasure.”

The dining rooms, villas, and castles abound in Faustus, at least until the bombs start to fall. And once the bombing begins, the overwhelming destruction will go unmourned. “[Leipzig] is, I sadly hear, only a heap of rubble and an immeasurable wealth of literary and educational material is now the spoil of destruction—a heavy loss not only for us Germans, but also for a whole world that cares about culture,” Zeitblom writes. “That world, however, is apparently willing—whether blindly or correctly, I dare not decide—to take that loss into the bargain.”

Now Los Angeles is willing to place another of Mann’s losses into the bargain. It may be tempting to draw parallels to our current political climate—and it’s difficult to imagine Mann, who abandoned the U.S. during McCarthy’s communist witch hunt, approving of Donald Trump’s proposals for a Mexican-border wall and Muslim travel ban—but the hunger for real estate, and its flattening effect on culture, is a global phenomenon. In 2015, the reconstructed villa on Mann’s former Munich plot sold for more than thirty million euros. The novelist’s former address in Munich has passed through a series of celebrities, heiresses, and now, entrepreneurs and financiers. The German press described the latest buyer as an unknown quantity—a business heir and freight-car investor whose name just happens to be Thomas Mann.

August 26th, 2016
French ‘Burkini’ Bans Provoke Backlash as Armed Police Confront Beachgoers

25burkini-web-master768Armed police officers watched as a woman removed her shirt Tuesday on a beach in Nice, France, after a ban went into effect on “burkinis,” full-body bathing suits designed to accommodate Islamic modesty codes. Such bans have have apparently hit not just women wearing burkinis but others in a wide range of clothing.

NY Times Published: AUG. 24, 2016

PARIS — Armed police surrounding Muslim women on beaches and ordering them to remove their modest clothes or leave. Calls from onlookers to “go back to where you came from.” Public humiliation and ostracism with echoes of the morals police of theocratic countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia, not a country that sees its values as a paragon of Western freedoms.

Those uncomfortable images have come to dominate the ongoing debate over identity and assimilation as France’s coastal municipalities attempt to enforce new bans on the “burkini,” the full-body bathing suit designed to accommodate Islamic modesty codes.

On Wednesday, photographs flashed across the globe on social media of French police officers forcing modestly clad Muslim women on beaches to pay fines, leave or disrobe. A storm of criticism erupted, followed by some political backpedaling a week after the nation’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, had denounced the little-worn burkini as a tool of “enslavement.”

At least 20 municipalities on the Mediterranean, as well as several in northern France, have enacted bans against the garment on the grounds that it is not “appropriate,” “respectful of good morals and of secularism” and “respectful of the rules of hygiene and security of bathers on public beaches.”

Organizations including the Collective Against Islamophobia in France and the League of Human Rights have challenged the restrictions in local courts, but so far the rules have been upheld.

Now that the bans, which are vaguely worded, have apparently hit not just women wearing burkinis but others in a wide range of modest clothing, some French organizations and politicians that previously had said little have begun to worry that the new rules are discriminatory and unenforceable.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who met with the French Council of the Muslim Faith after an urgent request from the organization, said that the enforcement should not “stigmatize” people or “set one against another.”

Mr. Valls’s own Socialist Party said in a statement that the enforcement was putting the country in a “particularly dangerous downward spiral,” citing “the attitude of the crowd” that gathered around a woman being confronted by three officers in Cannes last week.

The officers surrounded the woman, who was wearing a tunic, leggings and a head scarf, fined her and ordered her to leave the beach. The woman was at the beach with her children, and said she was a third-generation French citizen from Toulouse.

A crowd gathered. “I heard things I had never heard to my face,” said the woman, who gave her name only as Siam to the French magazine L’Obs. “Like, ‘Go back to where you came from’ ‘Madame, the law is the law, we are fed up with this fuss,’ and ‘We are Catholic here.’”

Tearfully, the woman said that “because people of my religion have killed, I no longer have the right to go to the beach.”

When female relatives with her asked the police why they were not hunting down people with crosses, if outward shows of religious faith were the target of the new law, a policeman responded: “We are not going to hunt for crosses. Get going, madame. You are being told to leave the beach.”

The exchange was noted by a reporter, Mathilde Cusin, a journalist for the television station France 4, who happened to be on the beach and who gave the account to L’Obs.

However, it was a series of photos of a similar episode in Nice that set off the social media firestorm. The photos showed four armed municipal police officers, wearing ballistic vests, approaching a woman wearing an informal turban, a large blue shirt and leggings.

The photos show them surrounding her and appearing to issue a citation and stand around as she took off her shirt. She was wearing a tank top under it. The pictures were circulated in the British newspaper The Daily Mail and later in The Guardian. Both publications said the police had told her to take off her shirt.

Since the photographer was some distance from the scene, it was unclear what the police actually said. However, the images suggested that the woman was purposely humiliated in front of other beachgoers.

In response, some Twitter users posted photos of nuns wading into the water wearing their habits and wondering whether the French police “would make these ladies take their clothes off, too.”

Others shared photos of a man wearing a wet suit and a woman wearing a burkini, noting that the wet suit was deemed appropriate by the French government.

The United Nations also criticized France over the apparent treatment of Muslim women in the social media photos. Asked about the restriction at a daily news briefing, Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said: “I think it’s important that the dignity of individuals be respected. I’m not sure in this particular case, in these photos, that it was.”

Even one feminist group, Osez Les Feminisme, spoke out against the anti-burkini enforcement, saying that the women were victims twice over: of racism and sexism.

Many French feminists have taken the position that wearing a veil or other Muslim dress oppresses women and have backed limitations on wearing such attire in public.

But in this instance, Osez Les Feminisme said, the women were not only potentially being deprived of their rights by their “patriarchal” religion, but the French government was also forcing them “to live under religious oppression” and contradicting “their fundamental liberties.”

Aheda Zanetti, the Lebanese-Australian designer who first marketed the burkini in 2004, said officials who sought to prevent women from covering up had misconstrued the purpose of the swimsuit, which allowed modest women to swim and participate in sports more comfortably.

