Cultural History

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warhol in iran

Friends of our too-long moribund Writing New York site, I hope you’ll come say hello while I’m in town, briefly, to participate in the following event, which draws on a new research project I’ve undertaken re: New York in the Age of Warhol.

Andy Warhol in Tehran
A lecture at NYU, open to the public

Thursday, October 23, 2014

6:00-7:30pm

19 Washington Square North, New York

In 1976, Warhol visited Tehran to take photos for a portrait of Empress Farah Pahlavi. In 1978 he painted the Shah and his twin sister Princess Ashraf as well, though the Revolution prevented these portraits from being publicly displayed in Iran. This lecture considers Warhol’s Iranian portraits in multiple contexts: the OPEC oil crisis; Warhol’s celebrity portraits of the ’70s; and today’s global art market, in which these paintings help pose key questions about American Pop’s global legacies.

Speaker:

Bryan Waterman, Associate Professor of English, NYU; Visiting Associate Professor of Literature and Program Head for Literature, NYUAD

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Peter_Stuyvesant

Today is the 365th anniversary of the famous “goats and hogs ordinance” passed in New Netherland under the governorship of Peter Stuyvesant. Here’s the text of the ordinance:

Whereas the Honble Director General and Council of New Netherland have daily seen and remarked that the Goats and Hogs here around Fort Amsterdam daily commit great damage in Orchards, Gardens and other improvements, whereby it follows not only that the planting of beautiful Orchards and Gardens are prevented, but considerable damage is done to Individuals. Therefore the Honble Director General and Council, willing to provide herein, do, from this time forward, Ordain and Enact that no Goats nor Hogs shall be pastured or kept between the fortification of New Amsterdam (or its vicinity) and the Fresh Water, except within each its own inclosure, and that so well constructed that the Goats do not leap over it, and commit damage on any person; Also, Goats beyond the Fresh Water shall not be pastured without a Herdsman and Keeper, on pain of having the Goats found at large on this side of the Fresh Water, or without a Herdsman or Keeper beyond it, taken up by the Fiscal and declared forfeit beherded by the Honble Director General and Council. Let every one be warned hereby and take heed against loss.

This done in Council at Fort Amsterdam in New Netherland, the 10th March, A° 1648

No more freely roaming goats and hogs in New Amsterdam. Keep ’em enclosed or they’re forfeited to the state!

The same day also saw the passage of an ordinance dealing with “the regulation of Trade and Navigation; the establishment of a weekly Market and an annual Fair, and declaring the East river free to all nations.”

To put things in further perspective, however, we note that the previous January saw the passage of an ordinance “opening the Trade to Brazil and Angola, and authorizing the Importation of Slaves into New Netherland.”

You can read the texts of these and other ordinances from New Netherland at the section of  Wikisource devoted to “Laws and Ordinances of New Netherland, 1638-1674.” [Click here to go to the page for 1648.]

Today is actually the anniversary of another landmark in the regulation of domestic beasts. In 1894, New York became the first state to enact a law requiring that dogs be licensed. The fee was $2 per license. One hundred nineteen years later, the fee has gone up to $8.50. Benefits include the new “NYC Dog eLocator System,” an online service available to anyone who finds a lost dog that is wearing a New York City dog license.

[Portrait of Peter Stuyvesant ca. 1660, attributed to Hendrick Couturier; location: New-York Historical Society]

 

As part of our ongoing series of interviews with Networked New York participants, Kristen Doyle Highland weighs in on her work, which examines the nineteenth-century bookstore in New York City. Moving between the rise of the dedicated bookstore in nineteenth-century New York City to contemporary battles to save the independent bookstore, Highland’s presentation at Networked New York explored how the physical space of the bookstore has come to frame ideals of urban life and community. She is a doctoral student in the English Department at NYU, specializing in Early American and antebellum literature.

Your paper crafts a compelling analogy between contemporary lamentations over the fate of today’s independent bookstores and the mid-19th century sense that stores like Daniel Appleton and Company’s bookstore sell “more than just books”—that what they offer, such as communal/civic aspirations, transcend the materiality of market commodities.  What motivated your focus on Appletons’?

I should start by saying that my larger research project focuses primarily on the nineteenth-century NYC bookstore. But the Networked NY conference was a great opportunity to begin to think about the relationship between yesterday’s bookstore and the status (often described as the “plight”) of today’s bookstore—point here being that I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the modern bookstore.  It seems an obvious point to us today to say that the bookstore isn’t just about selling books—it’s about a lifestyle, about values, about community, literacy, culture. Though the loss of any independent store—consider the rapid decline in the family hardware store, for instance—is an occasion for expressing regret over a changing, more corporate retail landscape, the closing of a bookstore (or just the threat of closing) inspires particularly vehement defenses and alarming predictions of the future of neighborhoods, of communities, even of knowledge itself. This emotional investment in the bookstore has always fascinated me. It’s not just about the books; there’s something about the physical space of the bookstore—it’s environment, it’s people—that has such deep resonance.

