“These pictures deserve compassion.”

[Blah blah blah, this is a boring post. Next week I might have something REALLY HUGE AND GIANT and awesome to say…but probably not until the week after (if at all…)—feel free to send good energies my way, you fuckin’ hippies, though—and soon I want to post fun things, like a cookie recipe I want to share. But until then, words words words, and I bet you’re so sick of words. The internet is so full of them, sometimes I hate adding to the chaos.]

It’s 1:17 am. Is now really the best time for this post? Let’s see how it goes.

As a pre-birthday treat, I took Jacob to a Broadway show this week: “Red.” I got tickets before it won all those Tonys, which was lucky for me. As a kid I spent most weekends accompanying my mom to plays, because for a long time she was a theater critic for our city’s local alt-weekly. By the time I was fifteen, I had seen “Cats” nine times. I still know every word, and I still have a secret adoration for musicals (“Sunday in the Park with George”? Come on! Genius!).

These days theater for me is one of those things I guess everyone has: something you love and, for whatever reason, never ever do. Since I left for college and my mom’s free tickets weren’t available to me anymore, I can count on one hand the number of plays I’ve been to. Jacob’s not much of a theater boy, and in truth, both of us suffered too many run-ins with drama kids in college to admit to liking theater, lest we be mistaken for the ubiquitous Glee-esque theater geek. But we’ve been out of college for a decade, and though I commuted through Times Square and thus walked down the Great White Way every day for a solid year, neither of us had ever been to a Broadway play on Broadway itself.

I dressed up, because even in The Hot State I remember women wearing fur (I remember it because my mom gave [and gives] anyone who wears fur little fliers on how the animals are anally electrocuted and whatnot. My mom carries these in her pockets, along with a truly impressive mom-like collection of tissues, pens, lipstick, and everything else, in her pockets at all times.) to the theatre. The clicking of my scuffed patent leather mary janes over a hot parking lot, endlessly picking cat hair off my one normal (non-hippie child) dress (a typical early 90’s black polyester affair with those horrid sheer sleeves), drinking ginger ale at intermission while my mom made small talk with the other theater critics in the lobby, watching her take notes in the dark on her special reporter’s notebooks with a golf pencil: I loved it all. Seeing plays was a respite from the hell pit that was our household. My father never came to a play, and the nervousness that being around him engendered in us dissolved until we were almost back home and began quietly imagining what scene we would walk into. Someone would always be on the floor, overdosing or dozing or who knows what, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane would be blaring—my god. Seeing plays was a connection to my mother’s world of high culture—the world she had, ironically, so gleefully cast aside when she met my dad in the mud that August day in 1969 less than two hours from where I sit, typing on this computer in Upstate New York, thousands of miles from The Hot State, where they eventually settled after getting married in Vegas and running out of money on their way to California.

Where were we? Mark Rothko.

Mark Rothko is what Red is about.

Jacob’s a big fan of him for reasons involving a very long night on tour years ago with a band he didn’t like all that much in a European town where he felt friendless and lonely, and turned on a hotel TV to the only English channel, the BBC, which happened to be showing a Mark Rothko documentary. He was transfixed, and when he realized that the tour would soon take him to London, he decided that the first second off he got he would see the Rothko paintings at the Tate Modern. Seeing the paintings affixed Rothko to his heart even more deeply than the documentary had. Thus, I was excited, a decade or so later during which his love for Rothko has only grown, to hear good reviews for Red and to finally find a good birthday present for the hardest person to shop for in the world.

Though I know virtually nothing about him, I was also excited to see the show, because as it happens those same Rothko paintings at the Tate play a not-small role in allowing me to begin crawling my way out of the worst period in my life, those horrible months almost a decade ago when I stood on a street corner and watched thousands of people die. Rothko has been a weighty artist for me since then, but one to whom I am incredibly thankful.

So there we were, me in what I imagined to be an appropriate dress for a Broadway show (OK, it was the dress I wore in the dang video) with my hair all chignonned up, even though a chignon + 1920s-ish dress (not to mention silver ballet slippers) don’t really go so well together (and also not to mention that I just made up the awesome phrase “chignonned up”) and Jacob in his typical uniform of skinny jeans and a vintage collared shirt and sneakers. We climbed up to our seats. I was nervous about taking a sound engineer (who once told me that unless he could stand at the front of house mix position and thus be guaranteed the best sound in the house, he literally couldn’t bring himself to go to a show anymore) to a play where our seats were in the next-to-last row, but the sound was pretty good (and on the way home I said to myself: so true, so true: victory is sweet, even deep in the cheap seats).

(This is getting long.)

