M.I.T. for Art? You Bet!

M.I.T. For Art Lovers?

The words "art "and "M.I.T." are seldom uttered in the same sentence. Yet recently I found myself at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reveling among delights both technological and aesthetically pleasing.

One enters the museum through a display of robots large and small, complex and simple. Given my own right-brained propensity for the humanities, I was more fascinated by robotic design than function–my favorites being those whose features appealed most to my whimsical and human sides. Don't ask me how any of them work, but I liked the cartoon and sci-fi-looking ones and those that had a mad scientist feel about them, like one that reminded me of Frankenstein's dog.  

The occasion for going to M.I.T. was its recent reopening of a gallery featuring the work of Arthur Ganson (1955-). It originally opened in 1995, year one of Ganson's four-year artist-in-residence term with the Mechanical Engineering Department. If mechanical engineering and artist sound like a contradiction, get thee to M.I.T. and see the reconfigured exhibition space titled Gestural Engineering: The Sculpture of Arthur Ganson. Ganson is something of a geek Renaissance man­–a sculptor, inventor, musician, and engineer. I liken him to a more sophisticated version of Rube Goldberg. His creations have all of Goldberg's whimsy and devotion to because-I-can impracticality, but Ganson could (if pressed) explain the science behind his machines. After all, you need to be able to do some serious math to create a simply row of interlocking gears calibrated such that it will take 13.7 billion years for the last gear to make one rotation. It also takes contemplation to make fascinating an installation that is little more than a scoop bucket that gathers motor oil and dumps it in a thick light-refracting cascade. His title? Machine with Oil–and it doesn't come with a pretentious artist's statement claiming it to be a metaphor for anything! Ditto Cory's Yellow Chair, which is a miniature chair perched precariously upon a stone and dodging a small plastic cat.
Ganson's kinetic sculptures are also driven by moxie. Another creation fascinates though it is little more than a gearbox that moves set of slender rods topped by thin slips of paper. The gears and small jets of air cause the paper to move like clouds. I stood before it mesmerized, though even I could see it was a dead simple machine. Other Ganson wonders such as Small Towers of 6 Gears are more overtly sculptural and delicate and others–such as one that looks as if a wishbone man is pulling a post- apocalyptic locomotive are deliciously. Ganson is also fixated on how things come to gather and apart. Another small yellow chair exhibit is a wall installation in which a yellow chair is prised apart by a gear arrangement that takes those parts to star points and then snaps them back together at the blink of an eye. It's akin to a scientist's version of a sand mandala, except that it repeatedly constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs. Go see this exhibit and repeat this mantra: "M.I.T. It's not just for geeks."

While you're there, check out a small exhibit devoted to holography. M.I.T. professor Stephen Benton is often credited with developing the first true hologram—for Polaroid in 1968, but this exhibit sheds some light—if I may!–on the prehistory and subsequent  development of holography.

My humanist brain was entertained even more by a gallery devoted to M.I.T. pioneers in the field of photography. It includes two of my favorites: Harold "Doc" Edgerton (1903-90) and Berenice Abbott. Is there anyone who doesn't know Edgerton's famed photo of a milk splash rising like a white crown? Yeah–but do you know how he did it? You can both learn about the techniques of strobe lighting and experiment with making you own images. Pretty cool! 

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) is among the more famous names in photographic history and any museum worth its salt has a few of her images in its collection. She is known for her large format camera work, especially architectural detail, cityscapes, and Depression Era urban social documents. Lesser known, but just as important, are Abbott's photos used in science textbooks, especially works bordering on abstraction that demonstrate physics principles.

This gallery is full of marvels for anyone who has pointed a lens at a subject and wondered what happens to produce the images. It's small, but choice and a stroll through photographic milestones from Eadweard Muybridge's slow-motion shots to the present.

So…the next time you're in Cambridge, Massachusetts, take the Red Line to Kendall and check out the M.I.T. Museum. M.I.T. for Art? You Bet!


Clueless Thy Name is Democrat


Just about the time I think the Democratic Party can’t get any more out of touch, it proves me wrong. Headline from Sunday’s Boston Globe: “Anti-Trump wave lifts and worries Democrats.” Worries!!!??? Some party leaders fret that the leftward tilt of the Warren-Sanders “base” will be a turn-off to “moderate” voters in the Rust Belt. Or so says Ohio’s Tim Ryan.

