Tag Archives: art

William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary 2

detail_256_William_morris150(Part 1 here)

Into the nitty gritty of Morris’s role in Socialist/Anarchist/Marxist Politics! I make that sound exciting, but it’s really not, and this post is way too much of a summary because I am just starting to get my head around these early radical politics. For a while these were contained within many of the same groups, and at least remained talking to each other — I had always thought the definitive split came with the end of the International Workingmen’s Association, aka the First International. Of course, I had forgotten first that people don’t work like that and definitive splits are usually mostly theoretical, but also the later dates of the IWA. It started long after 1848 — in 1864 — and only fell apart in 1876. Morris and Marx (1818-1883) didn’t miss each other by much, and that thought makes me sad. Hyndman met with Marx, however, and attempted to claim his blessing for his leadership of the Democratic Federation (DF) founded in 1881.  Thompson describes a period of widespread agreement on what socialism was, based on Marxist principles. Here is a quote from a letter from Morris: ‘our aim, to be always steadily kept in view, is, to obtain for the whole people, duly organised, the possession and control of all the means of production and exchange, destroying at the same time all national rivalries’ (334). Of course, the principal leaders in London — Joynes, Bax, Aveling ( and Eleanor Marx, not included in this list to which she has more right than her husband I think), Hyndman, Shaw and Morris himself — were all middle class, and so the ‘masses’ who would carry out this appropriation meant different things and carried different levels of intelligence and agency for each. The DF would split in 1886, and it arose from both personal mistrust of Hyndman and his motives, but also around tactics of partial reform as opposed to total. Familiar, all too familiar.

After Marx’s death Engels busied himself with putting his papers in order, an old man himself by then, and Eleanor Marx’s biography shows most sympathetically what personal tragedies he was suffering through this time. But Thompson’s account  draws on many of his letters to better understand the complexities of the discussions and in-fighting, and Engels appears very much a cranky old man on the sidelines sniping at almost everyone. Not that he wasn’t right about their ultimate ineffectiveness.

I like Morris so much in this account though, perhaps to be expected. Possessed of an explosive temper he still worked as peacemaker, attempting to keep people working together towards a common goal despite personal and strategic differences. The DF became the the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) and declared it’s goals:

‘The Socialization of the Means of Production, Distribution and Exchange to be controlled by a Democratic State in the interests of the entire community, and the complete Emancipation of Labour from the domination of Capitalism and Landlordism, with the establishment of Social and Economic Equality between the Sexes’ (345).

For its programme that of the Labour Emancipation League to draw them in:

  • Equal direct adult suffrage
  • ‘direct legislation by the people’
  • a National Citizen Army in place of the standing army, and the people to decide on peace or war
  • free secular education
  • free administration of justice

They didn’t take on the sixth, so I don’t what that was. Not too shabby, Hyndman was displaced as President, but with all the egos in the room this was not enough to hold things together. The SDF at this time was about 400 strong, almost entirely based in London: Battersea (with John Burns), Clerkenwell, Marylebone, Croydon, tottenahm, Hammersmith. The Labor Emancipation League under Joseph Lane centered in the East End. A group in Birmingham, another in Edinburgh, but slowly it grew until the split in 1885. Thompson describes how this should have been around issues of strategy, but instead was primarily personal, and left Hyndman in a position of strength as head of the SDF which retained most of its membership as Morris left to form the the Socialist League with Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx, Lessner, Bax, Mahon, Lane, Kitz and others.  The last two represented some of the strong anarchist streak in the League.

They were focused on open air propaganda, speaking on street corners, trying to convert the masses and fighting to protect the right to free speech, which the government had begun to repress. This was interesting:

And this is the reason why the Socialists, if they were to become a force, had no alternative but to defy the police and stay in the streets in the face of intimidation. The resulting struggles, which continued in London and the provinces until the end of the decade, were the most important form of advertisement for Socialism at this stage of the propaganda (393).

