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For Mother’s Day

11 May


For my mother, Maydee Rahm Scheuneman Esau. She loved music, Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald movies, crosswords, sewing, and baseball. She sang all the time, she played the piano, she was exuberant (some would say loud). She had absolutely no filters, which was sometimes mortifying, sometimes delightful. She had three daughters, I’m the oldest. She swore like a sailor when she was sewing, and she loved to travel. She went to South Africa, Germany, and Guatemala on an archaeological dig. She fought breast cancer for 12 years, but it got her in the end. She was only 61 when she died. We have never gotten over it. Here she is with me, 5 days old.


30 Apr

As we are all sitting in our living rooms or working in our kitchens, essentially under house arrest, I have been fascinated to see all the people, famous and not at all famous–from the Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Rolling Stones to my anonymous friends in AA–being broadcast from their most private spaces, at home. I find myself looking at their books, their lamps in the background, their art on the walls. My favorite YouTubes have been the fantastic mashups of people all over the world playing instruments or singing together, performing in their home situations.

So let me wax professorial for a minute. In studying art history, and cultural history for that matter, we learn that one of the most important aspects of the transition to modernity was the breakdown of the rigid distinctions between private and public life. These distinctions had, of course, been most rigidly maintained for women, many of them being kept so tightly confined to domestic life and private worlds that they might as well have been in a sultan’s harem. While men in the nineteenth century defined public spaces and were free to become flaneurs and artists of the street, even women who had the means and the support by family to create art did so for the most part within the confines of their private spaces. Just think of those hauntingly beautiful images by Clementina Hawarden, photographs in the 1860s within her well-to-do household, or the famous close-ups by Julia Margaret Cameron. Private spaces–the home–were the venue of women. These photographic tableaux may have been carefully staged, but they were still an expression of the artist’s daily world.

It often seems that now, in the 21st century, all those divisions between private and public spheres have been obliterated, that the complaints are rife about no one having privacy in the age of social media, and cameras are everywhere, capturing every moment of everyone’s daily comings and goings. But this time of “social distancing,” in which all of our performative, public spaces have been closed down temporarily, has demonstrated that there was after all one last bastion of privacy left, even for public figures: our homes. Personally, I have found the experience of seeing performers and celebrities in their own domestic environments absolutely exhilirating, as they shed some of their public personas just by being in their own living rooms, as they sing to us, or tell jokes while their cat or dog or kid walks by. I find myself examining their lamps, for example, or what’s on their kitchen counters that is also on my kitchen counter. It makes their performances, to me, more authentic, and thereby more impressive. The other night I watched the “virtual” presentation of a tribute to Stephen Sondheim, in which all the performers were singing in their living rooms or, in at least one case, in her bathroom next to the tub. Bernadette Peters sang a capella, no make up, standing in her kitchen against a tiled diamond-designed wall with crooked candlesticks and a lamp visible in the background. It was like seeing a Raphael out of its frame and off the museum wall, being able to appreciate fully the immediacy of the artist’s craft. bernadette peters_Schulman-SondheimBirthday

End of ruminations! In my Zoom meetings–another perceptual experience altogether–I also spend a lot of time examining where people are sitting and what’s behind them. In some cases, people choose completely neutral backgrounds, or position themselves so you can’t see much of their material belongings, while others–inadvertently or not–display their aesthetic in the art behind them. Again, I read these images to glean information about my anonymous friends’ lives. This at home experience has equalized us all in what I see as a good thing: we all have private spaces where we feel at home.

And rejoice when we see a cat enter the at-home weatherman’s report!


So I’ve succeeded in ending again with a cat!


17 Apr

As I have been working on my book “Three German Women,” I have found lots of juicy, informative, first-hand information in the pages of The New Yorker. These have been particularly good about the immediate aftermath of World War II, from great reporters like Janet Flanner in Vienna and Joel Sayre in Berlin. As I went through the issues of 1945, I have almost been led to tears to see how strong and principled were the remarks about American diplomacy and its role in defeating the evil force that was German fascism. In “Notes and Comment” of the May 12, 1945 issue–that is, at the moment the war in Europe had ended–the writer, perhaps E.B. White, makes an observation that caught me up short:

It is a confusing thing, this phenomenon of personification which turns a statesman into a state. Let him put his arm around another man, and to all appearances you have an alliance. Let him wrinkle his brow, and you have a disturbed condition. Let him say a foolish thing–which any man is likely to do at any moment–and you have a national trend. We recall the stinging letters the Republicans wrote to the papers on that occasion when President Roosevelt’s tongue slipped and he referred to “Russia, Britain, and me.”