“They’ve misunderstood the burkini swimsuit,” Ms. Zanetti, 49, said in a telephone interview from Sydney. “Because the burkini swimsuit is freedom and happiness and lifestyle changes — you can’t take that away from a Muslim, or any other woman, that chooses to wear it.”

However, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is vying to be the center-right candidate in the 2017 French presidential elections, told Le Figaro Magazine that “doing nothing” against the burkini would be “another retreat” for France.

He urged that the ban on religious clothing and symbols in government jobs and at French public elementary and secondary schools be expanded to universities and private companies. The full face veil and burqa are already banned in public places.

Christian Estrosi, deputy mayor of Nice, backed the behavior of the police, saying that they had issued 24 fines for violations of the city’s ban on “inappropriate clothing” and that he saw women wearing such clothes as purposely trying to provoke the public.

“I condemn these unacceptable provocations in the very particular context that our city is familiar with,” Mr. Estrosi said, referring to the terrorist attack on July 14 that killed 86 people, 30 of whom were Muslims.

The vice president of the League of Human Rights in Cannes, Henri Rossi, agreed that the context of the recent attack in Nice was important for understanding why people were so sensitive, but said that hardly justified taking measures that worsened the widening chasm between France’s Muslims and non-Muslims.

“There was a trauma on July 14,” he said. “This trauma has not been cured; the convalescence has not yet begun. And this trauma has spawned movements of hate on the part of certain people, unimaginable.

“This has put in motion a machine of horror, hatred and fear, each of these sentiments nourishes the other,” he said. “On top of this, instead of calming people’s emotions, the mayors put in place these bans that are doing more to stigmatize and are going to exacerbate the fear and the hatred.”

August 24th, 2016
Gaetano Pesce

​Gaetano Pesce, Vase with Hair, 2015, polyurethane resin, 11 x 13 3/8 x 12 3/16 in. (28 x 34 x 31 cm)

September 3 through November 27, 2016

Gaetano Pesce: Molds (Gelati Misti) present a selection of cast-resin objects made by internationally lauded Italian artist Gaetano Pesce, organized by MOCA Senior Curator Bennett Simpson. Focusing on Pesce’s well-known vases, with their colorful, pliable, body-like forms, the exhibition also includes a selection of chairs, lamps, and two-dimensional cast-resin reliefs that the designer calls “industrial skins.”

Organized by Simpson with noted Pesce collector and scholar John R. Geresi, the exhibition will highlight Pesce’s long involvement with resin, molds, and casting techniques, and will feature a group of the designer’s purpose-built wooden molds, as well as process drawings and video. For more than four decades, Pesce has produced work spanning architecture, exhibition, and industrial design. His vessels embody the playful eccentricities of his aesthetic and exemplify his chosen medium’s infinite variation of pigmentation, transparency, and plasticity.

​Though many of his vases (Amazonias, Twins, Rock, Spaghetti, Pompitou, Medusa, and Tre Piedi) have structural foundations that begin with the same bullet-shaped underpinnings, their final forms are anything but identical. Each bares the process of its own making, capturing gravity and the velocity of Pesce’s hand, which renders some things humorously anthropomorphic or blithe and painterly, and others unsettlingly corporeal.


August 20th, 2016
Growing Comb Jellies in the Lab Like Sea-Monkeys

A type of comb jelly, Bolinopsis infundibulum, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Researchers have recently devised methods to cultivate this species and other comb jellies under laboratory conditions. Credit Montery Bay Aquarium

NY Times Published: AUG. 11, 2016

Comb jellies, or ctenophores, are wildly different from humans and, in fact, most other animals. They’re not even in the same group as common jellyfish. These gelatinous, hermaphroditic sea creatures come in various shapes — eggs, ribbons and bells — and can be as short as a grain of rice or as long as a broomstick. They use their “combs,” rows of tiny paddlelike structures, to swim.

Despite how unusual they are, William Browne, a biology professor at the University of Miami and a research collaborator at the Smithsonian, thinks that comb jellies can teach biologists a great deal about other animals. So he and his colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have figured out how to grow comb jellies in large quantities in the lab. They are now authoring a paper to share their methods with other scientists and aquariums.

Depending on who you ask (it’s hotly debated), the ancestors of comb jellies may have been the first creatures to branch off the animal tree of life. That would mean that for about 600 million years, comb jellies have been on an evolutionary path that’s different from that of all other animals. In spite of this, they evolved common body traits, like muscles and a nervous system.

It’s precisely because comb jellies are so far removed from other animals that Dr. Browne wants to study them. They have all these features that are recognizable, but they seem to be “built from a different set of instructions,” he said.

He believes that understanding the comb jelly’s unique biology could one day help researchers find novel solutions to problems in fields like medicine and materials science.

So far, Dr. Browne and his collaborators have refined methods for culturing four comb jelly species, with more to come. Before this, researchers have struggled to keep comb jellies alive beyond a few months in the lab.

For one, they’re incredibly fragile. Many species won’t tolerate fluctuations in water quality, salinity or temperature, said Wyatt Patry, a senior aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Comb jellies also use huge amounts of energy relative to their size. They are the largest creatures to swim using tiny hairlike structures called cilia, billions of which beat in rhythm to drive the animals forward.

“Even though they appear to move slowly, you can think of them as being propelled by little fires, each one burning really bright — so they need a lot of fuel,” Dr. Browne said.

To solve these problems the researchers made two changes. First, they devised a special tank to allow for a constant exchange of clean water.

Second, they developed a new feeding technique for the comb jellies, which they realized feed continuously in the wild. Rather than large meals of tiny crustaceans two or three times a day, they started feeding comb jellies live larval fish throughout the day.

The changes helped the jellies spawn more babies that survived longer. “Instead of having 10 fertilized embryos, we had hundreds and hundreds,” said MacKenzie Bubel, an aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She and Mr. Patry have now kept a batch of comb jellies alive for a year and counting.

Culturing comb jellies en masse, combined with recent advances in gene editing, could have powerful implications for biomedical research. Instead of the usual suspects, like fruit flies, mice and human cell cultures, Dr. Browne is using comb jellies to study biological processes, like how certain proteins help stem cells proliferate and stay alive.

