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Here is a silver diadem discovered in a recently excavated Bronze age tomb from the La Almoloya archaeological site in southern Spain. The tomb consisted of a great earthenware jar containing the remains of two elites–a man and a woman (the jar was buried under a sort of longhouse/mead hall/political assembly building). Since the Argaric people were early masters of metallurgy, both skeletons were richly arrayed in gold and silver jewelry, however the female skeleton was the one wearing the diadem. The NYTimes article which I read went to great length describing how shocking the highly polished reflective silver would be in an era when mirrors and reflective surfaces were not omnipresent (the author of that article also took pains to describe the tintinnabulation that this Bronze age chieftainess would have made with all of her bangles, plugs, earrings, and necklaces). Archaeologists have traditionally assumed that Argaric society was patriarchal, but this discovery has caused experts to reassess that conclusion (and to take note that previous graves also contained crown-wearing, high-status Argaric women). Perhaps power was shared between the genders or even apportioned in some sort of matriarchal fashion (although I think we will be left to speculate about this unless more conclusive evidence is discovered).

Argaric culture flourished from 2200 to 1550 BC. As bronzeworking warriors surrounded by less technologically advanced tribes, they were able to rapidly expand into an empire of sorts. I wonder how much they knew of the great contemporary palace civilizations of Mycenae and Knossos to the east. Alas, their technology seems to have been their undoing, since the need for timber, charcoal, and arable land resulted in widespread deforestation and agricultural collapse.

It is Mardi Gras today: tonight the season of carnival excess and frivolity comes to a crashing end at midnight as Lent begins. Well…actually I am from Appalachia, a land of hypocritical puritans and runaway indentured Protestants and I don’t really remember any of this Carnival business from when I was growing up…but I do know about it…from Venetian art! That is why today we are traveling back to the decadent Venice of the 18th century–hundreds of years after Venice’s reign as the dominant military and cultural power of the Mediterranean was over—but in an era when the City of Masks was still the preferred playground for cosmopolitan European aristocrats. Venetian art of the great era was ruled by titans like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese…but even centuries later during the 1700s it could still produce masters like Canaletto (who painted those vast watery Grand Canal pictures which you undoubtedly know) and my personal favorite 18th century painter, Pietro Longhi.

Longhi paints in the literary/social critique style of Hogarth, but, unlike Hogarth. his pictures are rarely straightforward morality tales. Usually his small intimate canvases superficially present people dancing, drinking coffee, playing cards, or meeting friends in a sitting room. Closer examination discloses all manner of duplicity hidden in these small scenes which turn out to be filled with mountebanks, debauchees, flimflam men, cardsharps, pickpockets, gigolos, and procuresses (and other categories of extinct grifters that modern critics can’t even understand).

Masked Party in a Courtyard (Pietro Longhi, 1755) oil on canvas

For example, in this small painting (now in the Saint Louis Museum of Art) two different groups of revelers take refreshments in a small courtyard during the carnival season. A conventional description of the painting would probably be something like ” a debutante and her chaperone enjoy hot chocolate from an important admirer while their friends chat in the background.” But what is actually going on here? Who are all of these enigmatic revelers wearing hall-masks and veils? What is actually in that beverage which the porcelain faced beauty is carefully holding but not drinking? What is the wire implement held by the figure in the upper right or the ancient sumptuous platform which intrudes a single voluptuary angle into the painting? Why is the figure looming above the young woman so menacing? At the composition’s dead center is a glowing pink flower, visible beneath the young lady’s veil just above her heart. What’s up with that?

I can’t definitively answer any of these questions! However my proposed explanation of this painting would be as follows:

A wealthy but older nobleman presses his amorous suit on a teenage beauty by offering her a cup of chocolate (an expensive new world luxury reputed to be an aphrodisiac). The nobleman’s manservant pushes the spoon at her like a contract as the debutante’s chaperone (or Madame?) enjoys her own chocolate while carefully eying her headstrong young charge (who wears the corsage of her actual love interest between her breasts). In the background another couple arrange an assignation while at back a roue shows off some sort of cheating implement to a masked & veiled person who is mostly hidden behind a column. Roman columns and a piece of an ancient marble (a font? a catafalque? a sarcophagus?) remind us of greater eras in the past, and the inexorable death of empires.

