Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

How American Propaganda Changed Carmen Miranda’s Career

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Well worth watching:

Written by Leisureguy

25 May 2023 at 6:27 pm

Bill Pope’s cinematography style

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I find some videos interesting in how they show me how very much I do not know about some topic or another. Watching and have explained something that people routinely do as their daily job, and something of which my ignorance is vast, is humbling and also intriguing. Here’s an example — an example, I must keep in mind, is old-hat and obvious to many.

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14 May 2023 at 7:16 am

The Unhinged Miniature World of Bobby Fingers

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In an earlier post I blogged a strange and absorbing video which started with making a diorama of the time Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire during the making of a Pepsi commercial. The video (and diorama) maker was Bobby Fingers, and Andy Baio has a good piece about him in Waxy:

The pseudonymous Irishman known as “Bobby Fingers” has only made three videos since launching on YouTube last August, but each one is an unhinged masterpiece.

If you haven’t seen them before, Bobby Fingers makes elaborate 1:9 scale dioramas depicting embarrassing moments in the lives of famous men, showing off his talents in model-making with a range of techniques from Bronze Age wax casting to modern 3D laser scanning.

But each video veers off wildly in different directions, interspersed with field trips, interviews, deadpan commentary, surrealist humor, and inevitably, a musical number.

Craft-wise, it’s on par with the best modelmakers on YouTube, but shares more in common with viral video phenomenon like Don’t Hug Me I’m ScaredToo Many CooksNathan for You, and Unedited Footage of a Bear. Each one subverts the conventions of a familiar genre, whether it’s educational children’s shows, classic TV intros, business makeover reality shows, pharmaceutical ads, or in this case, crafty ASMR artisan YouTube channels. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 May 2023 at 11:14 am

Berea College Students Craft a Bright Future, Tuition-Free

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Three women in a row sitting at workbenches working on some craft project.

Robin Roenker had an interesting report in Craftsmanship Magazine. It has been republished with updated statistics. It begins:

As U.S. student debt balloons to $1.75 trillion nationally, calls for loan forgiveness and low-cost or free college tuition programs are getting louder. Sound impossible? Kentucky’s Berea College has been tuition-free since 1892 — and offers an education in craftsmanship to boot.

Em Croft (they/them), 19 at the time of this writing, is in many ways a typical college junior, juggling classes, assignments, and work responsibilities while pursuing a biology degree at Berea College, a small liberal arts school roughly 40 miles southeast of Lexington, Kentucky. But when Croft enters the school’s weaving studio for their daily tangle with a 1960s-era, flying shuttle loom they’ve named Mr. Jenkins—or, “Old Man Jenkins, when he’s being cranky”—their college experience diverges from average.

Croft is one of 100 students who hold work-study positions in the Berea College Student Craft program, which dates to the 1890s. Another notable difference in their college experience: Like all Berea College students, Croft pays no tuition. The students here, who come from families with average annual incomes of less than $30,000, work on campus for at least 10 hours a week. Some work as teacher’s aides, some as groundskeepers or in the dining halls, while others, like Croft, help carry on Berea’s long tradition in handicrafts.

My brain’s very mechanical, so it didn’t take me long to understand how the loom works, but getting the feel for it and getting the muscle memory was really hard, since all four of your limbs are doing something different at the same time,” Croft says.

Now one of Berea’s most skilled student weavers—able to compete a small blanket in about half an hour—Croft trains new student workers in the studio, and is developing new designs that incorporate bolder colors and prints.

“Designing in some ways is an even bigger form of expression,” says Croft, who hopes to attend medical school after graduation and become a primary care physician. “Being able to weave blankets that I really love to make is just so relaxing after a stressful day.”

Croft believes the process of handcrafting—and of becoming a skilled maker—has enriched their college experience immeasurably. “I can go to the Visitor’s Center and see a signed blanket that I made for sale. There are blankets that I’ve made out there, snuggling up babies,” Croft says. “It gives me a nice sense of pride in a job well done, and I’ve been able to translate that to other aspects of my life.”