“Comb jellies are on the cusp of being an awesome genetic model system,” he said.

The ability to grow comb jellies could also yield insights into the evolutionary origin of certain anatomical traits, such as anuses. Biologists have long believed that digestive systems that run from a mouth to an anus, so-called through-guts, emerged after comb jellies split off from other animals. But in a study that will soon be published in Current Biology, Dr. Browne was able to show that comb jellies have through-guts — throwing a wrench in the traditional evolutionary timeline.

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“There’s no way we could have done that study without being able to culture the animals,” he said.

There are other potential areas of research: using comb jellies to find the origins of bioluminescence, the process by which many sea creatures glow in the dark; examining the sticky cells in their tentacles to develop waterproof glues and studying their unusual nervous system to find treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

In aquariums, being able to cultivate comb jellies may lead to year-round displays, Ms. Bubel said. Many comb jellies produce a pulsing rainbow effect as their beating cilia diffract light. Some look like basketballs with two tentacles. Others resemble long strips of floating plastic. One deep-sea species, the bloodbelly comb jelly, has a fearful scarlet hue.

For all the interesting scientific developments linked to culturing comb jellies, the best news here may be that more people will get to marvel at these outlandish creatures in person. After all, who doesn’t love a biological light show?

August 12th, 2016
Trump Reflects White Male Fragility

Charles M. Blow
NY Times Published: AUG. 4, 2016

Reports of Donald Trump’s demise are an exaggeration, to paraphrase and repurpose Mark Twain.

Yes, he can’t stop shooting off his mouth and shooting himself in the foot, and there are reports that his messy campaign is nearing the point of mutiny.

Yes, he knows nearly nothing about world affairs and that becomes ever more apparent every time he stumbles through an interview. Sir, Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, the same year you filmed your last installment of your reality game show “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

Yes, his continued feud with the family of a fallen Muslim soldier may be the most ill advised and foolhardy folly in recent political memory (Trump keeps racking these up.) This is the same man who received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, one for “bone spurs in his heels” according to The New York Times. While throngs of his contemporaries were fighting — and dying – in battle, Trump was being featured on the front page of The Times after he and his father were sued by the Department of Justice for anti-black bias in their rental properties.

Three years later, The Times profiled him with a backhanded compliment of the nouveau riche: “He rides around town in a chauffeured silver Cadillac with his initials, DJT, on the plates. He dates slinky fashion models, belongs to the most elegant clubs and, at only 30 years of age, estimates that he is worth ‘more than $200 million.’”

Yes, he doesn’t seem to know the difference between Tim Kaine, the Democratic Virginia senator whom Hillary Clinton tapped as her running mate, and Tom Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey who last held that office 26 years ago, the same year Trump boasted in his book “Surviving at the Top,” “I’ve never had any trouble in bed,” and counseled in Vanity Fair, “When a man leaves a woman, especially when it was perceived that he has left for a piece of ass — a good one! — there are 50 percent of the population who will love the woman who was left.”

Yes, yes, yes.

But Donald Trump is bigger than all of this, or shall I say, smaller.

He appeals to something deeper, something baser: Fear. His whole campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is in fact an inverted admission of loss — lost primacy, lost privilege, lost prestige.

And who feels that they have lost the most? White men.

As the New York Times’ Upshot pointed out in July, “According to our estimates, Mrs. Clinton is doing better among basically every group of voters except for white men without a degree.” Put another way: “Hillary Clinton is largely performing as well or better than Barack Obama did in 2012, except among white men without a degree.”

Indeed, a Monday report in The Times put it this way: “A New York Times/CBS News poll two weeks ago found that white men preferred her Republican opponent, Donald J. Trump, to Mrs. Clinton almost two to one, 55 percent to 29 percent.”

These are the voters keeping Trump’s candidacy alive.

He appeals to a regressive, patriarchal American whiteness in which white men prospered, in part because racial and ethnic minorities, to say nothing of women as a whole, were undervalued and underpaid, if not excluded altogether.

White men reigned supreme in the idealized history, and all was good with the world. (It is curious that Trump never specifies a period when America was great in his view. Did it overlap with the women’s rights, civil rights or gay rights movements? For whom was it great?)

Trump’s wall is not practical, but it is metaphor. Trump’s Muslim ban is not feasible, but it is metaphor. Trump’s huge deportation plan isn’t workable, but it is metaphor.

There is a portion of the population that feels threatened by unrelenting change — immigration, globalization, terrorism, multiculturalism — and those people want someone to, metaphorically at least, build a wall around their cultural heritage, which they conflate in equal measure with American heritage.

In their minds, whether explicitly or implicitly, America is white, Christian, straight and male-dominated. If you support Trump, you are on some level supporting his bigotry and racism. You don’t get to have a puppy and not pick up the poop.

And acceptance of racism is an act of racism. You are convicted by your complicity.

I am not accustomed to dancing around an issue; I prefer to call it what it is. I prefer to shine a bright light on it until it withers. Supporting Trump is indefensible and it makes you as much of a pariah as he is.

As Toni Morrison once told Charlie Rose:

“Don’t you understand that the people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft? There is something distorted about the psyche. It’s a huge waste, and it’s a corruption, and a distortion. Its like it’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is.”

That stops here, today. For as long as racism and tribalism and xenophobia exist in this country, Trump’s foibles will not signal his ultimate failure. But let’s not let off the people who prop him up, claiming that they’re simply being party loyalists, or Hillary haters or having Supreme Court concerns.

Trump is a mirror. He is a reflection of — indeed a revealing of — the ugliness that you harbor, only it is possible that you may have gone your life expressing it in ways that were more coded and politic. Trump is an unfiltered primal scream of the fragility and fear consuming white male America.

August 5th, 2016
I Ran the C.I.A. Now I’m Endorsing Hillary Clinton.

NY Times Published: AUG. 5, 2016

During a 33-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency, I served presidents of both parties — three Republicans and three Democrats. I was at President George W. Bush’s side when we were attacked on Sept. 11; as deputy director of the agency, I was with President Obama when we killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

I am neither a registered Democrat nor a registered Republican. In my 40 years of voting, I have pulled the lever for candidates of both parties. As a government official, I have always been silent about my preference for president.