Ah, how far we have fallen! Now the cult of personality reigns, and the world is turned upside down. All is now vengeance, “I have complete authority” but “I take no responsibility.” And so now the “national trend” is–at least for some–demented, vengeful, narcissistic bullying.  Elsewhere in the New Yorker notes, focussing on the incipient efforts to organize the United Nations, the writer comments again, “One thing we notice in San Francisco is how quickly a person becomes a country in the eyes of all.” Indeed. May God have mercy on our country’s soul.

More ruminations on Covid-19

4 Apr

On our porch with custom-made face masks!

A dear friend of mine just sent me the Ted-Talk-like article linked below, and asked me what I thought of it:

Essentially, the author is ruminating on two ideas: 1) how many Covid-19 deaths would be considered acceptable in order to allow the world to get back to normal; and 2) contemplating optimistically the possibility of a “reset” of world priorities that could come from having this slowdown, and time to reconsider life options.  He’s not offering answers, just contemplating possibilities.

In response I wrote to my friend:

Thanks for sending this, M.  Very thought-provoking. Personally, I do feel this slowing down is a good thing, and can sense a “reset” in people’s thinking. But alas, I don’t think it will outlast the current crisis. This writer also hints at the fatalistic approach, which I do think will happen: eventually societies will say “fuck it, we can’t go on like this any longer, let’s just let people get sick, and go back to normal.” And then societies will go back to their normal. It would be lovely if this crisis did bring about the end of capitalism, the beginning of kinder, gentler societies and the implementation of caring programs. But it won’t, I fear. More likely those systems of control will continue. Sigh. I just look at the phenomenon of my online AA meetings getting Zoombombed: on the one hand, the meetings have been so wonderful, bringing people from all over the world together digitally to share and care. But then, these idiotic young men have figured out how to hack into these open forums with hideous pornographic and violent imagery and hate speech that can’t be unseen or unheard, and the whole mood is wrecked.  The yin and the yang. Sigh.

I thought “the coronation” was going to refer to DT being crowned Emperor for life! Sigh. Right now I’m just applying all my AA principles, and living one day at a time. If I think about how long this isolation will last, or of the damage it’s doing to children and those who are alone, I’ll go crazy. Right now this isn’t at all difficult for us, since we were more or less doing this kind of living anyway! But I do miss visiting the kiddos, and looking forward to travel. 
Keep safe, everyone!  Who knows what the answers are? And please, Americans,
remember that we MUST vote these horrible people out of office, no matter what
happens! We MUST at least have faith that we can still retrieve something of American
democracy. That at least should be a goal that we can hope for!

Pattern & Decoration @ MOCA

20 Feb


When I first started teaching art history in the early 1980s, the whole modernist canon as laid down in the 1950s by such champions of masculinist purity as Clement Greenberg and Ad Reinhardt was teetering on the brink of relevance and relegation to history. We started to talk about post-modernism and feminist directions, but the textbooks for the teaching of Introduction to Art History classes were still pretty party line. I remember that the newest editions of Janson and Arnason ended with brief and tentative descriptions of “Pattern and Decoration” artists, and gave a bit of lip service to feminist artists’ works that had been created throughout the 1970s. Some of the older art historians I knew were skeptical, and sniffed at these attempts to champion craft, colorfulness, popular culture, “anonymous was a woman” efforts as–gasp!–DECORATIVE, and therefore unworthy of inclusion in the discussions of “real” and important art. The High Art/Low Art divide may have started to be breached by Pop Artists as early as the 1960s, but “the canon” was still firmly ensconced in most of the halls of academe.

On the other hand, my artist friends, and especially the women, were already moving away from all that heroic purity and were painting and constructing in brilliant colors, incorporating craft, non-Western creativity and artisanry into their efforts, and bringing some fun, intimacy, and even messiness back into their work. (Thank you, JoAnne Carson, Marilyn Lanfear, and Wendy Edwards!) We became aware of  Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” and the objects produced by the artists of The Woman’s House. As a dutiful product of academe, still trying to understand how to teach and afraid of my own opinions, I toed a thin line between Old School and new ideas. But as someone whose personal aesthetic veered toward a fascination with the decorative, ornament, and construction, I was intrigued by this embrace of craft and the art of the “ornamental other.”

