It was one of those wretched, chilly, gray days in late September when I read Vince Aletti’s review of Sally Gall’s photo show, “Aerial,” on The New Yorker‘s website. I’m not sure what caught my eye — the image of what looks like a bright red poppy bursting out toward the viewer from a powder blue sky, or the review’s title, “The Sly Eroticism of Laundry on the Line,” which evokes one of my favorite poems of all time. Either way, I clicked, and I was surprised by the omission — not a single reference to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Away above a Harborful…”
Since this blog traffics in the confluence of visual art and literature, I decided I must rectify that — it’s one of my favorite poems! — but not until I had a chance to see the show. The images looked fantastic online and Aletti’s tight prose compounded the case for a much overdue visit to Chelsea.
Except it took me a while to get over there. I had to entertain a first-time visitor to New York — found myself at the Met instead of the Julie Saul Gallery the following weekend. Then I went to visit my family in Houston, and that Friday, while I was away, Donald Trump’s pathetic attempt to impress Billy Bush by bragging about sexual assault came pouring out of every media outlet, leaving me scratching my head and wondering if…Is Ferlinghetti’s narrator in “Away above a Harborful” a sensual admirer of the female form or is he, too, a lecherous creep like Trump?
Check out the poem. I can’t recreate his line breaks in this format so I’m sharing it as a screenshot:
I mean, this narrator is ogling a woman as she hangs her laundry, apparently unaware of his watching. That’s kind of textbook creeping. The bit about “sins,” too, is a bit presumptuous by contemporary standards — what does the narrator know about her alleged “sins,” or about the “caulkless”-ness of the houses below? Maybe the “lovely mammal” is married, so whatever she did on those sheets has been “sanctified” by some grumpy old men (and therefore not “sinful”), or maybe she doesn’t subscribe to that morality, in which case the “sin” — if any such thing even exists — exists only in the narrator’s (Ferlinghetti’s?) mind. As for the “caulkless houses” — maybe their inhabitants are happy enough without any “caulk,” or maybe this creep watching from a distant roof just can’t see all the caulk that’s there, because how do you even expect to see caulk from such a distance?
Well, I went to see the show, anyway, when I returned home from my visit, and I’m glad I did. Here, let these images be your unicorn chaser after I just ruined sweet old Lawrence Ferlinghetti for you. (Musings continue below the images.)
So, to backtrack a bit, I read Aletti’s review and thought to “fix” his omission of the poem some time in late September, but wasn’t able to view the show for myself until October 15, a week and a day after the ugly Trump tape revelation. Now, I was hesitant. Trump’s comments were unquestionably disgusting and predatory, but they made me question my own behaviors and affect as a cis-gendered male in a patriarchal world.
Is it gross to call these “upskirt” photos? Is that playful or predatory? And what of Ferlinghetti’s poem? Is that creepy or admiring/celebratory, and what’s the difference? Consent?
Before I could settle on an answer, another bomb dropped. That same day that I finally made it down to Chelsea to view the photos for myself, somebody I respect and even attempt to emulate, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz was called out by two women artists who called him “The Donald Trump of art world social media” on Facebook for the alleged sexism of his Instagram feed…and as much as I admire Saltz, I could see his critics’ point, too. When Saltz dug in his heels, referred to his critics as “the Moral Taliban,” and deflected criticism in an interview, I left this comment on his Facebook post:
Ach, I am with you, Jerry, but I wish that you had just acknowledged in your reply that there is a side of you that you express on your instagram that is an irreverent, Beavis and Butthead typed trickster, that maybe you *have to* be silly and juvenile and take things less than seriously exactly so that you *can* write heavy pieces such as your piece on The Keeper. You could even say that your irreverent instagram posts critique the same ivory tower of Art History — through a thumbing of the nose or whatever body part — that The Keeper essay challenges through logic and examples.
I get why people might be offended by some of the objectification of female bodies that appears on your instagram, but your commentary usually casts the image in a different light. I think you could easily make the case that it’s satire, and even so, I can see that it would not be to everybody’s taste, but I think those same people should understand that its part of the same project as your more “serious” criticism, not counter to it or undermining it.
