Advance-Thresher Emerson Building, Mpls

Today at the bus stop we learned about sewers. How the water goes down the drain into big pipes. Even toilet water? Yes, even toilet water. I pointed out the manhole covers, and explained how people used them to climb deep down into the ground to fix things. Her eyes widened; she looked up and down the street, looking for manhole covers. We found four. Portals to an unseen world. She had never considered the world below our feet before, and now she saw four ways to get there.

“Watch this,” I said. I walked into the middle of the street, checking for traffic – no small feat, since five roads intersect in this spot – and squatted down. Held up a finger. Dipped it down in one of the air holes. Poked a hole in the street itself.

Wow, she said. You’re really brave, Daddy.

There’s nothing brave about it, hon – there aren’t any trolls or billy goat gruffs (billy goats gruff?) to snap it off. It’s just an hole so the workers can breathe.


I didn’t mention that the cover had been sealed in place by a level of asphalt, so the ability to breath would only prolong the horrid claustrophobic agony of those trapped beneath our feet. She is young and need not concern herself with these things for the moment.

The bus came. Different driver. The other driver couldn’t come to work “because of the storm.” She was swept away in a freak flood, I guess. Or a tree limb fell neatly across her driveway. For a moment I wondered whether this guy was just some industrious criminal who’d stolen a bus and was collecting the neighborhood children to sell to the Peruvian diamond mines, but it seemed unlikely. Up the stairs and off she went.

You have to trust nearly everyone in the Great Chain of Education, or you will go mad.

At 6:30 tonight I was freed from jury duty. The clerks had told us that most surveys showed people enjoyed their jury duty, and had a good feeling about the entire process. I can see why. You’re so happy to be free it’s like the last day of high school; the mean kid hands you his yearbook for an autograph, you write something nice. As it happens, I do remember it well – mostly for all the reading I did. I mentioned the Michelangelo book, no? An account of the painting of the Sistine Chapel, the relationship between Mike and Julius, the politics, the techniques of the day - highly recommended if you’re interested in art history. Also read a monograph on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” one of those paintings that’s hard to see as a painting, as opposed to a Modern Icon. As an introduction to Wood, it does the job, but the difference between this book and the Michelangelo book as amusing. The former is learned and exhaustive and endlessly compelling; the latter is chatty and catty and reads like a speech given for self-satisfied undergrads at Columbia. Guess which one was written by the former head of the Met? If I may quote from Thomas Hoving's Grant Wood book:

These days, art critics – and I know of only two on the planet who are consistently illuminating – seem to race around a well-beaten path, seeking out miniscule trends and tendencies, writing less for the public than for one another. In fact, they’re jockets on a carousel who think they’re really on a racetrack.

Agreed, for the most part - depends on who those two critics are. Next graf:

Almost all of them have a common failing: they think one style of art is better than another. It’s modernism over traditionalism; cubism over realism. (They actually believe in the multitudinous “isms,” which clutter up and obscure art history.) Of course, it’s nonsense to rank one style over another. That’s like calling Spanish a better language than Italian. Gimme a break!

Urg. There you have the voice of the modern intellectual, I guess: everything’s relative, and gimme a break. Well, some styles deserved to be ranked over others. Perhaps Spanish isn’t superior to Italian, but a language that has 16 tenses and 2 million words is superior to one that has only the present tense and 1500 nouns, because it is capable of expressing more, and expressing it with greater detail and precision. This is why Shakespeare is superior to a knock-knock joke. As for art, I am always amused by those who say that this is the absolute unqualified equal of this. I’m not saying the former is bad; it’s different, it has different objectives, describes a different culture, but the latter is art, and the former is merely the something done by an artist.

I’m not sure what that means, but it would sound great in a lecture if I had a nice posh turtleneck and was tall and handsome. In any case, Raphael could do Albers, but I am quite certain Albers could not do Raphael, anymore than John Lennon could score a symphony. Complexity and sophistication count for something; if they didn’t, you’d hire the man who designed the Port-A-Potty to design your dream house. Hey, it has walls and a hole.

Never mind the sheer talent required - there's the matter of intent, the pedagogical purpose of Raphael’s painting. It's a history of History, a summation of how we think about thinking, AND if you act now he'll throw in a little shot at Michelangelo, down at the bottom. The fellow writing on a square block of marble, looking away. Raphael added that portrait, scholars believe, after Raphael saw the first half of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Now look at it again: you can tell it was added later, can’t you? But it wasn’t entirely an act of admiration; Raphael – a young good-looking guy popular with everyone, including the ladies – painted Michelangelo as Heraclitus, a philosopher known for his bad moods and universal scorn. Which was pretty much Mike’s deal, to use Hovingspeak. (Michelangelo was also disinclined to bathe or change clothes.) So it’s a nod to the Master and a taunt and an homage and an insult to smelly old grumpy ugly-face and a floor polish and a dessert topping. So the painting isn’t just a compendium of Western philosophy up to the time of the Renaissance; it’s full of sly gossip and office politics.

Do you get that from this?

I also read “I am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wofe, and I’m now certain I am repeating what I wrote last week. So never mind.

Cool day; autumnal but still green. The light isn’t fading yet, but it’s obviously starting to make other plans. Off to work – two columns to finish tonight, my postcard history piece for MPLS / ST. PAUL mag, and maybe a “Lost” episode before bed. Edited six Joe Ohio segments, too. That’s my weekend project. I will get this book out before the next one hits the stores. I will.

Have a fine weekend! See you Monday, and thanks for coming by this week.

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