The play was good, and it brought up a lot of thoughts. It was a bring-up-thoughts kind of play. What do they call that? My 1:45 AM brain can’t quite call it up. (I just spent a lot of time Googling “chignon” and learned that my hair was not in a chignon! It was in a French twist! How humiliating, I’ve always called a French twist [which, can I just say, I am a fucking expert at?] a chignon! How can I continue living? To be fair, my hair is long enough that I could actually do a FT finished off with a wee little chignon on top, which would look mighty weird but also wouldn’t, I know now, technically be a chignon because–OK, I’m stopping.)

Thought-provoking! That’s the phrase I was looking for.

Here are some thoughts inspired by the play.

What it made me think a lot about was [who starts a sentence like that? 10-year-olds?] the canon. You know the canon, the one us Women’s Studies majors are always saying we must we must we must dismantle? Rothko, well, the Rothko of the play (and who knows how Rothkolike he was, but we’ll let that slide for now, 1:56 AM and all) is all about the canon. He tells his apprentice that, basically, without an intimate knowledge not only of art history, but also of Shakespeare and Thucydides and Emerson and Freud and Nietzsche etc ad nauseum, he can’t even look at his paintings. “To surmount the past, you must know the past,” he says. Then, a few minutes later (or maybe a few minutes before—I am not, please note, a theater critic who takes notes with a golf pencil on my reporter’s notebook in the dark) he seems to say that the paintings must speak for themselves, in the most personal way possible: “These pictures deserve compassion, and they live or die in the eye of the sensitive viewer.”

I like both ideas. Obviously a work of art has to provoke some sort of internal reaction, but, being the scholarly girl that I was, I adore the idea that while a poem is beautiful and sometimes that’s enough, a deeper understanding of the historical and political and personal and cultural context in which it was written can open up entire worlds inside the words of the poem. The art of reading a poem, and for that matter reading a painting, is the art I figured I would devote my life to, before cooking stepped in.

It felt good to sit in a dark room with tiered seating just like the lecture halls in college and chew over big ideas like that again.

Clearly, there is something problematic about saying that in order to understand art you need to have been educated in a certain way. Not only is it racist/classist blah blah, it also reinforces the idea that white men are, still, the arbiters of culture (something I sort of think Rothko would have had no problem with, but that’s just a feeling). It raises the question countless baby feminists have been debating uselessly for decades: what’s more important, changing the canon to include more people of color and women and radicals and non-Americans and working-class people, or ignoring the mainstream world that has so excluded us and forging our own world? I like to think I do a little of both, both in my life and my businesses. Straddling the line is sometimes hard.

Close friends of mine, who might or might not have been mentioned in the previous blog post, are such hardcore old-school radical feminists and have been so assiduously ignoring all culture created by men for over thirty years that I once had to tell them who David Sedaris and Howard Zinn were. (And they have NPR on in their cars all the time. I know they’ve heard David Sedaris. And I really don’t get the Zinn thing, because they read The Nation religiously. I actually think they literally turn off their ears when men enter the culture. These days they have a good amount of male friends who they have cautiously allowed into their inner sanctum, but men creating culture, with the exceptions of Ralph Nader (who they tolerate because he’s a pal!), Peter Singer and Satish Kumar, are just completely under their radar.). It’s been wonderful to see the freedom this intentional blindness has brought them, but it’s not my path. Sometimes I feel guilty for it, but I love my Alan Alda, my Tony Kushner, my Chomsky & Zinn, my boy Matthew Dickman, even my Salinger and Shakespeare and midnight Rimbaud readings too much (not to mention my Jacob, of course. And the handful of other beautiful men in my life.). There are good dudes out there, and there are dreadful, dreadful women. (I call them skinny bitches.) This is so obvious, I know, but I also know many a radical feminist separatist who would disagree.

So, seeing the show, which consists of two white dudes talking/yelling/painting/touching/screaming at each other for 90 minutes, was sort of a feat for me. I wasn’t flippant about it, or resentful that a show about, say, two black lesbian painters sure as fuck wouldn’t be on Broadway and have just won all those Tonys. I just opened my heart to it, took what I could, and left the rest.

Moving on: assholery. Clearly, the Rothko of the play was a solipsistic asshole, albeit a lovable one. Do you think assholery is a prerequisite for true greatness? While we’re at it, do you think a touch of insanity is, especially for women? How about an addictive personality? Suicidal thoughts? Discuss.

Time for bed! I don’t have any sort of ending for this jumble of childish thoughts, so I’ll just end with what our hero said to his protegĂ© about Jackson Pollock:

“He thought painting mattered. How could that story not end in tragedy?”

2 Responses to ““These pictures deserve compassion.””

  1. ruby

    Lagusta, my heart sang with joy and surprise to learn that you are a Sondheim fan. “Sundaaaaaaaay!”


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