Is this interpretation right? Who can say. The pictorial puzzle has no clear answer that I am aware of, but the puzzle of it invites us to turn it over and over in our heads. Probably the Longhi expert at the Saint Louis Museum would say “oh that wire device is actually a clotheshanger and the model’s white slipper and gown indicate that she is figure beyond reproach.” Yet once we start asking questions, the painting feels anything but innocent, even if we can never know the specifics. The sense of exciting secrets just beyond our apprehension is Longhi’s greatest gift. It has endowed this perfectly chaste picture of a girl drinking cocoa with all sorts of shadowy insinuations. Longhi’s brush did not just tickle a subdued (yet strangely sensual) palette of pinks, browns, and grays, it also tickles our imagination…and that turns out to be naughtier than any actual Carnival naughtiness.

Oh wow! Finally a whole new year! And it certainly couldn’t come fast enough! Every new year brings big questions, and, after the struggle and strife of the past year, 2021 features even more questions than usual.

That is why, as part of a long-promised rebranding effort, we here at Ferrebeekeeper are re-introducing and relaunching some projects which have thus far only existed in beta version! Most significantly, we would like to introduce….

[lights go out]

[Nereids rattle sistrums]

[Balding Nereus slowly beats enormous drum atoll as a mermaid’s keening song pervades the salty air]

[the world goes completely silent and then fireworks explode like enormous magenta and aqua jellyfish. Triton blows a blast on his conch as Poseidon strikes a huge gong]

Behold! The Great Flounder reborn!

Uh, here is the link!

If you follow that link, you will arrive at the new site of The Great Flounder Oracle, an online oracle who knows all of the secrets of the primordial depths! Merely write down the innermost queries of your secret heart and the ancient behemoth of the briny depths will answer with terrifying truths of the watery abyss*

And not only can the Great Flounder provide access to otherwise unknowable wisdom, if you follow the link at the bottom you can visit my online web gallery, and ultimately reach a greater trove of ancient wisdom…this very blog! (kudos to you, by the way, for getting in on the ground floor). Ferrebeekeeper is attempting to amalgamate the various creative and journalistic endeavor closer together into an amalgamated media portfolio (is this a concept? probably?) Expect to see more artwork here in the near future (yesterday’s large drawing was a start in that direction). Or, if you follow my Instagram or Twitter profiles expect to see more references to eclectic multidisciplinary knowledge!

Too be honest, my mind tends to wander off down apparently random pathways which are revealed to be part of a much larger universal picture only in the fullness of time. Hopefully trying to anneal my creative efforts together, will make that picture larger and brighter rather than occluding it beneath the seafloor sands!

Whatever the case, I need all of your help to make this web community even better and so please, please provide your comments and ideas in the space below. Every year my new year’s resolution is to reply faster and more comprehensively to comments (which are the life’s blood to a writer) and every year I fall short of my desires, but not this year! This year I really will make it happen! Let me know what you think about the new Great Flounder and this site too! [more contests? more free downloads? more disquieting political commentary). YOU be the judge!

And, speaking of you, I wanted to again thank you for coming back here again and again. You really are the best reader I could ever hope for! Best wishes for a safe and happy new year! Together we can piece it all together and finally launch off to a glorious and magnificent future worth having!

Happy 2021! I will see you here again on Monday and we can start sorting out the direction of this terrifying albeit promising new calendar.

[*or the closest approximation which computer programming and hack fortune writing can provide.]

Hey, remember that flounder artwork which I worked on for arduous months and months, and then published here on Earthday 2019? Nobody commented on it and then it sank into obscurity!

Well, anyway…I was tightening it up a little bit and polishing up some of the edges, when I noticed that it has a tiny turkey in it! Since it is already almost midnight here in New York, I thought maybe I would share another detail from the larger drawing in anticipation of Thanksgiving.

I better get back to work cleaning up this drawing. Let me know if you think of anything I left out and we will talk tomorrow!

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It is Earth Day again.This year the Earth actually is recovering (slightly) from humankind’s rapacious quest for unending resources and eternal growth…but only because we are all bottled up inside our domiciles angrily stewing.  Who knows what mischief we will get up to when we are allowed outside again?