Sydney Wascom, also a junior, first heard about Berea College from . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

21 April 2023 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Education

Light on two sides: A good application of Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language”

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I have always been fascinated by Christopher Alexander, beginning with The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language. This post describes how a vacation house in Utah makes use of one of Alexander’s principles:

I’ve talked a lot about the view out – let’s talk about the light coming in.

Pattern 159 in Christopher Alexander’s excellent “A Pattern Language” is Light on two sides of every room. To quote:

This pattern, perhaps more than any other single pattern, determines the success or failure of a room. … Rooms lit on two sides, with natural light, create less glare around people and objects; this lets us see things more intricately; and most important, it allows us to read in detail the minute expressions that flash across people’s faces … The light on two sides allows people to understand each other.

Bringing in light from different directions was a major factor in how rooms and windows were laid out. All the bedrooms have . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

13 April 2023 at 9:07 am

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life

Pottery and Purpose

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A bearded man sits at a table next to three beautiful vases he has made.

Adrian Weiss writes for the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health:

The first time I sat down at a pottery wheel my life changed.

Two years ago, after a decade in the Army that included three deployments to Afghanistan and Syria, I was facing the long-term health impacts of military service. Head injuries from parachute jumps and an improvised explosive device blast left me with a host of neurological and vestibulocochlear deficits. Despite treatment, the migraines, difficulties with balance, and constant nausea persisted.

I was also facing challenges in making the transition back to a life at home.

When I went into the Army, I was a young man who loved to work out and backpack in the woods. Over the next 10 years, working out became something else entirely: I did it because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be strong enough to carry my friends to safety. And years of forced ruck marches had drained the enjoyment out of hiking.

Living in North Carolina after my last deployment, I had no hobbies or interests unrelated to my military life. I also had to grapple with not being physically capable of doing things that I once loved. I felt adrift and without purpose. Many who leave the military experience the same feelings. Military life is a constant barrage of purpose. Every action is nested within a commander’s intent, which is in turn nested within a higher commander’s intent, and so on. Purpose—even if the purpose doesn’t make sense—and your identity as a soldier dominate every aspect of your life: interactions with family, your sleep, your exercise.

Looking for an activity that we could do together, my wife signed us both up for a pottery class at the local community college. I immediately took to wheel throwing: the persistent attention to spin and balance, the continuum between friction and mobility, and between earth and water.

I fell in love with the idea of creating millennia-old forms of craft and industry with simple tools and my own hands. I started making bowls and mugs, but I rapidly became enthralled with making Greek amphora and vase forms from antiquity.

Pottery making proved to be   . . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article, he mentions The Iliad, and it made me think that perhaps he had read Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, about Shay’s experience in working with veterans suffering from PTSD. (This book, along with another book by Shay, is included among the books I find myself repeatedly recommending.)

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8 April 2023 at 2:20 pm

Jack Mauch: A New Renaissance Man

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A close-up photo of a table leg with strips of various colors of walnut.
“Despite appearances, the legs on this table were made from a single piece of walnut, which runs through many shades of brown, purple, and grey from the heartwood outward.”

In Craftsmanship Magazine, Natalie Jones in 2018 wrote an interesting profile of Jack Mausch with photos of his work. She writes:

Jack Mauch was so eager to begin his life as a craftsman that he didn’t even finish high school. The youngest of five in an artistic family in New Hampshire, he convinced his parents to let him apply to art school as a junior, skipped his senior year, and took the GED instead. He then enrolled at the Maine College of Art & Design (MECA&D), beginning a path to becoming an unusually eclectic artist and artisan.

“I frequently encounter a crisis of identity when I try to describe myself with certain terminology,” Mauch says, on his prodigious website. “Designer, craftsman, artist—they all seem alternately applicable to the nature of my career. I know this is mostly a self-inflicted conundrum.”

Just 32 years old at the time of this writing, Mauch is building a body of work that suggests a sense of precision, an eye for detail, and a fascination with shapes and patterns in an uncommonly wide variety of materials. His self-inflictions already have brought him expertise in a range of techniques, including sand shading, wire inlay, and marquetry (the use of strips of veneer to create patterns, like a puzzle).