Morris continued this work — while still running his business and continuing work on a number of projects and editing the organisation’s newspaper Commonweal. To his old friend Georgie Burne-Jones, worried about his health, he wrote something I love:

You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest: nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism, nay worse…is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing. One must turn to hope, and only in one direction do I see it — on the road to Revolution: everything else is gone now…(424)

So the League lumbers on. They write a preposterous letter to Northumberland miners on strike in 1886, telling them the strike will bring misery and be hopeless, they need to fight for revolution instead. Thompson writes ‘soon the League was back to its old exhortations — Utopian in form, but in actual effect and tone defeatist’ (437). More wrangling, discussions, infighting, decisions between parliamentary and revolutionary strategy, splits. A great quote from Engels: ‘No movement absorbs so much fruitless labour as one which has not yet emerged from the status of a sect’ (454, Engels to Sorge, 4 June 1887). True then, and I am so sad to say it feels true now. Morris’s own position, in contrast to that of Shaw and the Fabians, was that the League needed to remain outside of parliament, but supportive and working with those inside — ‘Increasingly between 1887 and 1890 he came to see the role of the League as being educational and propagandist within a larger Socialist movement’ (460). Yet really it was ever more isolated from the ‘masses’.

Then Bloody Sunday. Another Bloody Sunday — the first? There have been so many. 13 November 1887. The police bloodily cleared protests in Trafalgar Square using batons and horses. Morris writes of the need for organisation in the face of this kind of repression:

All that our people could do was to straggle into the Square as helpless units. I confess I was astounded at the rapidity of the thing and the ease with which military organization got its victory. I could see that numbers were of no avail unless led by a band of men acting in consent and each knowing his own part (490).

He also wrote poetry and songs, to inspire and to raise money for the survivors of the dead.

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With this started a period of increased rebellion. In News From Nowhere, Morris’s utopian vision of the future, the events in Trafalgar Square actually become a turning point in the march towards Socialism, even though they were crushed.  But 1889 and 1890 saw strikes by the Bryant and May match girls, tram workers, seamen, dockers. The Paris conference founding the Second International took place with Morris in attendence. H.G. Wells was running around London meetings, W.B. Yeats, Malatesta and Kropotkin. Thompson has no kindness at all for the anarchists, blaming Morris’s lack of leadership for allowing them to get the upper hand and destroy the league, ‘make it rotten’. Harsh words that seem highly debatable, but the League certainly fell apart. Morris wrote in his farewell article ‘Where are We Now’ published in Commonweal, 15 November 1990:

Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists, i.e. convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible. Have we that body of opinion or anything like it? Surely not…Though there are a great many who believe it possible to compel their masters…to behave better to them, and though they are prepared to compel them…all but a very small minority are not prepared to do without masters. They do not believe in their capacity to undertake the management of affairs, and to be responsible for their life in this world. When they are so prepared, then Socialism will be realized; but nothing can push it on a day in advance of that time (576).

I love this faith, and believe ultimately this is true. Like Thompson, and later Morris himself I am skeptical that this ‘making of Socialists’ can happen independently of struggle, outside of the worker’s movement (or other movements). But he then believed it was all or nothing, requiring a purity of revolutionary intent that did not work towards small victories like the eight-hour day (!). This argument continues its life in left discussions.

Morris would go on to retire, and in his retirement found the Hammersmith Socialist Society with those of the SDF who had left with him. He also began work on Kelmscott Press in earnest — and I have a special love for any press, but Kelmscott produced such beautiful things. There is very little here about the press itself, so disappointing and again a place where Thompson and I part ways — instead there is much more about Morris’s continuing work on translating Icelandic sagas in his free time (! I am certain that he had more hours in the day than I do).

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By 1894 Morris had moved away from the purism of his earlier stand:

Thus Socialists were set (Morris wrote) a twofold task. First, they must provide the theory of the struggle: if they failed in this, they were abandoning their duty of giving direction to the spontaneous movement of the workers. Second, they must participate alongside the workers in all forms of the labour struggle, including parliamentary and municipal elections:

“It is certainly our business, then, to make that struggle as strenuous as possible, while we at the same time hold up before the workers the ideal that lies ahead of the present days of conflict” (613)

He thus came around to the idea of creating a strong party, electing delegates to the House of Commons, but a parliamentary party subordinate to party as a whole. He continued active right up to the end, through illness and tiredness of age, and died in 1886. After coming so far with him you mourn, and I love this obituary by Blatchford in Clarion.

Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike at him where you would, he rang true.