I still think the natural habitat for humans is not the gentle mother planet, but the harsh depths of outer space–an environment more suited to our dark cunning, violent factionalism, and infinite appetite.  Admittedly, space is an inhospitable place of terrifying extremes…but it is rich in natural resources (and seemingly undeveloped).  To be succinct, it is exactly the sort of place that allows for infinite economic growth.  Unlike Earth, space would be unharmed by any status displays that weird billionaires want to indulge in.  By international/interplanetary treaty, Earth could be a sort of nature preserve where natural humans could dwell under extremely constrained terms for 4 score years. After that, they would have to either return fully to the Earth to lie forever beneath the hill, or go off-world, quaff immortality potions, mine asteroids, sleep for millennia in hypersleep, jump through wormholes, and what-have-you.

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Admittedly we don’t quite have the technology for this yet (though I feel that current engineering, aerospace, and ecological knowledge would actually allow for more spacefaring and spacesteading than we admit to ourselves).  But really think about how much more appealing it would be to live as a colonist/adventurer in the heavens than it is to be an indentured servant in some moronic cubicle farm here on Earth.

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We’re killing the planet for THIS?

Of course, right now I suspect there are readers who are shaking their heads and tutting and saying Earth Day is not about wild flights of imagination…it is about living sustainably!  But we have had fifty Earth Days,  A half century’s worth of ecological scolding and corporate greenwashing has not accomplished very much in terms of changing the way we live or the political/economic calculus which goes into our true global-level decision making.

This Earth Day affords us a real opportunity to truly think about where we are going at a species-wide level.  As soon as we are allowed outside we will go right back to running over baby skunks with SUVs and tossing PVC jugs into the ocean.  Primates are not my favorite life form, but I really do love humankind just the way we are: curious, insatiable, aggressive, and free.  I also truly, truly love our unique planet of dazzling, beautiful, irreplaceable webs of life.  We can not have both things if we keep going like we are now going. The point of no-return is no longer hundreds or thousands of years from now. It is now.

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So break out your biggest craziest concepts about how we can reconcile our huge coarse ambitions with our tiny fragile habitat. Write them down below and we will argue about them.  Send them to your senator and to the New York Times.  Let’s really have the conversations we have been tip-toeing around for five decades.  Otherwise in five more decades we won’t be arguing about how to float farms above Venus or seal the cracks in our domed city on Titan. Without better science, better politics and better IMAGINATION, we will be a bunch of shriveled mummies in a used-up necropolis planet of garbage, plastic, and dust.

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Crown from the Akan people of Ghana | Velvet, wood and gold leaf | Early to mid 1900

The Akan people are a matrilineal culture of west Africa who have dominated the Gold Coast (present Day Ghana) sine the 11th century AD.  It is believed that they migrated from the Sahara and the Sahel due to desertification and famine.  Akan political hierarchy has the same sort of feudal layering familiar from medieval Europe.  Powerful emperors and kings ruled over lesser local kings who in turn demanded liege homage from war chieftains and local chiefs.  As in medieval Europe, all of these tiers of kings, leaders, chiefs, and aristocrats involved plenty of materialistic status objects.  The Gold Coast derives its name not in a Greenland/Iceland style misdirection campaign, or from the Gold Family, or because of the glittering yellow sunsets.  It is called that because large quantities of gold were found there in historical times.  All of which leads us to today’s crown, which was crafted for an important chief or a lesser king of the the Akan sometime in the 19th century.  The dominant (and delightful) feature of the headdress are geometric charms crafted of wood and covered with gold leaf.  Against the black velvet background they look a bit like the starry nighttime sky. The charms undoubtedly have indivdual symbolic meanings which are beyond me, but the larger meaning–that the wearer is an important person with wealth and important connections–are instantly obvious.  One symbol though is quite recognizable: the crown is surmounted by star and crescent symbol of Islam which was brought to the Akan early on by caravan traders from the north.  For centuries Islam has existed alongside the ancient traditional mythology (which involves a spider sky god!) and Christianity.