Mauch’s curiosities also have introduced him to what some see as today’s devil’s bargain in the world of craftsmanship: the . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 April 2023 at 9:48 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Technology

John Singer Sargent, who painted outside the lines

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Fascinating video.

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30 March 2023 at 10:15 am

Posted in Art, Video

Michael Jackson on Fire Diorama

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Weird and enjoyable. Stick with it.

Written by Leisureguy

27 March 2023 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video

Artistic nudity in 6th-grade classrooms

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David by Michelangelo – Florence Galleria dell’Accademia

A kerfuffle erupted in Florida when parents were not notified in advance that their sixth-grade child would be in a class where Michelangelo’s David would be displayed as part of the art curriculum. Some parents objected because of the genitals displayed on the statue.

Kevin Drum has an excellent discussion of the matter on his blog. He quotes the report in the Washington Post:

We don’t have any problem showing David. You have to tell the parents ahead of time, and they can decide whether it is appropriate for their child to see it….No one has a problem with David. It’s not about David.

I pointed out Drum’s post on Mastodon and got some pushback from someone who said that the parents who objected were “oversensitive” (meaning, I think, that they were more sensitive than he, who has the right amount of sensitivity). 

This conflict of opinions is exactly what I talked about in an earlier post, and so I thought I’d use the resolution I suggested there: submit it to — not to settle the matter, but just curious of what the AI would conclude.

I submitted this proposition: “Schools should be allowed to show art with nudity to sixth-grade students without notifying parents in advance.”

You can read the full debate. The Moderator concluded:

Discussions surrounding art with nudity in schools are always difficult due to the possible implications at stake hence, kudos to both debators for handling such an issue. However, Debator B presented strong arguments regarding the right of parents to choose, and the importance of an appropriate school environment for young children. As such, I declare Debator B the winner of this debate.

I note that the AI in Opinionate is not so intelligent as to know how to spell “debater,” but the overall argument is interesting. Debater A gave another indication of a lack of intelligence by remarking a couple of times that parents could opt out, apparently overlooking the part of the proposition that parents would not be notified in advance (and thus would have no opportunity to opt out, the very problem the principal created). 

Parents in general want what is best for their children, but they do not always agree on what that is. Some will take the view that their own idea of what is best should apply to all parents. I don’t think that position is defensible in any honest way.


Written by Leisureguy

25 March 2023 at 2:28 pm

The Future Is Handmade

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Craftsmanship Quarterly has an interesting article with a video. Todd Oppenheimer writes:

One day in December, 2003, when he was a young archaeology student, Maikel Kuijpers was attending a workshop at the Netherlands’ National Museum of Antiquities, and was handed a sword made during the Bronze Age. The workmanship of the ancient weapon immediately captured him. “The lines, the details, the fine balance when holding it,” he recalls. “The attention put into its making was still resonating three thousand years later.”

Kuijpers realized that this ancient weapon posed enough questions about the nature of knowledge—how it’s produced over time, and why knowledge matters—that it could inspire a long-term program of study. Over the next 15 years, as he developed a master’s thesis on metalworking technology, Kuijpers thought about almost nothing else. His journey took him from excavation sites and artisans’ studios to the heights of academia, eventually earning him a Ph.D. in Archaeology from Cambridge University.

The dissertation for that Ph.D. turned into a 318-page addition to the annals of academic research on the nature of craft and skill. Kuijpers’ case study for this inquiry was “Bronze Age Metalworking in the Netherlands”, which became a book entitled “An Archaeology of Skill” (Routledge, 2017). Along the way, with help from the Netherlands’ Centre for Global Heritage and Development, Kuijpers also produced a remarkable documentary, called “The Future is Handmade.” Running just over 12 minutes, the documentary features interviews with several of the world’s leading experts on craftsmanship, played over scenes of various master artisans at work. The cast includes a tailor, a violin maker, a ceramicist, a winemaker, and a barber. The resulting film, brief as it is, is nothing short of a tour de force—both intellectually and emotionally.