But was this ‘deep meaning’ in bookstores always there? Certainly, bookshops have been a gathering place for literati to share news, ideas, and conversation for centuries. But with the rise of the dedicated retail bookstore—increasingly, though not always, separate from publishers—in the 19th century, we have the opportunity to consider how the bookstore imagined and produced itself as a venue for books in an urban landscape that had libraries, reading rooms, and street-corner book peddlers, among other book spaces. I focus on New York specifically because by the mid-19th century, it had become the national center for the book industry and had a lively, diverse bookselling trade. D. Appleton & Co.’s bookstore [see photograph at left, the facade of the Appleton building in 1854, courtesy of New-York Historical Society], operating from a number of different locations in the decades before the Civil War, seemed a promising case study to examine the forms and “meanings” of the bookstore for a couple reasons. First, a practical one—the Appletons’ success as book retailers and publishers made them very visible in the contemporary media. Each new move prompted energetic press coverage (and not just in NYC), commentary, and detailed descriptions of its space. Along with other surviving resources and unlike the vast majority of 19th-century bookstores, the archive can support a close analysis of Appletons’ stores. And second, also a result of their success, D. Appleton & Co. had the means to design their own spaces, and after 1860, their own buildings, revealing deliberate spatial strategies for staging the bookstore.

What I see happening in Appletons’ stores is an increasing dedication to investing their bookstore with what we would term today as capital “C” Cultural significance—making it aesthetically impressive, exhibiting books as art (and actual fine art pieces as well), drawing on classical and monumental design, spatially isolating and separating the commercial functions of the store. Designing the bookstore, in other words, as more than a commercial outlet for books—rather, as a space for communal engagement, individual improvement, and for performances of reading and consuming. Of course, this was also a marketing strategy—offer patrons rich, pleasing surroundings, and they will buy their books here. But if we consider Appletons’ in a sort of genealogy of the bookstore, we see an early example of a bookstore aspiring to a position as cultural institution. Over time (and with lots of other variables, of course), we’ve naturalized this cultural-institutional definition and function of the bookstore and further rhetorically and materially separated the cultural and commercial functions of the store.

You ask what it is about bookstores that makes them intensely local but also subject to being abstracted as the “soul” of a community.  How would you answer your own question in the cultural landscape of 19th-century antebellum New York?  Why do you think such easy resonances emerge between that historical context and the present-day? I’m thinking especially of how you use the comments section from EV Grieve

First, I want to thank EV Grieve and the individual writers whose letters to Cooper Union he posted. I probably should have asked for permission to quote from them. They’re such great examples of the passionate defenses of and symbolic significance invested in the modern bookstore.

On the intensely local aspect of the bookstore—One of the dangers in talking about “the bookstore” as a general thing is that it elides all of the local pressures that shape the bookstore and inform our experiences and associations of it. The big box store in Union Square, for instance, occupies a very different historical, physical, and symbolic space than the small neighborhood bookseller, and, as Ted Striphas has shown, different than the exact same big box store in Durham, NC where it is the only bookstore for miles and is enmeshed in that region’s own racial and economic history.  And of course, individuals form their own distinct associations and experiential geographies of bookstores. Nineteenth-century luminary, William Templeton Strong, loved Appletons’ but derided the bookstore just next door as a “citadel of humbug.” One of the appeals, then, of investing the bookstore with the symbolic significance of a cultural institution is that it can both capture the local significance of the bookstore to a certain vision of “community” while also linking one bookstore’s survival to a larger cultural preservation project.

But I don’t think many nineteenth-century New Yorkers would have talked about the bookstore in a similar way, as both locally and symbolically significant. It didn’t yet have the widespread cultural cache (or sentimental attachment?) that it does now. By the early 20th century, however, trade publications like Publisher’s Weekly reveal a growing panic about the future of the bookstore and attach to the physical space of the threatened store larger concerns about literary values, modes of reading, and cultural authority—not too far from concerns of the “soul.”

 As a “landmark” in the way you describe in your paper, can the bookstore be understood as a civic space apart from its status as a “commercial institution of culture?” When you write of Appleton’s that to “buy books here was to assert one’s own taste and membership in a fashionable community,” are there other acts of civic or public participation that perform a similar membership?  Where else might these members self-identify—or are you arguing that bookstores present a unique and distinct occasion or space for membership or community formation?

I think most people today consider the bookstore a civic space—for participation in a community, for sharing ideas and information—independent of its commercial functions. To the detriment of the bookseller’s bottom-line. That’s the fascinating paradox of today’s bookstore—locating a “higher value” in its role as an enlivening cultural space for readings, conversation, or leisure and not in its more mundane commercial role as a place where books are commodities to be sold, and crucially, bought, risks the bookstore’s survival. Certainly, there are a variety of ways individual booksellers have found to strike a balance between a store’s commercial and cultural functions or to make the cultural profitable. But I wonder, what might the bookstore look like in the future if it was actually classified as a cultural institution and funded primarily by donors or government entities and not solely by the sale of books?