The book doesn’t end there, but with his views on art and work, and his contribution to political though. His legacy. Thompson finds Morris important as a political theorist in two ways: ‘one of the earliest…most original and creative thinkers within the Marxist tradition in England’ and second, as ‘a pioneer of constructive thought as to the organisation of social life within Communist society’ (682). I love that he spent time imagining the future society as a refuge from his present. Yet still Morris writes:

for no man can really think himself out of his own days; his palace of days to come can only be constructed from the aspirations forced upon him by his present surroundings, and from the dreams of the life of the past, which themselves cannot fail to be more or less unsubstantial imaginings (685 – ‘Socialism: It’s Growth and Outcome’).

This, and: ‘The only safe way of reading a utopia is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author’ (693 – ‘Looking Backward’).

Also this, on how he disagreed with the Fabians and many another:

Morris, alas, would not have rested content with the “Welfare State”: when the “ideal” was set before him of the “capitalist public service…brought to perfection”. he merely remarked that he “would not walk across the street for the realization of such an “ideal” (727).

But I shall end with some of his quotes on what he loved, his art and his work:

neutrality is impossible in man’s handiwork…a house, a knife, a cup, a steam engine…anything that is made by man and has form, must either be a work of art or destructive to art. (646 – ‘The Socialist Idea in Art’)

His precepts of art, summarised through quotation by Thompson:

  1. Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour
  2. Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers
  3. the only healthy art is ‘an art which is to be made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and user’

William Morris writes:

Yet I have looked at this claim by the light of history and my own conscience, and it seems to me so looked at to be a most just claim, and that resistance to it means nothing short of a denial of the hope of civilization.

This then is the claim:

It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall he worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should he done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.

Turn that claim about as I may, think of it as long as I can, I cannot find that it is an exorbitant claim; yet again I say if Society would or could admit it, the face of the world would be changed

The whole of the text on ‘Art and Socialism’ is here, and reading it over I rather think it deserves its own post. So just one more quote from elsewhere:

The arts are man’s expression of the value of life, and also the production of them makes his life of value (656, letter to May Morris).

There is so much of value here, I have barely scraped the surface. So I will be coming back.

For more on similar things…

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Southwark Cathedral Contradictions

I can’t quite grasp the relationship between the glorious monsters on the outside and the glorious light and space and soaring of the inside

And I still cannot quite comprehend how stone can take this character of massive weightlessness, how anything so heavy and solid can delicately soar and continually unfold into mystery

This narrow Norman arch has stood here here supporting the roof for 800 years. Of course, it was once a wood roof, probably very similar to that of Westminster Hall  with its capitals of strange creatures and frightening angels…perhaps resolving some of the contradictions, but raising others. I want to know their stories, but fear them to be long gone. And while I love stumbling across the green man, I do not buy much of the crap written about him. So it is all wonder and mystery, this combination of such immense human skill, love, and imagination

Southwark Cathedral stands at the lowest point of the Thames, the old ford and today’s Tower Bridge, for long the only entrance to the City of London. You can see the remains of the Roman road alongside the cathedral, along with a statue of an ancient hunter god. There has been a church here since at least 606 AD…

[And the priests and staff inside are incredibly friendly and informative without being overwhelmingly so. And the incredible Burough Market is immediately next door.]

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Where Three Dreams Cross

Where Three Dreams Cross — 150 Years of Photography From India, Pakistan and Bangledesh…you can see it now at the Whitechapel Gallery.  I loved the website without reservation (and apparently, I am far from alone).

I just got home from the exhibition itself, had to make myself some tea. The photographs were stunning, and I am not quite sure why I find myself unsettled, perhaps this feeling would be better known to me if I went to more such exhibitions. As it is, I just love to take photos. I put them up on flickr, I share them with friends. And I’ve always thought I loved to look at photographs. I don’t think that’s changed, but this has definitely made me think.

I suppose  what is bothering me is the existence of two fine lines I’ve often felt but never really put into words.

Every life has beauty in it. Those moments of deep feeling (not even necessarily happiness) found by everyone, even those living the most anguished back-breaking poverty. Here is another picture (cropped like the first!) from the website…best I can do!

Photos like this seem to be able to capture pure moment, motion, joy. But photography also carries what might be an almost unique ability to make poverty itself beautiful. And I found a kind of creeping horror in suffering itself made picturesque, striking, aesthetic. Of an outsider turning a daily and commonplace struggle for survival into their own art. I wondered how many of these human beings turned subjects ever saw these pictures of themselves? I could not even pinpoint which photographs made me feel so, it came upon me slowly and I am certain it was a minority. I wondered if it could be the exhalation of the photographer’s own feeling towards those within the view finder.