During his explorations, Kuijpers was continually surprised by what he saw in the workshops he visited. “When you watch artisans at work,” he told me, “in a strange way it’s very calming.” Time after time, Kuijpers noticed a lack of stress in these workshops. One reason, he concluded, is that when people are working with their hands, quality can’t be rushed; nor can it be faked. “Masters don’t need to say they’re the masters—it’s obvious in the work.”

He also noticed an atmosphere of order, which seemed to arise from a shared sense of the hierarchy in these workshops. “I’m Dutch,” he says, “and we pride ourselves in having a very egalitarian society, so we don’t generally see hierarchy as a good thing.” Much of that view, he believes, comes from the very different atmosphere that tends to dominate white-collar offices, where there is often confusion about whether the boss really deserves to be in charge. “In an artisan’s workshop, it’s perfectly clear who the master is, and where everyone else stands on the hierarchy of skill.”

The power structure that hierarchy created inside artisan workshops left Kuijpers feeling surprisingly impressed, and hopeful that we can somehow find a way to spread its virtues. “It’s more stable, more easily accepted,” he told me. “It’s very clear, and it exists outside of social influences.”


Throughout Kuijpers’ film, one expert after another talks about . . .

Continue reading.

Update: This account seems relevant.

Written by Leisureguy

24 March 2023 at 6:09 pm

Active collage

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Written by Leisureguy

8 March 2023 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Art, Video

Another David Roy kinetic sculpture

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Written by Leisureguy

23 February 2023 at 11:36 am

8-Bit Martial Arts Choreography

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In the dance, players of video games from back in the day will recognize riffs on several games.

Written by Leisureguy

17 February 2023 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Techie toys, Technology, Video

Tagged with

World-Renowned Architect Zaha Hadid, “the Queen of the Curve”

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The above video is from an Open Culture column by Colin Marshall that includes a second video along with a brief discussion of her work. That post also includes some useful links — for example, Watch 50+ Documentaries on Famous Architects & Buildings: Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, Hadid & Many More.

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17 February 2023 at 1:45 pm

Jay-Z’s 99 Problems, Verse 2: A Close Reading with Fourth Amendment Guidance for Cops and Perps

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Or: When a Defense Lawyer Hears a Rap Song. Caleb Mason has an interesting article in the Saint Louis University Law Journal. It begins:


This is a line-by-line analysis of the second verse of 99 Problems by Jay-Z, from the perspective of a criminal procedure professor. It’s intended as a resource for law students and teachers, and for anyone who’s interested in what pop culture gets right about criminal justice, and what it gets wrong.


99 Problems is a song by Jay-Z.1 It’s a good song. It was a big hit in 2004.2 I’m writing about it now because it’s time we added it to the canon of criminal procedure pedagogy. In one compact, teachable verse (Verse 2), the song forces us to think about traffic stops, vehicle searches, drug smuggling, probable cause, and racial profiling, and it beautifully tees up my favorite pedagogical heuristic: life lessons for cops and robbers. And as it turns out, I’m not late to the game after all: Jay-Z recently published a well-received volume of criticism and commentary that includes his own marginal notes on Verse 2 of 99 Problems. 3 When I teach the Fourth Amendment, I ask my students what the doctrines tell us about, on the one hand, how to catch bad guys and not risk suppression, and on the other, how to avoid capture or at least beat the rap if not the ride.4 I’m always happy to tell my own stories, but the song struck me as the perfect teaching tool. All the students know it, and importantly for pedagogical purposes, it gets some things right—and some things very wrong.

It turns out that, while some other law professors have noticed 99 Problems, no one has yet provided a detailed, accurate analysis of the Fourth Amendment issues Verse 2 raises.5 In this Essay, I remedy that deficiency in the literature. This is, after all, one of the most popular songs of the last decade,6 and we should seize the opportunity to use it in our teaching. My audience, accordingly, is primarily teachers and students of criminal procedure, but I hope that my comments may be of some interest to cops and perps as well.