Appletons’ built the cultural significance of their stores on the foundations of its commercial functions. In that way, his stores mid-century and later might be aligned with the emerging department store model. Any act of consumption—buying a dress, decorating a drawing room—could be argued to incorporate an individual into a fashionable community and communicate values through physical objects, but I do think that the bookstore, by nature of the books it sold—objects already circulating in intellectual and social economies, and increasingly in the 19th century with advances in binding, cover options, and illustration technologies in a material economy—offer a unique and complicated space for individual identification and community formation.

 

 

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Next up in our Networked New York Q&A series, we have Cecily Swanson, a doctoral candidate in the English department at Cornell. Her dissertation, “‘A Circle is a Necessity’: American Women Modernists and the Aesthetics of Sociability,” considers the legacy of salon conversation for writers who conceived of literature as not just a text, but also a way of talking.

Your paper examines how social relationships structure literary experiences by focusing on two groups of writers from the 1920s and 1930s.  Can you elaborate on the contrast you identify between the reading group and the salon?

The modern salon has been characterized as both a location for transgressive sociability and a holdover of old world aristocratism. As Janet Lyon argues in “Sociability in the Metropole:  Modernism’s Bohemian Salons,” the modern salon sought above all else to give the appearance of anti-bourgeois spontaneity, refusing claims to institutionality and conventionality even as these gatherings accrued cultural and material capital. Indeed, it is very difficult to distinguish between the modernist salon’s institutional side – in other words the way the it enabled through patronage networks and marketing strategies the development of a self-conscious, autonomous “scene” – from its more experiential side, where art and life blur through casual banter, a shifting guest lists, and its emphasis on participation, rather than a museum-like separation of guest from the artwork. Natalie Barney, one of modernism’s most influential salon hostesses, claimed, “I never had a salon, I only had  têtes-à-têtes,” characteristically refusing to acknowledge her salon’s institutional stature even as it became a fixture of literary Paris.

But the modernist reading group, as my research of several Gurdjieff reading groups suggests, sought to institutionalize “spontaneous” conversation through the framework of documented philosophical analysis. These reading groups, in other words, attempted to formalize the salon experience into a codified literary practice, where authorship could be produced through carefully documented social exchanges but was not necessarily tied to a published text.  Jean Toomer’s Harlem Gurdjieff reading group minutely recorded not only their discussion, but also the affect of each participant, seeking to account for and legitimate these ephemeral moments. Toomer thus seems to have conceived of his reading groups as a “masculine” alternative to female salon sociability. But Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s Gurdjieff reading group, run in Paris and comprised of lesbian expatriates, found through this effort at Gurdjieffian self-documentation an opportunity to more freely express, record, and consecrate, their non-normative sexual choices and lifestyles.

What archival sources were most central to your project?  Can you say a bit about how archival materials shaped your understanding of the circles you examine, especially the relationship between Jean Toomer and George Gurdjieff?

My dissertation as a whole considers three principle archives: (1) The Natalie Barney papers at the Bibliothèque Jacques Doucet in Paris, (2) The Muriel Draper Papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library and (3) The Jean Toomer Papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

My “Networked New York” paper explored the Toomer collection, arguing that question of racial passing that so vexed Toomer throughout his career finds a solution, or at very least a theorization, in Toomer’s proliferation of papers. Authorship, as professed in his archive’s myriad versions of himself, is always a form of passing, of articulating a variety of possible identities, which may or may not consolidate into a single “truth,” or, to use Gurdjieffian terminology, an “objective” being. I connected Toomer’s exploration of the non-identity of the author to the conversational aesthetic promulgated by the social experience of the literary salon. Toomer’s New York Gurdjieff reading group attempts to formulize the spontaneous chatter of the salon through a Gurdjieffian practice that entails keeping a detailed record of personal experience.  Through Gurdjieff, Toomer could confer authority on the conversational and social dimension of written production, demanding that the social performance of an authorial persona “count” as much as the published work when the question “what is an author?” is answered.

Critics have tended to read Toomer’s unpublished and published writings after Cane as either a failure, the consequence of an over-investment in Gurdjieffian mysticism, or as a the logical continuity of Cane’s success, arguing that the effort at “self-objectification” was already present in Cane, but then further exploited (and perhaps made ridiculous) through Gurdjieffian tenets. My paper tried instead to read Toomer’s post-Gurdjieff archival papers another way, as neither break nor continuity with the authorial identity established by Cane but instead as an exploration of the social context that enabled, but also delimited, such a persona.