No longer. On Nov. 8, I will vote for Hillary Clinton. Between now and then, I will do everything I can to ensure that she is elected as our 45th president.

Two strongly held beliefs have brought me to this decision. First, Mrs. Clinton is highly qualified to be commander in chief. I trust she will deliver on the most important duty of a president — keeping our nation safe. Second, Donald J. Trump is not only unqualified for the job, but he may well pose a threat to our national security.

I spent four years working with Mrs. Clinton when she was secretary of state, most often in the White House Situation Room. In these critically important meetings, I found her to be prepared, detail-oriented, thoughtful, inquisitive and willing to change her mind if presented with a compelling argument.

I also saw the secretary’s commitment to our nation’s security; her belief that America is an exceptional nation that must lead in the world for the country to remain secure and prosperous; her understanding that diplomacy can be effective only if the country is perceived as willing and able to use force if necessary; and, most important, her capacity to make the most difficult decision of all — whether to put young American women and men in harm’s way.

Mrs. Clinton was an early advocate of the raid that brought Bin Laden to justice, in opposition to some of her most important colleagues on the National Security Council. During the early debates about how we should respond to the Syrian civil war, she was a strong proponent of a more aggressive approach, one that might have prevented the Islamic State from gaining a foothold in Syria.

I never saw her bring politics into the Situation Room. In fact, I saw the opposite. When some wanted to delay the Bin Laden raid by one day because the White House Correspondents Dinner might be disrupted, she said, “Screw the White House Correspondents Dinner.”

In sharp contrast to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump has no experience on national security. Even more important, the character traits he has exhibited during the primary season suggest he would be a poor, even dangerous, commander in chief.

These traits include his obvious need for self-aggrandizement, his overreaction to perceived slights, his tendency to make decisions based on intuition, his refusal to change his views based on new information, his routine carelessness with the facts, his unwillingness to listen to others and his lack of respect for the rule of law.

The dangers that flow from Mr. Trump’s character are not just risks that would emerge if he became president. It is already damaging our national security.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated.

Mr. Putin is a great leader, Mr. Trump says, ignoring that he has killed and jailed journalists and political opponents, has invaded two of his neighbors and is driving his economy to ruin. Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.

In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.

Mr. Trump has also undermined security with his call for barring Muslims from entering the country. This position, which so clearly contradicts the foundational values of our nation, plays into the hands of the jihadist narrative that our fight against terrorism is a war between religions.

In fact, many Muslim Americans play critical roles in protecting our country, including the man, whom I cannot identify, who ran the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center for nearly a decade and who I believe is most responsible for keeping America safe since the Sept. 11 attacks.

My training as an intelligence officer taught me to call it as I see it. This is what I did for the C.I.A. This is what I am doing now. Our nation will be much safer with Hillary Clinton as president.

Michael J. Morell was the acting director and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2010 to 2013.

August 5th, 2016
Health Secrets of the Amish

NY Times Published: AUG. 3, 2016

In recent decades, the prevalence of asthma and allergies has increased between two- and threefold in the United States. These days, one in 12 kids has asthma. More are allergic.

The uptick is often said to have started in the late 20th century. But the first hint of a population-wide affliction — the sneezing masses — came earlier, in the late 19th century, among the American and British upper classes. Hay fever so closely hewed to class lines, in fact, it was seen as a mark of civilization and refinement. Observers noted that farmers — the people who most often came in contact with pollens and animal dander — were the ones least likely to sneeze and wheeze.

This phenomenon was rediscovered in the 1990s in Switzerland. Children who grew up on small farms were between one-half and one-third less likely to have hay fever and asthma, compared with non-farming children living in the same rural areas. European scientists identified livestock, particularly dairy cows, fermented feed and raw milk consumption as protective in what they eventually called the “farm effect.” Many scientists argued that the abundant microbes of the cowshed stimulated children’s immune systems in a way that prevented allergic disease.

Then, a few years ago, researchers found an American example of the phenomenon: the Amish. Children from an Amish community in Indiana had an even lower prevalence of allergies than European farmers, making them among the least allergic subgroup ever measured in the developed world.

Now a study released on Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine advances the research. The authors did something new and important: They found a suitable comparison group for the Amish in another farming community, the Hutterites. The two groups share genetic ancestry. Both descend from German-speaking stock. But unlike the Amish, the Hutterites, who live in the upper Midwest, are as allergic as your average American.

Why doesn’t farming protect the Hutterites?

A likely reason is that while the Amish have small farms, with cowsheds located right next to their homes, the communal-living Hutterites house their livestock miles away. The Amish probably bring more microbes into their homes — and some may waft in directly — resulting in a microbial load nearly six times higher than that found in Hutterite houses, the scientists discovered.


In addition, primarily adult men work with the cows in Hutterite communities, while Amish children play in the cowsheds, and Amish women, including pregnant ones, presumably have frequent contact with the cowshed microbes. In Europe, women exposed to these microbes while pregnant have been found to have the least allergic kids of all. Microbial stimulation of the maternal immune system may preprogram the unborn child against allergy — an effect that’s reproducible in rodents. So while both communities farm, the Hutterites seem to lack the right exposures at the right time.

About 5 percent of the Amish children in the study have asthma, while 21 percent of the Hutterites do. And the immune systems of these two genetically similar communities look remarkably different. Hutterite children have more white blood cells involved in allergy, called eosinophils, while another cell type, called neutrophils — which specializes in repelling microbes — predominates in Amish children. Perhaps more important, Amish white blood cells have a different profile of gene expression than Hutterite, one that signals restraint rather than aggression. This ability to not overreact to pollens and danders is, scientists think, important for avoiding asthma and allergies.

The scientists also sought to reproduce these immunological profiles in animals by treating mice with microbe-laden dust from both Amish and Hutterite homes. The two dusts had drastically different effects when the mice inhaled them through their noses every few days for over a month. Amish dust prevented symptoms of asthma; Hutterite dust encouraged them.