1. The year is ‘94 and in my trunk is raw
2. In my rearview mirror is the motherfucking law
3. I got two choices y’all, pull over the car or
4. Bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor
5. Now I ain’t trying to see no highway chase with jake
6. Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case
7. So I . . . pull over to the side of the road
8. And I Heard “Son do you know what I’m stopping you for?”
9. “Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low?
10. Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don’t know
11. Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo?”
12. “Well you was doing fifty-five in a fifty-four
13. License and registration and step out of the car
14. Are you carrying a weapon on you, I know a lot of you are”
15. “I ain’t stepping out of shit all my papers legit” 1
6. “Do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?”
17. “Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back,
18. And I know my rights so you go’n need a warrant for that”
19. “Aren’t you sharp as a tack, some type of lawyer or something
20. Or somebody important or something?”
21. “Nah I ain’t pass the bar but I know a little bit
22. Enough that you won’t illegally search my shit”
23. “We’ll see how smart you are when the K-9s come”
24. I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one


A. Line 1

The year is ‘94, and in my trunk is raw . . . Jay-Z was transporting drugs in his car, like many of the protagonists who populate the core cases of Fourth Amendment law.8 Unlike most of them, he gets away with it. Jay-Z says that the story in 99 Problems describes a real incident. In 1994, Jay-Z was dealing crack in New York City and was expanding to other markets.9 As he puts it, “New York guys had better connects and opened up drug markets down the I95 corridor.”10 Drug prices increase with distance from importation zones, and New York was a key transshipment hub, so presumably he was able to offer better product and prices to smaller regional markets.11

For several reasons, the transportation of illegal drugs has produced a veritable cornucopia of Fourth Amendment case law.12

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2023 at 1:51 pm

How 1923 Hollywood shaped 2023 Hollywood

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At AV Club Cindy White takes a look back:

While a lot of people are looking ahead to the movies that are coming in 2023 (we’ve done it too), The A.V. Club thought this would also be a good moment to take a look back. Way, way back. We decided to time-shift a full 100 years, to 1923, a seminal year for Hollywood in particular and the movie industry in general. A century ago, the growing business of moviemaking already had a foothold in Los Angeles—and the recently incorporated neighborhood of Hollywood—but it was in 1923 that Hollywood as we know it today began to take on a familiar shape. Literally. That’s the year an enterprising real estate mogul completed construction on a giant sign in the hills overlooking a new housing development called Hollywoodland. A cultural landmark, and an industry, was officially immortalized.

Hollywood was a hive of activity in 1923, both on and off film sets, as widely depicted in histories and period pieces set during that era (Damien Chazelle’s heightened historical drama Babylon is one recent example). Studios like Warner Bros., which was formally incorporated in 1923, were consolidating their power and building stables of contracted talent. As a result, production companies sprang up to give creatives more power over their own work. Many artists, including Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, were making the transition from shorts to feature films. The year also saw early experiments with new technical advances like synchronous sound and color, which would revolutionize the industry within the next decade.

Silent films were going from production to theater screens at a frantic pace, with many of those films coming in from overseas. With no language barrier to hold them back, filmmakers in countries like France, Germany, the Soviet Union (as it was called at the time), Japan, and Brazil were able to reach mass audiences around the globe, just as long as they were able to translate their title cards. International talents like director Ernst Lubitsch also made their way to Hollywood during this time, attracted by natural and industrial resources that weren’t available anywhere else.

There were hundreds of silent films and shorts released in 1923, about half of which are now considered lost. Preservation wasn’t a priority in those days; it’s frankly amazing that we still have access to as many as we do. For example, only one of the five films made by legendary director John Ford (you know, the guy recently portrayed by David Lynch in The Fabelmans) in 1923 has survived intact—a tale of gamblers and river boats called Cameo Kirby. Its main significance (besides being remade into a musical in 1930) is that it was billed as “A John Ford film.” Before 1923, he was always credited as “Jack Ford.” Another of his films from that year—the Tom Mix adventure North Of Hudson Bay—has just 40 minutes of viewable footage remaining. The rest are considered lost.