Your dissertation, “‘A Circle is a Necessity’: American Women Modernists and the Aesthetics of Sociability,” considers the legacy of salon conversation for writers who conceived of literature as not just a text, but also a way of talking.  What other writers and communities do you take up in your project?

My dissertation considers the aesthetic legacy of the literary salon for American women writers who are now remembered more for the bohemian gatherings they hosted, or the artistic connections they facilitated, than they are for their own literary contributions. These women, I argue, have been difficult to “read” as important figures of literary modernism because their contribution was less literature as we are accustomed to perceiving it than a new conception of the literary, which championed the aesthetic merits of salon conversation. I consider a range of materials: Natalie Barney’s unpublished memoirs written after the heyday of her literary salon in Paris; Muriel Draper’s music salon in London and her subsequent career as an NBC radio broadcaster; Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s notorious 1916 “blank issue” of their influential literary and art journal, The Little Review; and the way in which two reading groups devoted to the writings of mystic George Gurdjieff, one in Harlem and one in expatriate Paris, promulgated the myth of an artistic or literary temperament that is not dependent on actual aesthetic production.

Conversation and literary exchange exist as such heavily freighted, gendered concepts in cultural and historical analysis.  Can you elaborate on the tensions between conversation and writing in New York’s modernist literary salons?

“Autonomy” and autonomy’s preferred modernist synonym, “impersonality,” are words that were almost compulsively used by modernist writers and that have enjoyed an after-life in explanations of the period. Recent scholarship, of course, has begun to question these terms’ viability, the result of a critical climate that has offered productive readings of collaboration and social networks. But even the critiques of the modernist autonomy have tended to assume an a priori stable text, a modernist classic of Stein’s, William’s, or Eliot’s, which becomes relatively open or less open through interpretation. By exploring the conversational aesthetic that emerged through salons and social gatherings in a variety of media formats (such radio broadcasts, reader-response columns, and reading group discussion), it is it not the “openness” of interpretation that is at stake but the very text itself. Attention to social context, audience reception, and unpublished archival material helps make visible an alternative form of modernist textuality, where literary production occurs at the threshold of speech and writing and in the material form of fans’ written responses.

By turning attention to the social relationships structuring any literary experience and the literary potential of “conversational” forms, the women writers of my analysis challenged modernist claims for the autonomy of the literary object and offered new possibilities for female authorship, where even the most casual conversations can have literary power. In this way, my dissertation hopes to make visible an early, overlooked feminist critique of the text-as-object. The restitution of neglected women writers to the canon has been one of feminist studies’ great successes. But as I show through the evaluation of a range of archival materials, these writers’ significant contributions to modernism cannot be appreciated simply through the recovery of lost classics because their literary legacy lies in the interstices between oral and written forms. Only through the archived responses of countless female fans and communities of “writing” readers can we begin to see the literary importance of the conversational aesthetic my dissertation traces.

What immediate questions or concerns did you take away from the conference that relate to your work?

I was fascinated by my co-panelists presentations on digitizing social networks. Micki McGee’s work on the Yaddo Archive Project and Edward Whitley’s digital mapping of 19th century bohemian circles offered me great insight into the possibilities, and the potential difficulties, of digitizing the raw data of my own archival research of modernist salons. When literary circles are made accessible online, scholars can more easily examine the social world of their research, interrogating the canonical position of major literary figures through their minor friendships and intellectual alliances. These maps allow scholars working from different fringes of the same period to turn partial knowledge into more “total” picture by collaboratively building these circles together. But I am also interested in the way the writers of my own work offered a critique avant la lettre of social mapping that makes the locus of each digital circle an autonomous individual, connected by spokes to other autonomous individuals. Toomer, for example, quarreled with the idea of a coherent self, preferring to see himself as productive example of dual identity, where authorship emerges less in product than in process.  It would be fascinating to cull together more information on the social maps writers drew before the internet age. Natalie Barney drew a map of her salon that looks a lot like the digital social maps of our era, with names of each guest tessellating outward, although she positioned herself “outside,” more a boundary point than the center [see image at left]. But Toomer’s “maps” are quite different. His archive contains index cards documenting social affect, making the fluctuating emotion and comportment of each participant more important than their “individual,” or stable, selves.  It would be hard to digitally present a social circle where valences of anger, discontent, or elation matter more than names, although it would certainly be useful to have this information more readily available to other researchers.

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Bryan’s last three lectures for Writing New York have traced the development of the West Village, East Village, and Downtown cultural scenes from Ginsberg and the Beats through Dylan and then the Velvet Underground, up to the CBGB’s scene. As part of last weeks’ reading, students were able to read some excerpts from the uncorrected proofs for his forthcoming 33 1/3 book Television’s Marquee Moon, due out on June 16.