Broadly speaking, the immune system has two arms: the adaptive immune system, which learns and remembers; and the innate immune system, which operates like a sensory organ, recognizing ancient patterns in the microbial world. When the scientists genetically hobbled the animals’ innate immune systems, the Amish dust lost its protective effect, and the animals began to have trouble breathing. The implication is that stimulation of the innate immune system is critical to preventing asthma.

The study has some shortcomings. It’s small — just 30 children from each community. The scientists didn’t identify the specific microbes that might be important. Nor do they know if those microbes take up residence in the gut microbiome or elsewhere in the body. Martin Blaser, director of the Human Microbiome Program at New York University, also points out that the scientists didn’t control for antibiotic use or C-section rate, both of which may, by disturbing the gut microbiota, alter asthma risk.

But the fact that they could so faithfully reproduce in mice what they saw in people using only dust suggests that they’ve identified an important component of the farm effect. And the simplicity of the mechanism — microbes that stimulate the innate immune system — is heartening. “That is precisely why we’re so excited,” Donata Vercelli, a researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a senior author on the study, told me. “This seems to be a manageable situation,” she said, one that could lead to a plausible intervention, like a preventive medication based on Amish microbes.

The findings also reiterate the theme that genes aren’t destiny. Disease emerges from the dance between genes and environment. The asthma epidemic may stem, at least in part, from the decline of what Graham Rook, an immunologist at University College London, years ago called our “old friends” — the organisms our immune systems expect to be present in the environment. The newly sneezing upper classes in the 19th century may have been the first to find themselves without these old friends. Now most of the developed world has lost them. The task at hand is to figure out how to get them back. One answer may come from the Amish cowshed.

August 3rd, 2016
Piston Head 2

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 10.20.34 AM
Peter Shire, 2016

Katherine Bernhardt | Will Boone | César | Keith Haring | Matthew Day Jackson | Olivier Mosset | Richard Prince | Sterling Ruby | Kenny Scharf | Peter Shire | Lawrence Weiner | Jonas Wood

Opening Today, Saturday, July 30, 5 – 8 PM
July 30 – September 5, 2016

Piston Head II, an exhibition which explores the relationship and parallels between art and the automobile, featuring new works in which the car is considered as both a cultural icon and sculptural form.

Venus Over Los Angeles

July 30th, 2016

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The Enlightenment philosopher’s attack on cosmopolitan élites now seems prophetic.

By Pankaj Mishra
The New Yorker Published: August 1, 2016

“I love the poorly educated,” Donald Trump said during a victory speech in February, and he has repeatedly taken aim at America’s élites and their “false song of globalism.” Voters in Britain, heeding Brexit campaigners’ calls to “take back control” of a country ostensibly threatened by uncontrolled immigration, “unelected élites,” and “experts,” have reversed fifty years of European integration. Other countries across Western Europe, as well as Israel, Russia, Poland, and Hungary, seethe with demagogic assertions of ethnic, religious, and national identity. In India, Hindu supremacists have adopted Rush Limbaugh’s favorite epithet “libtard” to channel righteous fury against liberal and secular élites. The great eighteenth-century venture of a universal civilization harmonized by rational self-interest, commerce, luxury, arts, and science—the Enlightenment forged by Voltaire, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and others—seems to have reached a turbulent anticlimax in a worldwide revolt against cosmopolitan modernity.

No Enlightenment thinker observing our current predicament from the afterlife would be able to say “I told you so” as confidently as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an awkward and prickly autodidact from Geneva, who was memorably described by Isaiah Berlin as the “greatest militant lowbrow in history.” In his major writings, beginning in the seventeen-fifties, Rousseau thrived on his loathing of metropolitan vanity, his distrust of technocrats and of international trade, and his advocacy of traditional mores.

Voltaire, with whom Rousseau shared a long and violent animosity, caricatured him as a “tramp who would like to see the rich robbed by the poor, the better to establish the fraternal unity of man.” During the Cold War, critics such as Berlin and Jacob Talmon presented Rousseau as a prophet of totalitarianism. Now, as large middle classes in the West stagnate and billions elsewhere move out of poverty while harboring unrealizable dreams of prosperity, Rousseau’s obsession with the psychic consequences of inequality seems even more prophetic and disturbing.

Rousseau described the quintessential inner experience of modernity: being an outsider. When he arrived in Paris, in the seventeen-forties, at the age of thirty, he was a deracinated looker-on, struggling with complex feelings of envy, fascination, revulsion, and rejection provoked by a self-absorbed élite. Mocked by his peers in France, he found keen readers across Europe. Young German provincials such as the philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Johann Gottfried von Herder—the fathers, respectively, of economic and cultural nationalism—simmered with resentment toward cosmopolitan universalists. Many small-town revolutionaries, beginning with Robespierre, have been inspired by Rousseau’s hope—outlined in his book “The Social Contract” (1762)—that a new political structure could cure the ills of an unequal and commercial society.

In the past decade, a number of books have asserted Rousseau’s centrality and uniqueness. Leo Damrosch’s biography, “Restless Genius” (2005), identified Rousseau as “the most original genius of his age—so original that most people at the time could not begin to appreciate how powerful his thinking was.” Last year, István Hont, in “Politics in Commercial Society,” a comparative study of Rousseau and Adam Smith, argued that we have not moved much beyond Rousseau’s fears and concerns: that a society built around self-interested individuals will necessarily lack a common morality. Heinrich Meier, in his new book, “On the Happiness of the Philosophic Life” (Chicago), offers an overview of Rousseau’s thought through a reading of his last, unfinished book, “Reveries of a Solitary Walker,” which he began in 1776, two years before his death. In “Reveries,” Rousseau moved away from political prescriptions and cultivated his belief that “liberty is not inherent in any form of government, it is in the heart of the free man.”

If Rousseau seems like the central protagonist in the anti-élitist revolt currently reconfiguring our politics, it is because he was present during the creation of the value system—the Enlightenment belief in what he called “the sciences, the arts, luxury, commerce, laws,” which changed the character of Western culture and eventually that of the world at large. The new dispensation generally benefitted men of letters. Rousseau, however, became one of its rare critics, at least partly because the Paris salon, the focal point of the French Enlightenment, was a milieu in which he had no real place.