The other fine line is similar, every life has its privacy…what I love about photographs are their ability to capture moments in time, spontaneity, the brilliance of chance. And yet I feel there are some moments that should not be captured, displayed. There were a couple of pieces where it felt an intensely private space, where consent could not have been granted (though I could be wrong, I tell myself).

I suppose crossing either line is my definition of exploitation, I think it is something remarkably easy to do with photography as art, photography for display to strangers. And myself, as a stranger, complicit in it by staring at it on a gallery wall.

And yet, I am glad I went. There were many photographs with stories to tell, lives too often hidden and demanding visibility, beauty and struggle and an incredible hand-colored gelatin-printed history in abundance. And in spite of the above. I think the curators did a very good job of pulling it together. I particularly appreciated that there is an explicit stance on colonialism, and that all of the photographers are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. So as levels of exploitation in photography exhibitions go, this one has made the effort to consciously reduce them…

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The Tudor Gallery

I have been deliriously in love with London lately, and everything and everyone in it. And the best thing about being a student again is probably the opportunity it opens up for being a flaneur, for wandering, for falling in love over and over again. The Tudor Gallery is a good place to do this.

I had wandered to the National Portrait Gallery, portraits being some of my very favourite things. Particularly very old ones. I headed straight for the Tudors. Everyone sitting for their portrait in those two rooms hides tales of intrigue behind their dark eyes, locked within bodies forced into strange geometries of clothes, every inch of them woven, punched, stuffed with jewels and finery.

Sir Walter Raleigh is still entirely dashing, and though he wrote very little poetry that you could call especially good, I particularly love this one

EVEN such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

And the young John Donne is here as well, the amorous poet of his early years rather than the deeply poetic minister of his later ones.


License my roving hands, and let them go,
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man’d,
My mine of precious stones: my emperie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joyes.

I was sat in the gallery with a horde of young school children…initially something I was quite unhappy about. But they were sat entranced by the expert leading their class, and I became entranced as well…

Here is a portrait of Elizabeth the 1st, and I learned all kinds of things about this amazing painting. My absolute favourite image of the day, however? One of the boys proposed that if you pulled the red string, Elizabeth’s dress would come right off…

Elizabeth I

She wore so much makeup and powder, that she then had to go back in and draw things, using beetlejuice for her lips, and even drawing in the veins of her forehead and the backs of her hands. And the story of this picture? One of her favourites, Sir Henry Lee, retired from the palace. But when he left the palace he stole something…(no, it wasn’t her crown. No it wasn’t her dress, and no, it wasn’t her jewels…). He stole a handmaiden named Maria Vavasour. For a while friends at the palace were able to cover up for them, hoping Elizabeth would just forget all about Maria…but finally they were forced to realize that she wouldn’t forget and so Sir Henry Lee had to do something quite incredible to save his own life…

So he bought Elizabeth this dress. Apparently worth a quarter of a million pounds in today’s money. You can see it has wings? This is the dress of the fairy queen, invited to a fancy dress party at Lee’s estate of Ditchley in Oxfordshire. And there Henry Lee lay, spread out on a bier in his garden, in a deathlike coma of enchantment until he was awakened by the forgiving kiss of the fairy queen…

And Queen Elizabeth I grandly kissed him on the cheek, and that was how Sir Henry Lee saved his own life. In the portrait, Queen Elizabeth is standing squarely on Ditchley, in commemoration…

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Odilon Redon, Honore Daumier and assorted monsters

Odilon Redon…I saw him for the first time (that I remember) today at the Chicago Institute of Art, and found him extraordinary. Born in France in 1840, he created these beautiful works in black and white, charcoal and lithograph, strange combinations of human and plant, animal, and insect. This is the one I found

chimera

This was called Chimera…and more, but I didn’t write it down and the light was terrible, the images blurry. Redon kept to himself, remaining almost unrecognized until the end of his life although he heavily influenced surrealism. He only became generally known after being mentioned in a cult novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature. Which sounded intriguing, but I believe I have read enough novels of decadence for the moment, it might have inspired Oscar Wilde but was influenced by Schopenhauer and he certainly isn’t one of my favourite philosophers.  So. Another image from google because I love these…