For Monday, the students have excerpts from my 33 1/3 book, The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, which juxtaposes the history of the band with the history of New York City in the Seventies. Here’s an excerpt, which happens to highlight a point of connection between the Stones and Television, with some hyperlinks added:

My first record player was a Panasonic combo-unit with both a turntable and a tape player. Not audiophile-worthy, but it served me well while I was in high school. The first album that I bought was the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), but the second was the Stones’ compilation album Hot Rocks 1964-1971. By the time I got to the end of Side 3—”Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Gimme Shelter”—I knew which side of the fence I was on. Andrew Loog Oldham, whom Keith Richards describes in his autobiography Life as “the great architect of the Stones’ public persona,” deliberately constructed a public image for the Stones that made them out to be “the anti-Beatles.” Stones vs. Beatles? After side 3 of Hot Rocks, it was no contest as far as I was concerned. (Richard Lloyd, the guitarist for the legendary New York punk band Television, once said something similar: “When I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I thought it was interesting. Musically it was okay. But I really liked the Rolling Stones. So there were two camps: The Beatles camp and The Rolling Stones camp. So I was definitely in the Stones camp. Much darker.” Television would include a cover of the “Satisfaction” in their live shows, and two different versions are preserved for posterity on The Blow Up and Live At The Old Waldorf, both recorded during the band’s 1978 tour.

The quotation from Lloyd comes from an online interview, which you can read in full here.

Bryan and I were pleased to host a visit by Ric Burns to NYU last night, for a special screening of his most recent documentary, Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. Many of our readers no doubt are familiar with Burns’s monumental, eight-part New York: A Documentary Film, and those of you who are persuaded by our arguments that Herman Melville is a central figure in the literary history of New York (and that Moby-Dick is inspired, in part, by the energies of mid-nineteenth-century New York) will find the new film illuminating as a follow-up to the earlier film.

As Burns explained in his opening remarks, Into the Deep turns on three interlinked stories: the story of the American whaling industry from its origins in the seventeenth century through its heyday in the mid-nineteenth to its sudden demise by the start of the twentieth; the story of the catastrophic voyage of the whaleship Essex, which was wrecked by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean 1820; and the writing and publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). The film is a cautionary tale about what happens when you base an industry on a finite natural resource and suggests that the rise and fall of American whaling might be an allegory for our present-day infatuation with another natural resource — not whale oil but petroleum. At the same time, however, the film is also a case-study in globalization: for all its rapaciousness, the whaling industry also Americans to explore the wide world and come into contact with racial and cultural others — a daunting prospect for some but a source of wonder and opportunity for others, like Herman Melville.

Watching the film again, I was struck by the gorgeousness of its depictions of a whaleship under sail and the skill with which Burns staged “re-enactments.” And I realized that the film is in fact making a case for a re-evaluation of the story of American industrialization that we commonly tell ourselves, forcing us to remember the pivotal role played by whale oil and other whale products. As one of our students suggested during the question-and-answer period that followed the screening, that’s not a story that’s customarily told in high school history courses. In our historical memory, the significance of the story of American whaling has disappeared along with the industry, lost like the Essex and Melville’s Pequod.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago. (Moby-Dick, Chapter 135).

We were fortunate enough to be able to record the question-and-answer session, so we’ll be posting material from it in the near future. In the meantime, if you were there at the screening last night, or if you’ve seen Burns’s film and found it provocative, please leave a comment below.

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For the second year running we’ve teamed up with a group of NYC-based bloggers to provide an eclectic holiday guide. Our entry follows. Check out our other participants’ entries as well:

Manhattan User’s Guide: The Gift Guide: 21 Over $21
Markets of New York:
Festive Food at New York’s Holiday Markets

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Since I don’t read right-wing blogs or the L.A. Times with any regularity, I missed last winter’s most pressing political news story: Ornamentgate.

Apparently the noted art critic Andrew Breitbart pointed out last December that one of the White House Christmas trees included an ornament bearing the face of Chairman Mao. Taking this as hard evidence of the President’s deepest political sympathies, Fox news commentators and Tea Party wackos from sea to shining sea pounced like rabid wolves on a wounded reindeer. In response, The L.A. Times’s Culture Monster blog suggested that the whole kerfuffle just proved that Republican pundits make bad art critics: The image on the ornament wasn’t exactly Mao; it was “Andy Warhol’s ‘Mao,'” of course, in which Warhol parodically

transformed the leader of the world’s most populous nation into a vapid superstar — the most famous of the famous. The portrait photo from Mao’s Little Red Book is tarted up with lipstick, eye-shadow and other Marilyn Monroe-style flourishes.Where did the Christmas decoration come from?

“We took about 800 ornaments left over from previous administrations,” First Lady Michelle Obama explained in an earlier press release about getting the White House ready for the holidays, “we sent them to 60 local community groups throughout the country, and asked them to decorate them to pay tribute to a favorite local landmark and then send them back to us for display here at the White House.”

