Monday, December 19, 2005

First of all, I like Ansel Adams. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t. His monumental images of the American West are practically inseparable from our experience of the West itself. His images from Yosemite, his photos of the Tetons—I saw them long before I saw the real thing, and they intensified the majesty of the landscape for me when I finally did. No need to photograph them myself, though, because Adams had already done it, and nobody’s ever done it better. As for the exhibition of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts: save yourself some money and aggravation, just buy the catalog—the pictures in it are about the same size as the ones hanging on the wall, and you'll be able to view them better in the comfort of your own home.

The choice of an Adams exhibition is in line with the MFA's goal of showing very pretty, very nice, and very irrelevant art. Or worse: showing still-relevant art that could move us in a way that expressly doesn’t, except to move us along as quickly as possible through the exhibition hall and into the gift shop, where, in this case, we could show our appreciation by buying Ansel Adams coffee mugs, coasters, and key fobs. But this easy commodification of Adams and his images was clearly part of the appeal of the artist to the MFA. Adams is a big-name draw, whose utterly uncontroversial work offers the same high-class austerity as Ralph Lauren’s Batmobiles. The exhibition was informative, but in the end presented objects, not ideas. Perfect for the new upscale Mall-of-America MFA.

But the most disappointing thing about the experience is becoming commonplace in Boston: the only people of color I saw during my visit were at the coat check and behind the counter at the gift shop. An anthropologist visiting from Mars would see a division of leisure and labor, at least in the service sector, that looked to be based, the lion’s share of the time, on race. You could tell him, hey, it's the marketplace, not a reflection of our values, but the truth is it's increasingly obvious that we’re a nation that’s given up on the idea that equality is both everyone's right and everyone's responsibility.

Of course, the MFA under Malcolm Rogers has Wal-Martized its workforce, but that doesn’t explain why, on a crowded Sunday morning, there were no people of color attending the show. The truth is, the museum has done its part to price “undesirables” out, and to offer art of no consequence, divorced from the vitality of our lives. It has instead actively marketed a peculiarly Bostonian brand of haute-bourgeois art-snobbery that effectively excludes those for whom art has meaning beyond status, and determines the types of shows: always more decorative than declamatory, as strains of modern art can be—and above all, tasteful. Because you’re not going to buy a set of coasters that doesn’t go with your sofa, now, are you?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Just before I left Boston last Thursday for a week in Miami, I was walking down Washington Street through Downtown Crossing. It was not yet five o’clock, and already dark. A street vendor with a pushcart came darting across the street, right across my path. For a moment, we were at an impasse, and the mutual loathing was palpable. The sidewalk belonged to both of us. There was no reason either of us should yield it to the other. We could’ve remained there indefinitely, like the North-going Zax and the South-going Zax in the Dr. Seuss story, who found themselves in the same predicament. Both refused to budge an inch to the East or West—forever.

Well, I had things to do, so I yielded. But it disturbed me how easily I’d become embroiled in this needlessly hostile encounter. Neither of us had behaved graciously even though it would’ve cost us nothing. It highlighted something I’d been talking about with a couple of Latin American students visiting Boston during our most recent cold-snap. They’d noticed the bad attitude Boston is becoming known for. When asked what it was about, they both said, “it’s the weather.” People are bitter and cold in Boston because it’s bitter cold half the year, one said. They seem to want to conserve their heat, so they close shop emotionally in the winter months, the other added.

While I was riding my bike in South Beach Friday afternoon in nothing but shorts, flip-flops and my RayBans, soaking up the sun, not a care in the world, I thought about that encounter at Downtown Crossing. In the bitter cold and darkness of a long New England winter, people—myself included—seem willing to waste heat on hate, because you pretty much always know the reaction you’re going to get when you give it. But when you’re nice, half the time you get hate back, too. So why chance it? There’s also the misery-loves-company angle to consider. Foul weather, a foul mood, and foul language all seem to go together. Everybody’s rude, but at least we’re all on the same page.

The funny thing about rudeness is that, when surveyed, most people protest their complete innocence. It’s always someone else. In the Associated Press-Ipsos poll on public attitudes about rudeness, you’ll find such absurd claims as this: 87% of respondents claim never to have "made an obscene gesture at another person while driving a car.” And a whopping 91% claim never—never!—to have used their cell phone “in a loud or annoying manner in public.” Yeah, right. The first step in changing the culture of rudeness is to own it, people. The rudeness meme passes from person to person, and like the flu, it seems more common in colder climes. For my part, continued “light therapy” on the beach is just what the doctor ordered. I’ve made a shocking discovery in Miami: people actually smile in December. Can you believe it?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

So, to recap: the right, blaming the left, launched their annual high-profile campaign to “save Christmas.” But if Bill O'Reilly, Jerry Falwell, and Fox News are truly representative of American Christianity these days, the ones Christmas most needs saving from are these so-called Christians themselves.

But can it be true that these loudmouths with their noxious, fear-filled, hate-fueled agenda are really representative of America’s Christians? I refuse to believe it. Faith is something deeply personal to most people, not something they crow about, preening in public, pointing out the sins of others, and preaching a gospel of divisiveness at the top of their lungs at the least provocation. They can call themselves whatever they like, I call them political opportunists, pure and simple.

Many good Christians believe that they can practice their faith best in a secular society, not one that mandates certain beliefs and practices for them, or others. And many of us who grew up Christian have watched in dismay as the highly politicized right wing has hijacked the label of “Christian” for what certainly seems to be an un-Christian, if not anti-Christian agenda, one that extols materialism over poverty, fawning on the haves and have-mores while scorning the poor. Again, call it what you will, I call it hypocrisy.

Recently I happened upon a self-proclaimed Christian website that purported to have instant answers to 73,403 Bible Questions. Everything that’s wrong with this counterfeit Christianity could be found on the site, starting with the claim of instant answers. Christ himself spoke in parables, suggesting the answers are never easy, much less instant. Most conscientious folks, whatever their creed, do indeed think deeply about the vital questions religion seeks to address.

One of the website’s FAQs was "Are we to love the sinner but hate the sin?" The counterfeit-Christian answer, in part: "The difference between us and God in regard to loving and hating is vast…. God can [love and hate] perfectly well, because He is God! God can hate without any sinful intent at all. Therefore, he can hate the sin and the sinner in a perfectly holy way!" QED. So “God is hate.” Call it what you will, I call it twisted.

This complete co-opting of Christianity by the right is something Christians of a liberal or humanist bent are hard-pressed to know how to react to. No reasonable soul wants to dignify such doggerel with a thoughtful rebuttal. But reasonable people of all faiths should pay closer attention to the growing radicalism of the right. We need to think seriously and deeply about the social, political and economic forces that have given rise to religious radicalism in this country, especially with our domestic and foreign policies being set by those who subscribe to such skewed belief systems. Until moderates speak up and confront these fakes and bullies they will continue to poison our public discourse. Say what you will, but I say enough.