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Tree man. Additional information is slim, he’s one of those artists to learn more of…as is Honore Daumier. There are a couple of brilliant little satirical sketches and this truly amazing collection of  miniature sculptures

They capture the spirit of the individual with a delightful intensity and quickness, it must have been even more impressive in his own day knowing the politicians and public figures so captured. My favourite:

As far as big names go, there are plenty of my favourites here, and a whole room of Toulouse-Lautrec! But today I most enjoyed the hidden, the weird, and the wonderful…no flash allowed so my apologies for quality

Who knew Delacroix had ever drawn anything like this? It’s called Marguerite’s Ghost

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They had one print by Durer, who fills religious paintings with the most fantastic creatures

And this sculpture by Jean-Joseph Carrie

Frog Man. I have never seen anything like it. And this shield from an assorted saint facing the devil

And time with my family, a great day.

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Frida Kahlo on the streets of LA

Frida Kahlo is an amazing figure, and has become an icon of feminism and revolution… so a quick review? Born in 1907 as Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon in Coyoacan on the outskirts of Mexico City, she was  3 when the Mexican Revolution  broke out. She suffered from polio, and then had her body almost entirely broken  in an collision between trolley and a bus. She wrote “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” Yet she lived her life in almost constant pain, of body and I think mind, you can see it in her paintings…

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She married muralist Diego Rivera, and they had an incredibly stormy marriage of passion and mutual infidelity, with Frida a lover of both men and women. Of him she said “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Their politics were radical, and I think almost everyone knows that Trotsky stayed with them after he left Europe for Mexico. They are a couple found everywhere on LA’s streets

The above is off of Glendale just round the corner from my house, one of Diego Rivera’s most inconographic images alongside Frida’s… her face.

Frida Kahlo

During her lifetime, Frida was too often known simply as Diego Rivera’s wife, but she has come into her own, and her face is found everywhere.

Frida Kahlo

I found these three images of her in one day of biking the city to a distant meeting and back, the above is on Venice Blvd, and below on Pico (though the city has painted over almost all of the graf on Pico…sadness! Still, I’m glad they left this one)

Frida Kahlo

My favourite I think. It is nice to look up and suddenly see her…there are many more of course. And the quote I’d like to leave off with, having known the feeling?

“They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore….I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.” [on Andre Breton and the European surrealists]

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Under the bridge, same L.A. river

I’m still impossibly sad. So this is reflecting on past glories. We headed east from Frogtown on Monday. Frogtown will get its very own post because it’s such an amazing place, but today it is the river. A piece of it, because there was too much.

Here is one of the most fascinating and strangely beautiful places I’ve encountered in L.A., and one that actually scared me. You are always being watched here. And no one can hear you scream.

But enough of the melodramatics, I respectfully took no pictures of the watchers, so let me show you the amazing and incredible bridge.

This is the outside, but it has unguessed depths, and that’s where you are being watched from. More of my people with nowhere else to go but the depths and darkness.

The ground is littered with spray cans and strange sculptures of rocks and wood piled high on top of each other. The world of graf artists and those seeking some kind of home coming together.

And the cars, I don’t know how they got down here, or when.

I love twisted pieces of rusted metal, I find them…beautiful. I think beautiful is the right word. But it’s a dark, jagged, decaying beauty of sharp lines and curves and deep shadows.

And the combination of rusted twisted metal, architecture, nature, and graffiti? Stunning.

The graffiti was incredible, I have to go back. You could spend days I imagine, documenting some of the tags, and a sunny day would be better. But I love rivers as much as dark places, and the river has nothing of the bridge’s enclosed creepiness, with all of the characters.

The view looking out from the caves was incredible too, if you like mazes of concrete and bridges and freeways

I do.

And to turn this place into a home? Someone had tied up things all along the fence. If I were a believer I would say this was brujeria, a witchcraft protection or warning, a wrapping of potent charms in black plastic bundled with flowers and wrapped in yellow cord and shoelace.

I’m not much of a believer at any rate. This guy was just fun.

From here we headed further east, even though that required cutting cross country. But more on that later…

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Los Angeles River, part 1

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful river delta.