The precise source of the Warhol ornament is not known. But Warhol’s Maos are in art museum collections from coast to coast, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago (whose painting most resembles the ornament image) and both the County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum has several.

Oh, and at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, the National Gallery of Art has 21 different versions of Warhol’s “Mao.” Twenty-one. Wait until Big Government bloggers find out about the Communist takeover of the National Gallery.

Newsworthy? Probably not, though Fox’s Sean Hannity has already this year presented his astute fans with a poll about whether the Mao ornament is likely to be on display again. (Don’t click that link unless you want to tumble down a right-wing rabbit hole filled with bile and used tea bags.)

I discovered this most important of national holiday stories while poking around the Web the other day investigating a trend I’ve noted in recent years: the proliferation of Warhol-designed Christmas paraphernalia. It started with Christmas cards.

You’ve probably seen dozens of cards by Warhol around this season (and in recent years) at hip little book and paper shops without realizing they were Warhol’s.

The site art.com has dozens of Warhol holiday designs available, not only on cards, but also prints suitable for framing, which I suppose you’d store away somewhere for the rest of the year when they’re less seasonably appropriate for your wall space. In New York? Really?

I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that such items exist. After all, the man was somewhat religious–he went to Mass, especially on big holidays, and he probably had a Catholic sense of wanting nice holiday images around when the season called for it. Plus he worked in advertising, which is where most of these designs appear to have originated. (They date by and large to the late 50s.)

Some of them are fairly traditional, such as “Angel, 1957 (with holly)”; others seem to be cheeky nods at the holiday’s commercial excess, if not at the consumer origins of Warhol’s images themselves. I hope WikiLeaks is on top of this issue: we have the right to know if our elected representatives are sending out holiday greetings using subversive Warhol shoe designs, which could suggest that religion has been supplanted by capitalist commodity fetishism. Imagine!

It turns out that the right-wingers need to chill a little: Warhol’s Christmas designs have been deemed safe by kids-crafts bloggers. I was relieved to find that someone at artprojectsforkids.org was selling do-it-yourself Warhol Christmas tree murals, though I’m not sure how the Warhol Foundation would feel about the copyright issues involved. Grinches.

Then there are efforts that go overboard in the opposite direction, trying to make Warhol into Saint Andy, a Santa Claus for our post-postmodern world. The Guardian‘s design blog, reviewing Warhol’s reissued Christmas images a few years ago, went a little too far down that path:

People who knew Warhol testify to his punctilious generosity in giving well-chosen Christmas gifts. He believed in the American Christmas, just as he believed in Elvis and Marilyn. He knew a collective dream when he saw one. In his 1981 painting Myths, he portrays 10 American icons of the supernatural and the superhuman. Together with the Wicked Witch of the West, Uncle Sam, Dracula and Mickey Mouse, there is a slightly disreputable Santa Claus. It is Rockwell’s Christmas deity who held the boy in his hand, made seedily real. A man dressed up, a store Santa.

In his last years, Warhol’s art suddenly became more personal — although at the time no one recognised it. It seemed logical that he should start a series of paintings based on a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper — in the 60s he had done a Mona Lisa. In fact, by making his own religious art, Warhol was expressing himself. It became public knowledge only after his death that he had been a regular church-goer who remained loyal to the piety of his immigrant mother. He habitually did charity work with homeless New Yorkers at the Church of Heavenly Rest, whose rector recalled that Warhol served food and cleaned up at communal meals — you think again of those lonely soup cans, those generous Christmas cards.

There’s a photograph of Warhol serving charity meals at his New York church. There are no decorations up, but still I see Christmas in it. “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad …” says the spirit of Marley in A Christmas Carol: walk abroad and touch other souls. Andy Warhol’s does, more than most.

Thanks, but I prefer a Warhol that can be snarky, even at Christmas Mass, one who can poke fun at Americans’ commercial excesses even as he profits from them. Can’t we revive some holiday traditions that preserve a little authentic Warholian spirit (if the idea of an “authentic Warhol” isn’t too much of an oxymoron)? How about annual screenings in Union Square of “****” (otherwise known as the “25-Hour Film”), which includes a 33-minute segment of a 1966-67 Greenwich Village production of A Christmas Carol, staged at Caffe Cino, with Warhol hanger-on Ondine as Scrooge.

Or perhaps we can gather nearby at the site of the Factory or Max’s Kansas City and read Christmas entries from The Andy Warhol Diaries (a great gift idea, by the way). My favorite? Christmas dinner 1976, at Mick and Bianca Jagger’s place on 66th Street, where Mick dished out liberal amounts of holiday snow to guests:

Mick sat down next to Bob Colacello and put his arm around him and offered him a pick-me-up, and Bob said, “Why yes, I am rather tied,” and just as he was about to get it, Yoko and John Lennon walked in and Mick was so excited to see them that he ran over with the spoon that he was about to put under Bob’s nose and put it under John Lennon’s.

