Ill Fares the Race

Art is identical with a state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning. ~ Aristotle

It’s not only artists and philosophers who understand the value and power of art and artistic endeavors, how the same inspires us and changes our lives for the better. Winston Churchill, UK’s former Prime Minister and British Army officer, many years ago said, “The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

Imagine a world without art, without culture? How do we exist in a world void of culture?  How do we express ourselves? How do we comfort ourselves? How do we rid ourselves of ruinous emotions? How do we redeem ourselves?

We can’t, we don’t, we won’t. Our primal urge to create works of art, however, will not end by way of Trump’s blunt spear, but it seems our new administration and our intellectually, culturally, socially and morally challenged POTUS aim to point us toward a second Dark Ages.

But it won’t happen. This morning, I attended a cultural conversation about arts and humanities led by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse—a longtime ardent supporter of the arts and the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—and hosted by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. In the audience were many artists—writers, poets (including Rhode Island’s poet laureate Tina Cane), storytellers, musicians, actors, painters, photographers and the like—all of whom are understandably anxious about Congress’s zeroing out of funding for the arts.

Of the NEA defunding, Whitehouse said that the “bottom line is a horrible budget out of [POTUS], but the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter.” The budget process, he said, has become a theatre, and the real bottom line “is where the budget meets the road [which is] at the Appropriations process.”

And a glimmer of light. Because the road has paths that lead to alternative funding. And because Senator Whitehouse, as well as Senator Jack Reed and other RI representatives believe, know, that our artistic community is integrally linked to our state’s economy. And because the NEA’s budget is only 4/1000s of our entire budget. The National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities each have budgets of approximately $148 million a year. Add in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at $445 million (as of the end of January 2017), and combined we spend only $741 million dollars on our arts and humanities programs, which is “less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the United States’ annual federal spending, an amount supporters say is too small to make a difference.”

It was roughly six years ago that NEA’s then acting chairman, Rocco Landesman, praised RI’s artistic community. “There are three key ingredients for the arts to thrive:” said Landesman, “a local tradition of the arts, a committed philanthropic sector, and political leadership that ‘gets it.’ … The arts are flourishing in our state,” he said, and that “is a great testament to the dedication and support that began with Senator Whitehouse, and indeed, all of Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation.”

Six years later, Senator Whitehouse is still fighting for the arts. It was an encouraging moment (yet sad) when the senator promised that “[Art and Humanties] programs are going to be significantly cut, but only over our dead bodies.” Saying that “arts are a critical part of every young person’s education,” he reminded us that through art, young minds learn to think creatively and critically, which translates to better scholars and collaborators. Though we already know this, don’t we?

Seems our youth do, too. At the meeting, two fifth grade girls (twins) from Warren asked the final question: “Why can’t we do so much more art in elementary school?”

The U.S. owes it to itself to sus­tain and encourage the arts and humanities. We know this, our children know this. But how to convince our country, our communities, of the importance of the arts?  “You can’t bargain with these people, Whitehouse says. “You can’t stand up to a bully by saying maybe if you take my lunch money I’ll keep my hat.” While congress may be driven by statistics, the senator says that they’re also driven by the power of story. Nothing is more powerful than story. “Tell your story. Go to your passion,” says Whitehouse. “Show individual cases where what you do makes a difference; [by using] emotional appeal in your argument [you can] control the narrative in Washington.”

Defunding cannot silence us, cannot break us. Tell, show, your story from the top of every mountain to the bottom of every valley. Write, speak, act, paint your story. Let Congress know how the arts have impacted your life.




After the Pause

No, I don’t mean that pause. Though I could write about it: how it hasn’t changed my life, hasn’t slowed me down, hasn’t made me crazy. (My children did that.) But I won’t. I could also tell you about the long pauses in my writing life. But I won’t do that either.

Instead, I’ll introduce you to a fun and daring literary journal based in Minneapolis that shares its name with this post’s title. (Titles can’t be copyrighted, you know. ;)) And I’m happy to announce that three of my erasure poems have been published in After the Pause‘s 2017 spring issue, alongside excellent prose, poetry and art. You can find my poems on pages k – m.  Though do take time to peruse the whole issue (you may find a cosmic werewolf somewhere), it’s terrific.

Much thanks to ATP’s kind editors. 🙂

Things Which Will Last


Gauguin was telling me the other day that he had seen a painting by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase, very fine, but – he likes mine better. I don’t agree – only don’t think that I am weakening…I shall go on working and here and there among my work there will be things which will last, but who will be in figure painting what Claude Monet is in landscape? You must feel as I do that such a one will come…. The painter of the future will be a colorist such as has never yet existed. 

~Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo. December, 1888.


Monet painted his sunflowers (which I saw last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) as part of a series of floral still lifes that included a total of  seven bouquets, all with different flowers, including asters, chrysanthemums, dahlias, Jerusalem artichokes, mallows, and red chrysanthemums. Van Gogh had not known of Monet’s sunflower bouquet until his painterly friend saw the piece and informed him of it.

Van Gogh’s humility is what  kept him from becoming as pompous as Gauguin; and, his foresight was remarkable in terms of the changing art world. I wonder if he had known that he was the artist of the future, the colorist we’d never before seen? It is more likely that Gauguin would have thought himself the color master of the future.

But Monet: when I look at his bouquet stuffed into a glossy Japanese pot, ostensibly set on an indoor table, my eyes shake from all the movement, the scene is out of focus, and I feel dizzy. It seems as though a window has been left open and the flowers are shuddering from the cool breeze. But this painting is a still life—presumably indoors and absent disturbances. Of course, it is an impressionistic piece and I do love Impressionism, yet this still life doesn’t work for me. It feels distant, aloof, and so unlike van Gogh’s warm and inviting sunflower canvases. Perhaps it is, for me, that no sunflower still life would live up to those painted by the Dutch master colorist himself. A master who received little attention in his time.

I’ll tell you, though, despite the lack of recognition, many artists from van Gogh’s period, and others after van Gogh, were inspired by his work. Lucien Pisarro’s Vincent in Conversation with Félix Fénéon, both Emile Bernard’s and Toulouse Lautrec’s Vincent van Gogh, and Gauguin’s The Painter of Sunflowers were all done in a style similar to van Gogh’s.

The young Egon Schiele, born the year van Gogh died, used van Gogh’s motif to paint elegant, if somewhat tragic looking, sunflowers. Like many of van Gogh’s still lifes, he depicted the flower in its waning glory. Klimt, too, took the sunflower as a motif, set it growing wild in the garden against bright and dazzling backgrounds. He seems to have treated his sunflowers much like van Gogh did in that we see  humanity in his work, as if the canvases reflect the artist more than the flower itself.

Van Gogh is the artist who moved us into the future of Postimpressionism. He conceived of the bold strokes and bright hues of the artwork of the late 19th century. Yes, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat helped usher in the art movement, but it was van Gogh—van Gogh of light and swirls, saturated and heavy pigment—who led the charge, and inspired so many others to look at the sunflower, and everything else, in a different way. Here and there, sketching and painting his world into the everlasting.