And now it is LA. The river flooded its (natural) banks and mocked the mighty city for the last time in 1938. The flood killed good citizens (must have been white and wealthy given the kerfuffle that followed) and led to the recall of a corrupt mayor (I have to look into that story a bit more, sounds like a good one…). Many would say that building a massive city in the middle of a flood plain is just not a good idea. But the army corps of engineers decided to take the river on, and I do believe they won.

It is now a long line of cement wells, a giant drainage ditch running from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro. And it is still beautiful, but a different sort of beauty. There are remnants of natural beauty of course, birds still abound here, there are islands of trees and long grasses. But it is all full of garbage, and the beauty rather heartbreaking in its proximity to ugliness.

Still, it’s a nice place to sit, relax, think about what once was, with all the comfort of home.

And the graffiti, the graffiti is incredible. It’s enough to make you love concrete and wide open fucked up spaces…And I do love this place

On Sunday we headed west from Frogtown, down towards the zoo and Burbank. Above are the old pylons that carried the red cars, another memory of LA’s catastrophic environmental policies…we scrapped them all in return for freeways. Who needs good public transportation anyway? Or a river. Still, the youth have reclaimed them and turned them into something very cool and particularly their own. And while I don’t care much for clowns, these two were pretty spectacular.

And I suppose biking down a path that runs directly beside a very busy freeway isn’t the best possible thing for your lungs, but the views are pretty sweet…

We biked, and hauled our bikes under the bridges when we had too, some of the most interesting stuff is down there anyway, I love this one

And I also love the fact that someone has a sense of humor

The “heroin addicts can’t spell” definitely made me laugh, as did “what if my parents saw me?” just to the left of it. And I love stencils, especially ones that make you pause for a minute and think…I love this one

The bridges are a riot of color underneath, a mix of art and gang graffiti and tags and stupid shit, all on top of each other. Everything is covered. Here’s a taste of it, along with a glimpse of our hot rides…

But it’s also the dark side of LA, the place where people live who have nowhere else to go. Sets me raging of course, that we live in one of the wealthiest cities in the world and yet cannot take care of our people. Ah capitalism… In fact, for all of our bridges, we don’t have enough of them to serve as shelters for the 70,000+ homeless in LA County. Though they are the shelter that exists, especially when it rains. The number of available beds does not even cover a fraction of the need. People live on the islands in the middle in blanket forts like the ones I made when I was a kid, and here…and what they leave behind them is always tragic, makes this sort of adventure smell much worse than it should, and is sometimes humorous. Often all of them at the same time.

A belt, a pair of boxers, and…er…it really pays not to look too closely at these things.

Love and hate, I love and hate this place as always. I would recommend you take a look, but definitely not alone.

Louise Bourgeois retrospective at MOCA

Go see it, it’s brilliant.

And I know great art when I see it (though I also know that’s a bit time-worn as phrases go). But she truly is great. Generally speaking I don’t go much for the art of the so desperately personal, but her work is incredibly moving and provocative and it hits you in your stomach where you carry your most visceral of emotions…for decades it has circled and circled around themes of the body, love, family, sex, a traumatic childhood of male patronage and infidelity…it repeats shapes in different forms that skate a continuous line between masculine and feminine, beauty and horror, being and becoming…it comprises an astonishing number of mediums that are all exquisitely carried out: sculpture in wood and plaster and latex and stone, collages with fabric and bits and pieces of everything including orange peels, sewn figures with gaping holes, installations, paintings and drawings, the written word.

They are a strange mix of the tender and the repulsive, sometimes beautiful, always provoking, and so many with a strange edge of terror and violence that trickles down your spine. We both love spirals, and she says of them that they are attempts to control chaos and also freedom, and asks whether you find yourself in the vortex or on the periphery? She says she hates men obsessing over their penis…that it is not the appendage she dislikes, but what it is attached to. I love wit, and her art has both wit and raw emotion in an uneasy balance that gives it power.

No pictures can do the pieces justice at all, for her more than most people I think. But my favourites were the personages and the installations, particularly the red rooms. The personages look like this (This picture from the New York Times)

There were others that were blocks stacked one upon the other…I found them eerie and beautiful and they made me think.