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Holy Han Blue! It is already time for the color of the year for 2020!  How did it get to be so late?  The color of the year is obviously a Pantone publicity stunt…and yet, in a fashion-market/artworld way, it tracks larger socioeconomic factors.  During boom times the colors are all coral, gold, and claret; when the economy falls into the abyss they become asphalt, storm clouds, and lunar regolith.  This year’s color is a flashing warning signal.  The 2020 color of the year, Classic Blue, is an ancient neutral middle level cobalt blue.  It looks exactly like what a court geomancer would pick to sooth a mad emperor…just before the realm explodes into civil war. Or. in the ugly patter of finance, this color looks like an inverted yield curve just before the sell-off.  It is a deeply conservative color pretending to have some pizzazz (similar to “Blue Iris”, the color of 2008).

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This is one of the results I got trying to image search this color.

It is worthwhile though, to note how the professional flacks at Pantone talk about this depressing reactionary selection.  They speak very carefully to forestall any criticism that it is, well, a depressing reactionary selection.  Although blue has represented melancholia to artists, poets, and designers  for four centuries (or longer), Leatrice Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, which apparently researches and advises companies on human responses to color said, “I think that’s kind of an older generation reaction.” So Pantone wants you to know that if you dislike the ugly neutral blue which they chose for the coming recession, you are old and out of touch. They also note that this is not a subtle endorsement of the Democratic Party (apparently, like every large business in the country, they enthusiastically endorse and promote the fascist Republican party).

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But politics and economics aside, what do we make of Classic Blue? Blue is not actually the top color on my personal list, but it is good for neutral backgrounds and for blending in. Dark blues like “classic blue” don’t show dirt as badly as some colors.  Classic blue might be good for a daily table cloth or a bathroom mat or a shower curtain.  It would be lovely for a twilight sky around a pleasure garden (although Pantone isn’t marketing it for that, as far as I could tell from their blather).  The real color of 2020 should be chaotic darkness shot through with nauseating flecks of painful brightness, like somebody smashed a sorcerer’s crystal (or like a riot after the teargas).  I recognize that Pantone is hard pressed to choose a perfect color to match that, but, as always they have done as well as possible in trying circumstances.  Any bets yet for the color of the year for 2021?

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There is a scene in the Harry Potter books when all the hidden wizards are gathered together, and they start using more and more ostentatious magic to show off (thus flouting the astringent & terrifying rules of the hegemonic ruling conclave).  The senior adult wizard turns to the protagonists and observes, “Always the same…We can’t resist showing off when we get together.”

I suspect a lot of readers are smugly noting that wizards aren’t really real, (which is true), but those books were about very real things, and I feel like Arthur Weasley hit directly upon one of humankind’s biggest issues.  Most of the things we work for don’t actually have much to do with our actual needs, but involve instead the desperate struggle for higher status. Showing off is what humans do.

This quest is woven through every human endeavor: the gardener trying to hybridize a novel color of rose, the actor trying to be even more intensely emotional, and the fashionista trying to wear ever-more extravagant get-ups are all trying to aggrandize their social standing by impressing the right people.  However not only are people part of a status game when they are doing what they themselves are good at: they are part of somebody else’s status game when they do pretty much anything.

When you spend all day working on moronic busywork at an ugly office, you are really a fractional part of a column of some CEO’s spreadsheet which is about him making more money. The great masters are hoarding all of the world’s wealth so they can buy tacky mansions, Bugattis, and super yachts, yes, but mostly so they can point to a number on a computer screen to impress other super oligarchs.

There is nothing wrong with this per se.  Human life is quite complicated and we need ways to quantify who the high status apes are (so that we can apportion resources and mates and what not). Isn’t it better we show off with hybridized roses and new fashions and financial acumen then with battle prowess and physical violence?

Well yes it probably is; but I worry that the oceans are filling with plastic and the atmosphere with carbon because we are not managing this mad primate howl of SELF SELF SELF very well at all. We could be having status battles over scholarship and science rather than the nakedly venal and meretricious (and consumerist!) contests which most of us seem engaged in.