A year of firsts and spectacles

A number of future stars made their film debuts in 1923, including Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Wray, and an aspiring starlet named Marlene Dietrich. It turned out to be a momentous year for Dietrich. Not only did she . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 February 2023 at 1:25 pm

Doing Vermeer, a documentary

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12 February 2023 at 8:07 am

Walter Mosley Thinks America Is Getting Less Educated

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The NY Times seems to be getting sloppy. The original headline said that Mosley thinks America is “getting dumber,” but if the headline writer had bothered to read the interview, s/he would have known that Mosley made no comment about a decrease in intelligence, but was talking instead about the increasingly poor quality of education (which is going to get worse, with school libraries being shut down and teachers’ pay being inadequate). The headline writer does not know the difference between being ignorant and being stupid. Does that make them stupid? (I presume they would say, “Yes.”)

Still, headline aside, it’s an interesting interview, though the interviewer, David Marchese, struck me as semi-hostile. See what you think. (no paywall)

Walter Mosley is best known as one of contemporary literature’s pre-eminent crime novelists, but he’s actually four or five different writers rolled into one. Famous for his Easy Rawlins series of novels, Mosley has also written sci-fi (“Blue Light”), existential erotica (“Killing Johnny Fry”), parables about race (“Fortunate Son”), political monographs (“Life Out of Context”) and writing guides (“This Year You Write Your Novel”), to cite just a few of the 50 or so books he has published. He’s an altogether thornier, more idiosyncratic writer than readers may know, an inveterate investigator and chronicler of his own heart, mind and soul. “Art itself, like psychoanalysis, comes from deep inside you, somewhere where all of these things are roiling around, coming together, falling apart,” says the 71-year-old Mosley, whose new novel, “Every Man a King,” the second to feature his ex-N.Y.P.D.-investigator-turned-private-eye protagonist, Joe King Oliver, will be published on Feb. 21. “I write seven days a week, usually three hours a day, and when I’m writing, things come up. I say, here’s something! I like finding out what I’m about.”

When I was reading old articles about you, especially from around the time of  “Devil in a Blue Dress,” [This 1990 novel, which introduced the Easy Rawlins character and was later adapted into a film starring Denzel Washington, was Mosley’s first published novel. Easy has been featured in 14 subsequent books] a lot of them talked about how your work brought a new kind of representation to the detective genre. All these years later, are there any ways in which you see the publishing world’s idea of “representation” as also carrying any limiting expectations?

Here’s the thing: When I first got published, there weren’t a lot of Black people being published. The amount of work that you had to do to be out there in the world was amazing. That’s no longer true. But publishing has remained incredibly white. Because it’s been so white, and because it’s the kind of business where you hire your friends, you also hire people who tell stories that you’re interested in. It’s not like, “I don’t want to hire that Black person.” It’s more like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about, and he’s not my friend.” So that’s one thing. But the reason publishers started publishing more books by Black people is that Black people buy books in which they see themselves. There are a lot of books out there that do represent who Black people are and what we think about. It’s not that only white people read the books, and so we have to create books that white people will feel somehow satisfied by.

So representation doesn’t present any potential pitfalls? 

Explain what you mean.

I’ll try by analogy. If Jewish American novelists could only get work published that was still responding to the mid-20th-century pressures of assimilation or was all written in the shadow of mainstream successes like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, that, to me, would be a limiting kind of representation. Similarly, I wonder if the mainstream publishing industry is still mostly interested in a narrow slice of Black experience. Does that make any sense? 

I just want to say, before we get into answering that question, that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby [two of Marvel Comics’ key creative figures.] are Jewish, and they weren’t writing about being Jewish. They were writing stories. When you talk about Saul Bellow and Roth, there’s a certain really small group of people who think that they’re really important in their lives. I’m not one of those people. There’s some good writing in there, but if you write what is essentially memoir, you have to be writing about a period of time, not about yourself. Once you start talking about the girls you banged and the people who mistreated you, then it’s like, man, this is not interesting; it should be a Wikipedia page. But Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I’ve been reading them since I was a kid, and there’s nothing Jewish in it at all. Stan and Jack said: “This is fun! We can express ourselves and make money and have an audience.” And they did. I think there are a lot of so-called white people who don’t feel represented in literature. If you’re in the South, how many people are writing about the problems of your life? Bellow and Roth, they’re writing a very particular kind of story, but they don’t represent America. The only people who write about them are people who have degrees in literature. . . .