The red rooms, on the other, scared the hell out of me. Here is what the parent’s room looks like, hard to know where the terror comes from I know, even when you’re standing in front of it. Perhaps that is why I like it so much

They are surrounded by a sort of a spiral made by doors, I won’t even begin on the symbolism of that! You can only peek into it, and the parent’s room you can really only see through the mirror, and it is red…and it should be peaceful with a couple of toys on the chest at the foot of the bed, but there is a looming shadow over the pillows and I don’t know, but it was terrifying. The way The Shining was terrifying. The children’s room was overtly terrifying with entwined sculptures of limbs cut off at the elbow, you stare at it through a window in one of the doors, children have no privacy.

I liked the spider as well…nothing represents horror better than a giant spider with long spindly legs ending in rather dangerous looking points, and yet they are oddly protective, maternal…

Go see it if you’re in LA.

There has been a police helicopter circling near my house for two hours now. I hate them. If I were an artist I’d be obsessed with helicopters…such brilliant technology that we use primarily to hunt and to kill.

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Alleys of East downtown Los Angeles

Every now and then people ask me what I do for fun…I enjoy life quite thoroughly and I could knock out a long list, but today I’ll just look at one…riding my bike through the garbage-filled alleys of downtown L.A. and taking pictures. And writing about it. I believe I am allllmost alone in this, which is why Jose is one of my favourite friends.

Riding through this sort of place is not so fun on your own. I don’t mind the smells, or the rats of course (though I do sometimes worry about the bubonic plague, people still die of it every year in Arizona)…the east side of downtown is industrial, it holds the remnants of skid row and  sweatshops. Its alleys are the city’s margins where everything is swept to keep it out of sight and out of mind, to me they are a strange beauty curled around a dangerous sliver, they are all that is fucked under urban capitalism and the bright face of rebellion against it. They are full of rats, syringes, deals, desperation, drunkenness, art like you’ve never seen it before.

Don’t get me wrong, I like nature too. But there is something about it here…

We went down an alley alongside a burned out garment factory, stark brick and charcoal against the sky

As I was taking pictures two men came up to us, one white and one black, the same hollowed cheeks, dull eyes, brittle frames. They were arguing, voices rasp-edged and angry. They came closer, voices smoothing into friendly calm, they said that the fire had started in the blanket warehouse and spread, an electrical problem. They said they did not beg, they would sing. And they did. And it was beautiful, perfect harmony, perfect rhythm, clearly the fruit of long practice. We gave them some money, Jose mocked me for enjoying it too obviously, and then we passed them again on our way out, their voices rough with edges anew.

We passed rottng fruit, and a shrine to la virgen in a triangular parking garage hung with last years Christmas decorations, we passed shops full of cheap clothes, vendors selling hotdogs wrapped in bacon and tiny live turtles. We passed people hurrying home. We passed a sweatshop awning for a label once called Affluence…but the Affluence had been scraped off and it’s ghost painted over with Shanna K. Beside it was the label Felicity and the alley in front strewn with trash. We passed L.A. Babe…

We passed the extraordinary row of shops that sell everything you could possibly need for a Mexican fiesta

There are fashions in pinatas, superheroes come in and out of style, barbie is replaced by bratz, seasonal variations mean Frankentein and green faced witches are followed by santa claus, there are usually huge corona bottles that can only be for adults…I would admit I would have a great deal of fun swinging blindfolded at a pinata once again.

We found an alley guarded by its own figurehead, or screaming a warning

I suppose if Jose hadn’t been there this just might have scared me a very little bit. From here we reached a couple alleys full of the most extraordinary graffitti art I’ve seen in some time, worth stepping into rotting garbage with my flipflopped foot, and fending off the advances of a very drunk Indian (see what I mean about the importance of traveling companions!).

and this

and this

And it got darker and darker and so we went faster and faster. We passed more solitary walkers in the dusk, more working girls, we passed this place

There are some dive bars even I won’t go into, and this is right up there with el Chubasco. We ended up at Olvera Street and hung out and looked around and ate, and then back home. I made Jose come back through the Terminator tunnel because I wanted to take pictures of that, but all of the damn lights were working! I don’t believe I have ever seen that. Ever. Perhaps that alone was worth taking a picture. But I love it when all the lights are off, when the tiles shine with the reflections from the white of headlights, the red of brakelights, the green of the semaforos. But not tonight. So we rode past the long line of homeless folks already sleeping.

And two last images to finish, this of amazing skill and art and terror

and this:

A face of suffering or sleep or resignation somehow emerging unbidden from a painted-over, tagged-up street sign. This world is full of such awful, terrible, beautiful things.

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