Halston and Loulou de la Falaise put a lot of the pick-me-up in a covered dish on the coffee table and when someone they liked would sit down they’d tell them, “Lift it up and get a surprise.” Paloma Picasso was there. Jay Johnson brought Delia Doherty. The dinner was terrific. Mick and Bianca forgot to bring out the dessert, though.

Then again, maybe conservatives should be a little unsettled by Warhol. Let them rail. Do we really want to live in a world where Warhol’s joined forces with Walmart?

p.s. Dear Andy Claus, I wouldn’t complain to find this in my stocking either. But I’d rather you buy it from McNally Jackson than some online megachain.

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I’m very pleased to announce the debut of a project on which I’ve been working with a number of faculty and students at NYU Abu Dhabi: Electra Street, a Journal of the Arts and Humanities published at NYU Abu Dhabi. In the initial incarnation that became public last Wednesday, the project is a website. Its address is http://electrastreet.net.

It is our hope, however, that the Electra Street will present work in a variety of different manifestations. Part of what we are trying to do with Electra Street and with many of the projects we undertake at NYU Abu Dhabi is to rethink our practices from the particular vantage point — in space and in time — that being at NYU Abu Dhabi now offers us.With Electra Street, we are taking the opportunity to ask taking the opportunity to ask, “What should a 21st century ‘journal’ published in an emergent arts and humanities culture look like?” We hope that the project will take some kind of codified form by the end of this year academic year or early in the next, but I’m not prepared to say now what that form will be. Perhaps it will be published book, a DVD, a flash drive, or an app for the iPad — or some combination of these things. For now, we’ll be adding content each Sunday and developing a reservoir of exciting work from which to draw.

The project is headed by an editorial collective that consists of both students and faculty. The mission of the journal, expressed in the “Guidebook” that appears on the site, is to serve as “a forum for journeys undertaken by today’s academics and artists as they navigate the region and the globe, including the cities that host NYU’s global network such as Accra, Paris, London, New York, and Shanghai.” We’re hoping to establish smaller editorial collectives at each of NYU’s study-away sites, as well as in New York, each contributing to the project. I’ll be encouraging NYUAD students to serve as correspondents for the journal as the travel within the network (as early as this J-Term) and to join up with the collectives that will exist at the sites they visit during their semesters abroad. I can imagine a future in which both students and faculty participate in a network of editorial collectives as they spend time at different sites in NYU’s global network.

Given its title, the site uses a spatial metaphor for its organization and is divided into several sections. “Avenues” presents work of various kinds from the full range of disciplines in the arts and humanities. “Crossings” offers work that is interdisciplinary or multidisiciplinary or that defies conventional boundaries. “Progressions” presents ongoing colloquia or conversations on various topics within the arts and humanities. “On Location” takes a look at events at sites from across NYU’s global network.You can also use the “Roundabout” dropdown box at the bottom of the main page to locate work not only by section but also by genre. The “Search” box at the top of the page enables you to conduct free-form searching.

On the occasion of its launch, Electra Street featured the following pieces of work: videos from the Iktishaf Project, which is a collaboration between NYUAD and Zayed University in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi Film Festival; a phototext entitled “Istanbul: Why Photos Cannot Capture It,” in which Katherine James meditates on the Istanbul that lies outside the purview of the photographer’s lens; and the text of an address entitled “From Athens to Abu Dhabi,” given in Abu Dhabi by the historian David Levering Lewis, offering a history of the university from its earliest days to its present global incarnations; and an essay on the exhibition “No Customs” curated by artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, who are currently in residence at NYU Abu Dhabi. There is poetry by Julia Welsh with illustrations by Besiki Turazashvili. We also have the first installment of our “Colloquium on Cosmopolitanism” featuring the video that I recorded this summer “Cosmopolitan Ideas for Global Citizens” (and presented here in an earlier post).

The name “Electra” street has different connotations (and I expect its name to be the subject of an extended essay in the near future). People in New York immediately think of that tragic figure from Greek mythology, dramatized by Euripedes and Sophocles:the princess who, with her brother Orestes, plotted revenge against her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus for the murder of their father, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek invasion of Troy. In Abu Dhabi, however, that resonance is muted. “Electra Street” is the name commonly used for the street where NYU Abu Dhabi’s Sama Tower is located. The official name is Shaikh Zayed the Second Street. According to the Gulf News, the street “inherited its unusual name from an old video and electronic games shop of the same name that has since shut down.”

Electra Street welcomes submissions of original work and original research in the arts and humanities. We are developing guidelines for contributors, but if you’re raring to go, please send submissions as an e-mail attachment to submissions@electrastreet.net. For video submissions (or files that are to large to be e-mailed), please send a query to help@electrastreet.net.

Hope to see you on the Street!