So now, after all those years of changing aesthetics, movements of post-modernism and post-colonialism–all that artistic water under the bridge–it was absolutely thrilling to see this magnificent exhibition of the best of the artists associated with the Pattern & Decoration movement, now on at MOCA, in the Grand Avenue venue in Los Angeles. Not only were the famous pieces there–Miriam Schapiro’s quilts, Joyce Kozloff’s tiles and textiles–but some of the groundbreaking moments associated with those 1970s feminists were on view as well. It was especially wonderful to see included Kozloff’s fantastic counter-manifesto to Ad Reinhardt’s purist aphorisms of negativity (one of the most severe declarations of abstract minimalism): “anti-pretentious, anti-pompous, anti-patriarchal, anti-heroic, anti-genius, anti-master.” Tell him, Joyce!  Women like Schapiro and Kozloff had studied art in schools run by these men, and began their careers more or less compelled to mimic monumental abstraction. Their embrace of the decorative and the crafts associated with “women’s work” was part and parcel of their feminist rejection of a modernism determined by male artists. (There are many good male artists involved in the P & D movement, too, usually exhibiting an interest in non-Western ornamentation–lots of their works in this exhibition as well.)


I was particularly excited to see “in the flesh,” so to speak, Sylvia Sleigh’s Turkish Bath, her riposte to centuries of female nudes painted by men. I always asked my students to ponder the fact that until VERY recently, we had no images of naked men painted by women–women weren’t allowed to study anatomy at the academies, but why didn’t they have their lovers and husbands pose for them? Sylvia Sleigh was a great slide to show to engender discussion about this topic–and she includes ornamental rugs, too! A different take on Orientalism….

The rooms of the exhibition are divided thoughtfully into various themes, beginning with quilts, and ending with 1980s gaudiness. George was so excited by this show, emboldened to follow his own ornamental predilections; seeing this work of folded paper and acrylic paint was a revelation for him.

Finally, for my animal-loving friends, a wonderful painted piece inspired by medieval/Renaissance tapestries: Rabbit and Hounds!


The exhibit is on until May, and MOCA is now FREE!  If you have a chance, be sure to visit–it will make you happy!

Uncle Lou and Plastics

4 Apr

A lot of our hand-wringing conversation recently has been concern over the mad proliferation of single-use plastic and its horrible, devastating effects on the environment, as the oceans fill up with all manner of plastic debris that chokes marine life and poisons water and land. These distressing conversations and my feelings of helplessness in the face of such overwhelming pollution has, ironically but inevitably, led me to ponder the career of my great uncle Louis Frank Rahm (1899-1991) who devoted his life to the field of plastics chemistry and engineering. He was the youngest child in my maternal grandmother’s family, described as precocious, musical, and fascinated with chemistry from a very early age. He began work in celluloids in the 1920s; we still have some “art objects” that were produced in the factory where he worked, meant to simulate in cellulose ivory carvings.


Uncle Lou’s display at Leominster, Massachusetts’ Plastics Hall of Fame (now defunct)

Uncle Lou–who I never met, all this information comes from stories my mother told me–began teaching at Princeton University in the 1930s, established the graduate program in Plastics Engineering at the university, and was instrumental in founding the Plastics Institute of America. He wrote a groundbreaking book on plastics molding.  He stayed at Princeton until his retirement in 1964. Family lore has it that his research led to the development of Melmac dishes, and that one of the first sets of Melmac was sent by him as a wedding present to my parents in 1948. I have no idea if this is really accurate information, and no one is still alive that I can ask for verification, but we DO still have some pieces of that original set floating around in the family cupboards. My mother also told us that Uncle Lou continued to play violin, and that at Princeton in the 1950s, he played chamber music with fellow faculty member Albert Einstein.  By all accounts, then, he was a dedicated teacher, a cultivated and ethical man, and a central figure in the development of the scientific discoveries that have led to the world’s saturation and suffocation in non-biodegradable plastics.