Something I want to write more about is “the red queen effect”, the idea that you have to compete harder and harder and harder to maintain the same relative place.  The term comes from the realm of evolutionary biology where it betokens the concept that ptarmigans have to fly faster to avoid gyrfalcons and thus gyrfalcons have to fly faster to catch these faster ptarmigans: soon everyone is flying much faster! [an even more germane example vis a vis human status relationships might be the Irish Elk’s mighty antlers: which were apparently a sexual display]. Human society is a synthetic ecosystem of sorts.  The constant future shock we now live in doesn’t just have to do with the rapid advance of technology.  It has to do with the proliferation of new realms of status posing. Not only are you failing to keep up with the Joneses: You are failing to keep up with everyone! Quick! Buy more plastic crap!  this feedback loop impacts us in ways which are so universal they swiftly become unnoticeable [stops writing and checks site stats and posts to Instagram]. Then we wonder why we are spending all day doing things we despise and somehow using up the Earth in the process.  I want to write more about some of the ramifications of this and we can brainstorm about we can maybe channel this inextinguishable competitive status drive in more productive directions.

Also, please follow me on my Instagram account!

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Ok! Well, evidently it’s evil clown week here at Ferrebeekeeper so I guess we better aim for the juggler and find some evil clowns to start with.  As we will see later this week, clowns, jesters, mimes, buffoons, and comic/disturbing tricksters go wayyyyy back to the roots of civilization (and beyond?) in pretty much every civilization. Brother Jung really seems to have been on something…um, I mean onto something when he identified this as an enduring human archetype.  However the definitive evil clown as a well-known literary trope is rather more recent.  Our Western clown tradition descends from Ancient Greece and Rome.  Comic buffoons were a mainstay in the bits of Roman comedy which have survived, yet, although the clowns of Terence and Plautus were lusty and sometimes violent, they are principally oafs who are not necessarily together enough or self-aware enough to be properly evil.  The Roman clowns of antiquity were certainly grotesque and disturbing though (and we only have bits and pieces of Roman art, culture, and literature–it’s possible there were evil clowns we just don’t know about).  This tradition of clowns as earthy, honest, and physical continued on through the dark ages.  Medieval jesters, such as we find highlighted in the works of Shakespeare, were slanted characters: they are risible and rather sad, yet they can speak truth to the most powerful figures (and they seem to know some of the dark secrets of the grave as well).  The Yorick scene from Hamlet does not involve an evil clown per-se, but it is a messed-up and gruesome scene.

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To my (sadly incomplete) knowledge the first proper evil clown of our study is found in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The grotesque cripple Hop Frog (from the 1849 story “Hop Frog”) is a small person and slave who is forced to serve as a jester and general punching bag for a cruel king (you can read the entire original story right here, and should do so now if you want to avoid spoilers).  Hop Frog is a pitiable figure whose deformity pains him and who is unable to protect his one friend, the lovely small woman, Trippetta, as the grotesque narcissistic monarch and his seven wicked councilors torment them.

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Poe’s brilliance is that he makes us sympathize fully with the dwarf (the literary antecedent to Oskar Matzerath and Tyrion Lannister) and despise the king.  Indeed the evil king is practically an evil clown himself: he’s a showman who brutally insults and hurts people “as a joke” (this cruel, debauched, and loutish ruler seems weirdly familiar). We thus become complicit in Hop Frog’s scheme for revenge.  And Hop Frog gets full vengeance!  The trick he pulls on the king and the seven cruel ministers results in the death of all eight–in the most mortifying, painful, and public spectacle possible, while Hop Frog uses his upper arm-strength (and planning abilities) to escape with Trippetta.  Hop Frog is quite sympathetic…at first but the reader’s sympathy is part of Poe’s own cruel jape.  The way the little jester gets the king to conspire in his own demise (the murder seems like a staged prank–to such a degree that nobody helps the dying monarch and courtiers)  is so hideous that, by the end of the story, the reader does not know what to think and has nobody to sympathize with.  There is a room filled with charred bodies dangling on chains and the clown (and his paramour) are nowhere to be found.

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The fame of Poe’s work (and the bourgeoning circuses of the rapidly industrializing 19th century) brought more evil clowns to prominence during that century! In Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci (which means “clowns”) the jealous and manipulative Tonio obtains revenge upon Nedda and her lover while dressed as a clown…inside a play…inside an opera.