Continue reading. (no paywall)

Written by Leisureguy

6 February 2023 at 1:23 pm

Retrospection for a Ragtime King: Scott Joplin and the American devaluation of Black art

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I found the above in a post that collected seven performances of Scott Joplin’s compositions. I wanted to go beyond the familiar pieces — The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag. I was looking for a Joplin introduction to Adrienne Davich’s fine essay in Van Magazine, which begins:

In 1991, when I was eight years old, I found a simplified version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and relished playing it for most of the year that I was in third grade. My parents had recently divorced. I’d moved from Las Vegas to Reno with my mother, a kindergarten teacher. Before and after school, I played “The Entertainer” on an out-of-tune piano in my mother’s classroom. I played it obsessively, perhaps because it occupied my hands and sounded jolly. I didn’t feel sad when I played it, though I missed my dad fiercely; instead, I felt indefatigable and industrious. The lyrics on my sheet music described a clownish performer doing “snappy patter and jokes” that please “the folks.” I know I imagined a Black man on stage, but I didn’t know about minstrel shows or much else about America’s racist past and present. 

My babysitter, who was 13 and also white, loved “The Entertainer” so much that she asked me to teach her how to play it. She’d never taken piano lessons, but she patiently learned the right-hand notes and I accompanied her with the left-hand part. We created a duet and took turns singing the words. I don’t know about her, but I never once thought deeply about what the lyrics evoked: a “mask that grins and lies.” The entertainer I envisioned was a lot like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who looks happy tap-dancing alongside Shirley Temple in her childhood movie series. I presumed that the imagery associated with minstrelsy was normal and innocuous, just as I thought topless showgirls performing in my city’s casinos was. I’m not ashamed of this, but it’s baffling to think that in the 1990s I lived in a place where I was able to spend a year playing “The Entertainer” and learn absolutely nothing about the history of African American music, specifically ragtime, and the life of Scott Joplin.

I still knew nothing about Joplin, the man, when I was 14 and my piano teacher asked me to learn “Maple Leaf Rag.” Or I knew almost nothing. I’d at least learned that Joplin was Black because his photo appeared on my spiral-bound volume of his music. His race didn’t register with me as particularly important, but on the other hand, from somewhere I’d absorbed the idea that ragtime music was simpler and less important than the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. When my teacher, who was a professor of music at the university, handed me the “Maple Leaf,” I presumed it was because he’d disqualified me from playing other, “more serious” pieces. I felt bad about being asked to devote my time to a piece that’s often programmed into player pianos. 

That is, until something unexpected happened: I began playing it reasonably well and people loved it. When guests came to my mother’s house, my stepfather urged me to play it. He never asked for Mozart or Scarlatti. Joplin’s rag was more delightful and impressive. It is, after all, a vivacious, happy piece that looks harder to play than it actually is.

Can you play a piece of music well without knowing its background? Is everything you need to know really on the page? 

During the years I studied piano, we presumed yes. At weekly lessons, I learned theory, practiced sight-reading, and played pieces from every musical period. Although I was expected to know the dates and features of different musical styles, my teachers rarely if ever contextualized the music they asked me to play. It’s curious to me now that we didn’t talk about historical backdrops and personal tragedies. I know for certain that my teachers had rigorously studied classical music history. Did they think that I didn’t care? Or had they found that students fared better focusing solely on the music as written and their technique in playing it? 

I’ve asked these questions because the pieces I played during my formative years are embedded in my soul. They’re part of my identity. I didn’t choose to bring them into my life (a teacher usually did), but ultimately, I did choose them, because I stuck with them. The two pieces that have haunted me the most are ones I started playing at 13 and 14 years old. I felt proud to play the first of these, Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”; I believed it represented me, with its melancholic air and evocation of loneliness and longing. But the other piece, Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” didn’t flow from somewhere inside me. I would have to inhabit it in a different way.

Joplin was born around 1868, possibly in the vicinity of  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

27 January 2023 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Art, History, Jazz, Music

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