So a family history, a personal connection, has led me to these ruminations:  would it have been at all possible for my Uncle Lou to have in any way envisioned that his efforts in science, his belief in societal progress through scientific discoveries, could have been responsible for one of the major culprits in the disastrous pollution of the planet? His is just one of thousands of stories of optimistic belief in progress and education, research and development for industrial uses of products meant to make life simpler, safer, and cleaner–but whose product has now, 70 or more years later, caused a juggernaut of environmental destruction with global ramifications. Were there any people in the 1930s who could have foreseen these drawbacks, and having recognized these failings have implemented some way to control the overwhelming wave of industrial pollution? I am not knowledgeable enough about the history of futurist prediction to know if any environmental visionaries existed then. I am pretty certain, however, that my uncle never doubted that he was contributing something positive to the world. As we talk now apocalyptically about climate change and the death of the planet, I just wonder whether there was a moment when we could have stopped or at least slowed this march toward self-destruction.

In defense of Facebook

3 Feb


With all the understandably bad press Facebook has been receiving lately, I feel it is incumbent up on me as a Facebook addict to defend the site for its very real contribution to social well being. Yes, yes, I know all the arguments against it by those who are horrified by its very existence:  the intrusion into privacy, its supposed collection of data about us, the permission it gives to hate-filled trolls to spew bile at those they disagree with, the possibilities of manipulation of political processes. But here’s how it works for the majority of us who use Facebook as a way to communicate with friends, to find others of like-minded interests and attitudes with which we can share opinions and cultural communities, offer advice and support, and stay in touch with people who we may never meet.  On that last point, I think of it as the contemporary version of the old letter-writing phenomenon of having pen pals, but on a global scale! When I was a kid, I had 6 pen pals in other countries to whom I wrote regularly, and looked forward to their letters in return.  Now I do the same thing, but instantaneously and with a much larger number of people in many more countries.

Let me present two examples of how MY Facebook has worked positively just in the last few days. The first example relates to the cute little meme I’ve put above. One of my Facebook friends is facing an unexpected medical intervention, and she’s understandably scared. She reached out on FB to let us all know what was happening.  An enormous number of people–some of whom she didn’t know before–wrote back, offering encouragement, support, and in some cases, practical advice and offers for assistance.  She was so heartened by this show of support and understanding of her worries that she posted the meme in thanks.  We will now follow her progress through updates on FB from her partner and from her as she heals.

The second example is, for me, even more poignant and special. Through Facebook, I have come to know the fate of many of my former students at the university where I used to teach. It has been such a wonderful experience to learn of their successes (and mishaps) and to know that they remember me positively; I am now Facebook friends with so many of them who I remember as baby-squirrel 20 year olds while they are now in their 50s!  One of these former students is one who has fallen between the cracks of a “successful” life: a gifted artist, he is now homeless, suffering mental illness and issues of addiction.  Somehow he has managed to keep a Smartphone, and kept in touch–if often incoherently–with his old college friends via Facebook. After a memorial service upon the death of his only close companion, and in the midst of the hideous cold that hit the Midwest, he disappeared.  A concerned call went out on FB, to him and to all those who may have known his whereabouts. Because of the alert, we were able to learn his whereabouts, that he had found shelter. More importantly, he learned that there were people who care about him and are concerned for his welfare. Now a support page has been set up on FB for him. We have been sending him information on homeless shelters, encouraging him to get help for his illness, and generally letting him know that we recognize him as a human being in need. What’s more, his plight has brought together former friends, and people who have now recognized “there but for the grace of God go I”–one of their own who just hasn’t made a very good go in his life choices.

Some of you may say “well, these things could also happen on email” or by phone or in writing. But why not use social media for what it is supposed to do, which is bring people together quickly and globally?  I do understand people who do not want to have anything to do with social media. My husband is one, as are many of my friends to whom I try to stay in touch by email, and for the really old ones, by letter.  I just wanted to express my gratitude for something as POSITIVE in terms of social communication as Facebook can be.  If, like me, one does express vehement political opinions on FB, one does have to be selective in who you Friend–I have had to lose a few “friends” whose outlooks on life, religion, and politics were so opposed to my own. So yes, we are preaching to our own choir, but who cares?  Isn’t that what friends do? If you don’t like someone’s shares, you just scroll past them, as I am sure many of my FB friends do with my political rants–as I do with some others.

And to those who say it is a waste of time–yes, it is.  But it can also be culturally and intellectually stimulating. It isn’t all memes and inane comments about what one had for dinner.  And what can be better than sharing thoughts and enthusiasms with friends?

Thanks, Facebook friends, for being there!