That said, I share your low sense of humor which is why I have three separate instagram accounts, myself — one for art (which I try to keep coldly professional but my personality still seeps in, oops), one for my gutter self and what I call “crassplay,” and one for my dog. (Not surprisingly, the “coldly professional” one has the least followers and the dog has the most.)
Now, I’ve had a taste for low-brow, crass, scatalogical humor since I was a kid, which I’ve never “outgrown,” so, while accidentally acquiring a minor in Medieval Studies as an undergraduate, I was pretty happy to learn that so much of this “low-brow, filthy” stuff appeared in medieval literature (Rabelais, Chaucer, even Shakespeare and Dante), art (Hieronymous Bosch, whoa!) and particularly the margins of illuminated manuscripts (marginalia). That last bit, especially — knowing that so many cloistered monks (some of the very few people who could read and write at that time) were repressed perverts drawing dirty pictures in the margins of Bibles and other books just brought me untold joy, and I’m grateful that my friend Jonathan Read gave me an opportunity to express that joy on this blog a few years back.
Here are two of my own Instagram posts (from that visit to the Met, mentioned above) that are directly influenced by Saltz’s Instagram persona. I can tell you with 100% certainty that I would have just snickered and kept these thoughts to myself, had I not been emboldened by the “jokes” on Saltz’s Instagram:
The first one isn’t all that bad — read into it what you will — but the second one is kind of gross, I’ll be the first to admit. Not only did I photograph this feminine figurine from behind, I added the two “gawking” figures to compound it all. It’s not cute or funny. I’m sorry. I could delete the post, but instead I’ll leave it up as a “teachable moment.”
Back to mid-October. So there I was, wringing my hands, paralyzed by indecision. I had a relatively easy blog topic — these “upskirt” photos of laundry exude an eroticism reminiscent of the Ferlinghetti poem — but maybe that observation says more about me than it does about the photos, and that implication — however tenuous — made me uncomfortable, even if both Donald Trump and Jerry Saltz were unfazed. And since I don’t put much stock in artists’ stated intentions, it mattered little to me that the photographer, herself a woman, said of this series that, “Ordinary identifiable objects become mysterious, strange, outside the human realm. An element of eros is added as I am literally looking up someone’s skirt.” There were other things I could say about the photos — the form, the abstraction, the use of lines and shapes and color — but I’d lost my hook.
Then comes Leonard Cohen to the rescue. Cohen, the quintessential ladies’ man, had a new album coming out, so he was in the news a lot that week. The New Yorker published a gorgeous profile on him in his old age, reflecting on his life and staring death in the face. Please read it, if you haven’t already; it’s just dripping with pathos, verging on classic Bollywood melodrama, replete with a love that transcends death and rebirth. That New Yorker profile contains a brief anecdote explaining why Cohen moved to Greece from England, but Cohen, himself, tells it much better in the 1965 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen.
In the documentary, Cohen speaks about the horrible, cold, gray, foggy weather in London. One of those days, he walked past a building with a bright, colorful mural and, struck by the contrast between the actual weather and the scene depicted in the mural, he ventured inside, where he found a man behind a counter wearing sun glasses beneath the awful fluorescent lights. Turns out Cohen had entered a branch of the Bank of Greece, and he found the man’s wearing sunglasses beneath that cold light indoors with the cold, damp weather outside “the most beautiful act of rebellion,” so he decided then and there to leave for Greece.
Sally Gall’s series “Aerial” takes me to my own Greece during these wretched fall days.
But…by the time I’d worked out this other angle in my head, found my replacement hook, New York was hit by a beautiful Indian Summer. I mean…it got to over 80 degrees that week! /groan
There’s just no winning, sometimes, but I’m still glad I got to think this over before I just ran with my first impulse. There’s a lot to think about and unpack, and I’m sad to see Jerry Saltz dig in his heels even further and dismiss his critics as “the Moral Taliban” without at least considering the substance of their criticism. There’s really nothing to lose by saying, “I see where you’re coming from, I see your point, but this stream is where I act a fool and blow off steam, so don’t take it too seriously.” And as much as he might deflect critiques of himself by saying that nobody pays attention to critics, anyway, I can say for sure that he’s influenced at least one fledgling critic — me.
NB — Even Cohen has his share of critics who call at least some of his lyrics misogynistic, so there’s that…