Rousseau had little formal education, but he accumulated plenty of experience during a largely unsupervised childhood and adolescence. Born in Geneva in 1712, to a struggling watchmaker and a mother who died shortly after giving birth, he was only ten years old when his father deposited him with indifferent relatives and left town. At the age of fifteen, he ran away and found his way to Savoy, where he quickly became the boy toy of a Swiss-French noblewoman. She turned out to be the great love of his life, introducing him to books and music. Rousseau, always seeking substitutes for his mother, called her Maman.

By the time he arrived in Paris, he had already worked in various subordinate capacities throughout Europe: as an apprentice engraver in Geneva, a footman in Turin, a tutor in Lyons, a secretary in Venice. These experiences, Damrosch writes, “gave him the authority to analyze inequality as he did.” Soon after his move to Paris, he took up with a near-illiterate laundress, who bore him five children, and made his first tentative forays into salon society. One of his earliest acquaintances there was Denis Diderot, a fellow-provincial who was committed to making the most of that decade’s relatively free intellectual climate. In 1751, Diderot launched his “Encyclopédie,” which synthesized key insights of the French Enlightenment, such as those of Buffon’s “Natural History” (1749) and Montesquieu’s hugely influential “The Spirit of the Laws” (1748). The encyclopedia cemented the movement’s main claim: that knowledge of the human world, and the identification of its fundamental principles, would pave the path of progress. As a prolific contributor to the “Encyclopédie,” publishing nearly four hundred articles, many of them on politics and music, Rousseau appeared to have joined in a collective endeavor to establish the primacy of reason and, as Diderot wrote, to “give back to the arts and the sciences the liberty that is so precious to them.”

But his views were changing. One afternoon in October, 1749, Rousseau travelled to a fortress outside Paris, where Diderot, who had tested the limits of free expression with a tract that challenged the existence of God, was serving a few months in prison. Reading a newspaper on the way, Rousseau noticed an advertisement for an essay competition. The topic was “Has the progress of the sciences and arts done more to corrupt morals or improve them?” In his “Confessions,” published in 1782, and arguably the first modern autobiography, Rousseau described how “the moment I read this I beheld another universe and became another man.” He claims that he sat down by the roadside and spent the next hour in a trance, drenching his coat in tears, overcome by the insight that progress, contrary to what Enlightenment philosophes said about its civilizing and liberating effects, was leading to new forms of enslavement.

Rousseau is unlikely to have received his epiphany so histrionically; he may have already started formulating his heresies. In any case, his prize-winning entry in the contest, published in 1750 as his first philosophical work, “A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences,” abounded in dramatic claims. The arts and sciences, he wrote, were “garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh [men] down,” and “our minds have been corrupted in proportion” as human knowledge has increased. By the mid-eighteenth century, Paris’s intellectuals had erected a standard of civilization for others to follow. In Rousseau’s view, the newly emergent intellectual and technocratic class did little more than provide literary and moral cover for the powerful and the unjust.

Diderot was happy to indulge Rousseau’s polemic, and did not initially realize that it amounted to a declaration of war on his own project. Most of his peers saw science and culture as liberating humankind from Christianity, Judaism, and other vestiges of what they saw as barbarous superstition. They commended the emerging bourgeois class, and placed much stock in its instincts for self-preservation and self-interest, and in its scientific, meritocratic spirit. Adam Smith envisaged an open global system of trade powered by envy and admiration of the rich along with mimetic desires for their power and privileges. Smith argued that the human instinct for emulation of others could be turned into a positive moral and social force. Montesquieu thought that commerce, which renders “superfluous things useful and useful ones necessary,” would “cure destructive prejudices” and promote “communication among peoples.”

Voltaire’s poem “Le Mondain” depicts its author as the owner of fine tapestries and silverware and an ornate carriage, revelling in Europe’s luxurious present and scorning its religious past. Voltaire was typical of the self-interested commoner who promoted commerce and liberty as an antidote to arbitrary authority and hierarchy. In the seventeen-twenties, he speculated lucratively in London and hailed its stock exchange as a temple of secular modernity, where “Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith, and only apply the word infidel to people who go bankrupt.”

Exhorting the pursuit of luxury together with the freedom of speech, Voltaire and the others had articulated and embodied a mode of life in which individual freedom was achieved through increased wealth and intellectual sophistication. Against this moral and intellectual revolution, which came after centuries of submission before throne and altar, Rousseau launched a counterrevolution. The word “finance,” he said, is “a slave’s word,” and the secret workings of financial systems are a “means of making pilferers and traitors, and of putting freedom and the public good upon the auction block.” Anticipating today’s Brexiters, he claimed that despite England’s political and economic might, the country offered its citizens only a bogus liberty: “The English people thinks it is free. It greatly deceives itself; it is free only during the election of members of Parliament. As soon as they are elected, the people are enslaved and count for nothing.”

In the course of nearly twenty books, Rousseau amplified his objections to intellectuals and their rich patrons, who presumed to tell other people how to live. Rousseau did share a crucial assumption with his adversaries: that the age of clerical tyranny and divinely sanctioned monarchy was being replaced by an era of escalating egalitarianism. But he warned that the bourgeois values of wealth, vanity, and ostentation would impede rather than advance the growth of equality, morality, dignity, freedom, and compassion. He believed that a society based on envy and the power of money, though it might promise progress, would actually impose psychologically debilitating change on its citizens.

Rousseau refused to believe that the interplay of individual interests, meant to advance the new civilization, could produce any natural harmony. The obstacle, as he defined it, existed in the souls of sociable men or wannabe bourgeois: it was the insatiable craving to secure recognition for one’s person from others, which leads “each individual to make more of himself than of any other.” The “thirst” to improve “their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others,” would lead people to try to subordinate others. Even the lucky few at the top of the new hierarchy would remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of those below, albeit hidden behind a show of deference and civility. In a society in which “everyone pretends to be working for the other’s profit or reputation, while only seeking to raise his own above them and at their expense,” violence, deceit, and betrayal become inevitable. In Rousseau’s bleak world view, “sincere friendship, real esteem and perfect confidence are banished from among men. Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud lie constantly concealed.” This pathological inner life was a devastating “contradiction” at the heart of modern society.