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With both Hop Frog and Pagliacci the murderous wrath of a costumed maniac is only part of the horror.  Arguably the staged manipulation of different levels of verisimilitude is the truly disconcerting aspect of the works. Even in their earliest manifestations, the best trick of the evil clown was to stage manage the audience’s fear into something which crept through different layers of artifice into the real worlf.  These tricks within tricks… inside plays within plays… become a dark hall of mirrors where the fears of social disorder metastasize into something darker… [to be continued]

 

Let’s talk about the most difficult lesson I encountered in class in grade school. To be honest, I feel like I never really mastered it…or perhaps the lesson is still ongoing.  It might not just be me…

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“These are the times that try men’s souls…”

Although I had no natural affection for numbers, I was always successful at middle school because I read everything insatiably and yet still wanted to know more about existence.  School isn’t really set up to sate this desire (except for the IB program, which is amazing and would solve all of America’s problems in a generation if only it were adopted everywhere).  Sadly, success at school generally involves the same sort of things which bring workplace success: showing up on time, giving people the answers which they want to hear, and completing tedious busy-work tasks.   But, back then, I was competent enough at doing those things, because I knew it was mission critical to getting into a good college–which was the ultimate culmination of existence.

All of that is backstory for explaining the most difficult lesson I ever had in grade school. It is one which I still struggle with, because it involves some paradoxes at the heart of knowledge, meaning, and success.  It also bears on life’s true lessons (the fact that I was a bookish twerp lacking popular esteem was probably the true lesson of middle school, but it was extracurricular, whereas this particular failure was enshrined in a report card). Back in the 1980s I had a blithesome free-spirited art teacher.  She was a good art teacher and I still recall the assignments she gave (copying a bird exactly by means of a grid; making a random squiggle and then expanding it to be a drawing; watercolor on a wet paper; exactly copying a piece of money).  Her opinion was also valuable to me, as I am sure any good student (or 15-year-old boy with a pretty teacher) will understand.

Now I worked harder in art class than at any class because I loved it, but a lot of students regarded it as a sort of free period where they could chat, flirt, and maybe doodle a bit if they felt like it. Back in those days I was still smart and hard-working. At the end of the semester, it was time for grades, and the teacher gave us a last strange assignment: give yourself the grade which you feel is appropriate.  Now I was a 15 year old lad, but I had read enough fables to recognize a trap. “This must be a lesson in how to behave with modest decorum!” I gave myself a B plus, because, although I tried extremely hard (much harder than the louts who spent every class socializing), and although my drawings were better than most everyone else’s, I had never succeeded at the level which I wanted.  I could see every feather out of place on the sea eagle I drew (and the overworked beak with an unsatisfactory little hook).  I can still see that sea eagle, damnit.

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The oafs (who didn’t even complete the art assignments!) naturally gave themselves perfect marks.  I assumed that the degree to which I had tried (which was substantial) and my abilities as compared to my classmates (also substantial) would be recognized by the teacher who would correct everything into a familiar bell curve.  This was an unwarranted assumption.

The final report card revealed that the teacher gave us all the same grade we had given ourselves.  The teacher said: “art is about what you think of yourself!” My horrifying B+ became a finalized part of my permanent record! The oafs all got A pluses which they are probably still savoring (in workcamp, prison, General Electric, or the White House) to this very day.

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Anyway, I survived that 9th grade “B” in art class.  Thanks to my parents’ profound generosity and to my love for reading and writing (which was probably also a gift from my parents), I ultimately got out of school with a “golden ticket,” a degree with general honors from the University of Chicago!  Of course, instead of becoming a crooked hedge fund manager and basking in the world’s envy, I ripped up my ticket and I live as an insolvent artist.

“Art is what you think about yourself.” It is a terrible definition of art.  Yet it somehow passes muster in New York’s contemporary art scene which is more self-involved than a Kanye West song.  I have tried to master that sort of pure self-involvement (just look at this essay), yet I still can’t think of art as merely a solipsistic musing on self-identity (nor as a badge of hierarchical status).

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Success in America is defined as making a huge amount of money.  It is humorous how often people cite this completely inaccurate definition to explain things: “Oh it was my job” or “We made a great deal of money” as though this has anything to do with wisdom or knowledge or what is useful or right.  Society is having a great deal of trouble comprehending what is wise, useful, and right. I blame our education system (though perhaps I should instead blame artists…or myself).

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