[Photo Credits: The photo above appears on the Guidebook page of Electra Street, which currently contains the journal’s mission statement. It is a satellite picture of the island of Abu Dhabi taken by International Space Station in March 2003, courtesy of the Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. Source: http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov, Filmroll: ISS006-E-32079. Click here for detailed copyright information.]

[Cross-posted from patell.org.]

In his column for the October 18 issue of Time magazine, an amusing meditation on his wife’s paranoia about bedbugs, Joel Stein describes New York City as “the international capital of bedbugs: “Cassandra has been trying to find a way to trick my father and his wife — who are not only traveling from New York City the international capital of bedbugs, but also staying at two hotels before visiting us.”

The aim of the piece is to make light of his wife’s fear of the critters, and to argue that “hypervigilance is weakness” and that “the greatest control comes from deciding not to control.” The column ends with the suggestion that Cassandra’s fear simply gives her an excuse “not [to] travel, got to our friends’ parties or have visitors stay over” — which turn out to be “the things that Cassandra hates to do anyway.”

But, Joel, I’m wondering if you’ve thought about your wife’s namesake from the annals of Greek epic, the Trojan princess who had been given the gift of prophecy and the curse of never being believed. She always foresaw doom — and she was pretty much always right. Just saying.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the same issue of Time, there are two discussions of incivility in public discourse in the United States. In the cover article, “An American Journey,” Joe Klein reveals what he discovered during a 24-day road trip across the country about the concerns of ordinary Americans on the even of the midterm elections. Americans turn out to be worried about “the incivility of public discourse” and about “the loss of jobs to China” — and angry about the fact that the financial community “has made a killing off the death of American manufacturing.” Also in the issue is a disturbing piece about the four teenagers in different parts of the country who committed suicide recently after being bullied in large part because of their sexuality.

Throw the various forms of U.S. imperialism that characterized the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, and it’s hard not to think that we are reaping what we’ve sown: we’re a nation of bullies who have produced a public discourse that is impoverished at best and all too often characterized by bullying of one form or another.

Which is why Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing, which I read as an indictment not only of racism and economic inequality but of the fact that the incivility of our public discourse has deprived us of the tools with which to combat racism and economic inequality, will remain on the Writing New York syllabus this spring.

If only we were as vigilant — and freaked out — about the state of our public discourse as we were about annoyances like bedbugs …

Our friend and colleague Jane Tylus asked Bryan and me to suggest a few quotes about New York history for the MTA‘s “Train of Thought” subway sign program, the successor to the “Poetry in Motion” program. Clyde Haberman wrote about the program in the New York Times last fall. For this round of quotation collecting, Jane was particularly interested in the fields of science and history. We sent her these, but if any of you have other suggestions, we’d love to hear them. Fifty words or fewer.

New York is a great place — a mighty world in itself. Strangers who come here for the first time in their lives, spend week after week, and yet find that there are still hundreds of wonders and surprlses, and (to them) oddities, which they have not had a chance of examining. Here are people of all classes and stages of rank — from all countries on the globe — engaged in all the varieties of avocations–of every grade, every hue of ignorance and learning, morality and vice, wealth and want, fashion and coarseness, breeding and brutality, elevation and degradation, impudence and modesty.

— Walt Whitman, “Our City,” New York Aurora, March 8, 1842

New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city, and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt–all but our little native nest in William Street, which still retains some of its old features; though those are daily altering. I can hardly realize that within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life[,] bustle, noise, shew and splendour, was a quiet little City of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most rucketing cities in the world and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort for instance) in the time of an annual fair — Here it is a Fair almost all year round.

— Washington Irving in a letter to his sister, 1847

New York, both by its geographical and commercial position was fortunately prevented from becoming like Boston, merely the metropolis of a locality, a provincial capital; it was broadly seated on the main-traveled roads, and must be national or nothing. All these characteristics made New York the possible, but not the actual, American metropolis. In order to be actually metropolitan, it must not only reflect large national tendencies, but it must sum them up and transform them. It must not only mirror typical American ways of thought and action, but it must anticipate, define and realize national ideals. A genuine metropolis must be, that is, both a concentrated and selected expression of the national life.

According to present indications, New York is approaching this conception of metropolitan excellence …¶

— Herbert Croly, “New York as the American Metropolis,” The Architectural Record, March 1903.

New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world. The returning troops marched up Fifth Avenue and girls were instinctively drawn East and North toward them–this was the greatest nation and there was gala in the air. As I hovered ghost-like in the Plaza Red Room of a Saturday afternoon, or went to lush and liquid garden parties in the East Sixties or tippled with Princetonians in the Biltmore Bar I was haunted always by my other life–my drab room in the Bronx, my square foot of the subway, my fixation upon the day’s letter from Alabama–would it come and what would it say? — my shabby suits, my poverty, and love.

–F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Lost City, “1930

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