According to Rousseau, modern civilization’s tendency to make people seek the approval of those they hate deformed something valuable in “natural” man: simple contentment and unself-conscious self-love. True freedom in these circumstances could be reached only by overcoming the hypocritical, painfully divided bourgeois within us. Rousseau thought that he had made this effort; he separated himself with a showy fastidiousness from the upwardly mobile man, “the sort who acts the part of the Freethinker.” In his “Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind,” he wrote, “In the midst of so much philosophy, humanity, and civilization, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.”

Rousseau’s denunciations of intellectuals may have acquired an extra edge from the fact that Voltaire exposed him, in an anonymous pamphlet, as a hypocritical proponent of family values: someone who consigned all five of his children to a foundling hospital. Rousseau’s life manifested many such gaps between theory and practice, to put it mildly. A connoisseur of fine sentiments, he was prone to hide in dark alleyways and expose himself to women. More commonly, he was given to compulsive masturbation while sternly advising against it in his writings.

Like many who moralize against the rich, Rousseau was not much interested in the conditions of the poor. He simply assumed that his own experience of social disadvantage and poverty—though he was rarely truly poor and had a knack for finding wealthy patrons—sufficed to make his arguments superior to those of people who lived more privileged lives. Like many self-perceived victims, he was convinced that no one really tried to feel his pain. Meier, in his dense but precise and enthralling analysis, points out that the epigraph of Rousseau’s last book is the same as that of his first: “Here I am the barbarian, because I am not understood by anyone.” It is actually the least jarring of the many melodramatic notes he struck during an intellectual career driven by self-pity and recrimination.

Yet, because Rousseau derived his ideas from intimate experiences of fear, confusion, loneliness, and loss, he connected easily with people who felt excluded. Periwigged men in Paris salons, Tocqueville once lamented, were “almost totally removed from practical life” and worked “by the light of reason alone.” Rousseau, on the other hand, found a responsive echo among people making the traumatic transition from traditional to modern society—from rural to urban life. His books, especially the romance novel “Julie,” vastly outsold those of his peers. The story of a nobleman’s daughter who falls in love with an impecunious young tutor, “Julie” was the best-selling novel of the eighteenth century. As Damrosch notes, it dealt with characters whose “rural obscurity gave them a greater integrity than city sophisticates had.” The characters’ hard-won wisdom, a theme throughout Rousseau’s novels and other works, made them as popular with Kant, in Königsberg, as with quietly desperate provincials throughout Europe.

Rousseau could have followed the professional trajectory of the many philosophes who, as Robert Darnton has written, were “pensioned, petted, and completely integrated in high society.” But he turned down opportunities to enhance his wealth, refusing royal patronage. As he grew older and more famous, he also became more paranoid. He quarrelled with most of his friends and well-wishers, including Hume and Diderot, and many people derided him as a madman. His bitterest disagreements were with Voltaire. Yet, during the French Revolution, the two men, who both died in 1778, were disinterred from country graves and lodged opposite each other in the Panthéon. Their posthumous proximity, which enlisted them jointly into the patriotic mythology of the Revolution, would have horrified them.

Rousseau was infuriated by the callousness of wealthy socialites like Voltaire. The rich, he wrote, have a duty “never to make people conscious of inequalities of wealth.” Whereas Voltaire’s biggest foe was the Catholic Church, and religious faith in general, Rousseau, though critical of clerical authority, saw religion as safeguarding everyday morality and making the life of the poor tolerable. He claimed that secular intellectuals were “very imperious dogmatists,” contemptuous of the simple feelings of ordinary people, and as “cruel” in their “intolerance” as Catholic priests.

And, unlike Voltaire, a top-down modernizer who saw despotic monarchs as likely allies of enlightened people, Rousseau looked forward to a world without them. Rousseau’s ideal society was Sparta. Small, austere, self-sufficient, fiercely patriotic, and defiantly un-cosmopolitan, it was as much an idealized vision of an ancient political community as the Islamic State caliphate is to radical Islamists today. As Rousseau saw it, the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others had been sublimated in Sparta into civic pride and patriotism. There was obviously no place in such a society for the universalist egghead who loves distant peoples “so as to be spared having to love his neighbors.”

Rousseau’s rejoinders to cosmopolitan commercialism have constituted the basic stock-in-trade of cultural and economic nationalists worldwide. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, which is busy purging pro-E.U. “liberal élites” from national institutions and mainstreaming homophobia and anti-Semitism, would be thrilled by Rousseau’s warnings about the “cosmopolitans who go on distant bookish quests for the duties which they disdain to fulfill in their own surroundings.” Pitilessly ostracizing Mexicans and Muslims, Donald Trump may find much philosophical backup in “Émile; or, On Education.” “Every patriot is severe with strangers,” Rousseau wrote. “They are nothing in his eyes.” Trump, in his tussle with Megyn Kelly of Fox News, and with womankind in general, might also draw comfort from Rousseau’s view of “woman” as “specially made to please man,” who “must make herself agreeable to man rather than provoke him.”

Many such proclamations of varying harshness helped to create the commonplace perception of Rousseau as the spiritual godfather of Fascism. But there is much more evidence that he extolled the collective only insofar as it was compatible with the inner freedom of its members—freedom of the heart. As he wrote in “Reveries,” “I had never thought the liberty of man consists in doing what he wishes, but rather in not doing that which he does not wish.” This basic distrust of external constraints on individual autonomy naturally slid into a suspicion of the great and opaque forces of international trade—the crucial difference, according to István Hont, between Rousseau and Adam Smith.

The triumphs of capitalist imperialism in the nineteenth century, and of economic globalization after the Cold War, fulfilled on a grand scale the Enlightenment dream of a worldwide materialist civilization knit together by rational self-interest. Voltaire proved to be, as Nietzsche presciently wrote, the “representative of the victorious, ruling classes and their valuations,” while Rousseau looked like a sore loser. Against today’s backdrop of political rage, however, Rousseau seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power.

Rousseau was the first to make politics intensely personal. He could never feel secure, despite his great success, in the existing social pyramid, and his abraded sensibility registered keenly the appeal of a political ideal of equally empowered and virtuous citizens. Tocqueville pointed out that the passion for equality can swell to “the height of fury” and help boost authoritarian figures and movements to power. But it was the socially maladjusted Genevan, whose writings Tocqueville claimed to read every day, who first attacked modernity for the unjust way in which power accrues to a networked élite.

The recent explosions of ressentiment against writers and journalists as well as against politicians, technocrats, businessmen, and bankers reveal how Rousseau’s history of the human heart is still playing itself out among the disaffected. The Jacobins and the German Romantics may have been Rousseau’s most famous and influential disciples, but Rousseau’s claim that the metropolis was a den of vice and that virtue resided in ordinary people makes for a perpetually renewable challenge—from the right and the left—to our imperfect political and economic arrangements. It is uprooted people with Rousseau’s complex wounds who have periodically made and unmade the modern world with their demands for radical equality and cravings for stability. There will be many more of them, it is safe to say, as billions of young people in Asia and Africa negotiate the maelstrom of progress. ♦

July 28th, 2016

July 28th, 2016
Charles Curtis


Saturday, July 30, Doors at 6:30pm

Schindler House
835 North Kings Road
West Hollywood 90069

The Society for the Activation of Social Space through Art and Sound (SASSAS) and the MAK Center are proud to present internationally renowned cellist Charles Curtis at the Schindler House. Hailed by Artforum as “one of the great cellists… spellbinding and minimal,” Curtis will perform the Los Angeles premiere of a new work by Tashi Wada, along with J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D minor and more.

July 27th, 2016

Installation view, entry, Gordon Wagner, Mojave Freight Yard, 1963, wood, nails, glass, 54 x 19 x 18 inches




Richard Telles

July 26th, 2016
Is Donald Trump a Racist?

Donald Trump and his father, Fred, in 1973 at Trump Village in Queens. Credit Barton Silverman/The New York Times

By Nicholas Kristof
NY Times Published: JULY 23, 2016

HAS the party of Lincoln just nominated a racist to be president? We shouldn’t toss around such accusations lightly, so I’ve looked back over more than 40 years of Donald Trump’s career to see what the record says.

One early red flag arose in 1973, when President Richard Nixon’s Justice Department — not exactly the radicals of the day — sued Trump and his father, Fred Trump, for systematically discriminating against blacks in housing rentals.

I’ve waded through 1,021 pages of documents from that legal battle, and they are devastating. Donald Trump was then president of the family real estate firm, and the government amassed overwhelming evidence that the company had a policy of discriminating against blacks, including those serving in the military.

To prove the discrimination, blacks were repeatedly dispatched as testers to Trump apartment buildings to inquire about vacancies, and white testers were sent soon after. Repeatedly, the black person was told that nothing was available, while the white tester was shown apartments for immediate rental.

A former building superintendent working for the Trumps explained that he was told to code any application by a black person with the letter C, for colored, apparently so the office would know to reject it. A Trump rental agent said the Trumps wanted to rent only to “Jews and executives,” and discouraged renting to blacks.

Donald Trump furiously fought the civil rights suit in the courts and the media, but the Trumps eventually settled on terms that were widely regarded as a victory for the government. Three years later, the government sued the Trumps again, for continuing to discriminate.

In fairness, those suits date from long ago, and the discriminatory policies were probably put in place not by Donald Trump but by his father. Fred Trump appears to have been arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1927; Woody Guthrie, who lived in a Trump property in the 1950s, lambasted Fred Trump in recently discovered papers for stirring racial hatred.

Yet even if Donald Trump inherited his firm’s discriminatory policies, he allied himself decisively in the 1970s housing battle against the civil rights movement.

Another revealing moment came in 1989, when New York City was convulsed by the “Central Park jogger” case, a rape and beating of a young white woman. Five black and Latino teenagers were arrested.

Trump stepped in, denounced Mayor Ed Koch’s call for peace and bought full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty. The five teenagers spent years in prison before being exonerated. In retrospect, they suffered a modern version of a lynching, and Trump played a part in whipping up the crowds.

As Trump moved into casinos, discrimination followed. In the 1980s, according to a former Trump casino worker, Kip Brown, who was quoted by The New Yorker: “When Donald and Ivana came to the casino, the bosses would order all the black people off the floor. … They put us all in the back.”

In 1991, a book by John O’Donnell, who had been president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, quoted Trump as criticizing a black accountant and saying: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.” O’Donnell wrote that for months afterward, Trump pressed him to fire the black accountant, until the man resigned of his own accord.

Trump eventually denied making those comments. But in 1997 in a Playboy interview, he conceded “the stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true.”

The recent record may be more familiar: Trump’s suggestions that President Obama was born in Kenya; his insinuations that Obama was admitted to Ivy League schools only because of affirmative action; his denunciations of Mexican immigrants as, “in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists”; his calls for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States; his dismissal of an American-born judge of Mexican ancestry as a Mexican who cannot fairly hear his case; his reluctance to distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan in a television interview; his retweet of a graphic suggesting that 81 percent of white murder victims are killed by blacks (the actual figure is about 15 percent); and so on.

Trump has also retweeted messages from white supremacists or Nazi sympathizers, including two from an account called @WhiteGenocideTM with a photo of the American Nazi Party’s founder.

Trump repeatedly and vehemently denies any racism, and he has deleted some offensive tweets. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi racist website that has endorsed Trump, sees that as going “full-wink-wink-wink.”

And yet.

Here we have a man who for more than four decades has been repeatedly associated with racial discrimination or bigoted comments about minorities, some of them made on television for all to see. While any one episode may be ambiguous, what emerges over more than four decades is a narrative arc, a consistent pattern — and I don’t see what else to call it but racism.

Thanks to Jonathan Maghen

July 23rd, 2016
Magdalena Suarez Frimkess | New Work

Betty Boop, 2016
stoneware and glaze
10 X 4 inches

July 23 through September 1, 2016

South Willard Shop Exhibit

July 21st, 2016
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