Okay, so much wrong with that, starting with the obvious: any party ignoring its “base” will crumble like a randomly stacked pile of stones. Worse, Ryan’s sentiment is more of the all-bullshit-no-beef posturing of Hillary Clinton and many of her doe-eyed middle class supporters. Need I remind you how that turned out? Can we revisit the question of why so many Sanders supporters did not vote for Clinton? Wrong answer from Democratic elites: "These delusional fools are responsible for putting Trump into the White House." Real answer: Clinton never connected with palpable economic and social concerns, excited far fewer than voted for her, and resonated best with educated elites.  (Spare me the, “She got three million more votes” line. I agree the Electoral College is a travesty but, for now, it exists.)

Moderates? Try this definition: Those who lack the courage, the commitment, the compassion, and/or the incentive to make up their minds. Ryan and others who worry that the anti-Trump movement will push the Democratic Party too far to the left are drawing the wrong conclusion. The goal isn't to become more like Trump; it's to push the “moderate” electorate leftward. The "center" is a myth. Stop thinking of wage earners as inherently racist, sexist, and conservative. Many are, but that’s true of the vaunted middle class as well—especially suburban whites, the only difference being that the latter dissemble in politeness. (That’s why Martin Luther King Jr. feared white "moderates" more than overt bigots.) Here’s a short history lesson: The American working class has been far more liberal and activist than the middle class. This is the class of the labor wars, unions, civil rights marches, NOW*, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, anti-globalization protests, etc. It is the class that taught the middle class how to protest.

I weary of hearing about the woes of the middle class—a den of privilege and plenitude that behaves like they are paupers. (Yes, I am now a member of its intellectual elite.) Here’s a small guide for the misguided who conflate the working and middle classes. Take it to heart; the Democratic Party cannot speak to the first if it carries the assumptions of the latter. ( MC= middle class  WC = Working class)

1. Housing: You are MC if you worry about affording a mortgage. Many in the WC fear not being able to scrape up rent money.

2. Making your income meet needs: You are MC being "strapped" means Johnny’s orthodontics have to wait, if you are forced to forgo a new cell phone, or carry some debt on credit cards. Many in the WC must choose between which bills to pay immediately, still have a landline, and their cards are maxed out.

3. Food: Pretty simple: If you’ve never known hunger—real hunger, not gluttonous desire—you’re MC.

4. Clothing: WC is patch and pass down; MC is pitch and keep up with fashion.

5. Paycheck: MC draws a salary; WC gets paid by the hour. The size of the paycheck matters less than its security. Contract workers must be paid for the length of that document. No such net for hourly employees.  

6. Cars: The MC worries about car payments. So does the WC, but it truly fears unexpected repair bills. No one from my WC family has ever used Uber.

7. Education: The MC worries about how to pay Buffy’s tuition to Stanford; the WC fears its smart children won't have enough to go to a local state school or community college. The WC fixates on what kind of job their kids will get; the MC wants its kids to develop their minds.

8. Mindsets: Before you tell me how much more electricians make than teachers, I know! But the MC misses the point when it measures everything in monetary/property terms—as if they were Marxist materialists! If you don’t get the whole intellectual versus manual labor thing, you’re clueless—the difference resonates in how worldviews are formed, including thoughts on economics and politics. Don’t tell the WC that globalism helps the economy or generates investment wealth; it's fixated on well-paying jobs—in the USA and now. The MC also needs to be less particularistic and more universal, because every time it uses group-specific terms, the WC thinks, “Special privileges. What about us?” And they’re right!

If the Democrats actually want to win elections, it needs to shut down the Tim Ryans of the party and listen harder to Warren and Sanders on how to re-radicalize the working class--at least in the North and Midwest. (Much of the South might be hopeless!) Think big, not small: free health care, cracking down on Wall Street pirates, job creation, protectionism, equal opportunity, higher taxes on the wealthy, improving public education, deregulating individuals, and securing the blessings of the Bill of Rights for all Americans—not just elites. That’s true populism, not Clintonian triangulation.
*Sadly, we tell the story of feminism from a middle-class perspective. Women from the United Auto Workers co-founded NOW.


The Handmaiden: Male Gaze Dressed Up as Art?

Directed by Park Chan-wook
CJ Entertainment, 145 minutes (in Korean and Japanese with subtitles)
Not rated (graphic sex, S & M, violence)
* *

This film has made quite a few top films of 2016 lists. It won’t make mine. This is a male gaze film stylishly dressed and undressed to disguise the fact that it’s actually just porn with a bigger budget.

It has an intriguing concept: take Welsh author’s Sarah Waters’ bodice-ripper Fingersmith and replace her Victorian England setting with that of Korea under World War II Japanese occupation. This was an interesting and traumatic time in Korean history. Korea was not yet an industrial powerhouse and many of its better-heeled citizens saw it as a backwater, with Japan holding allure analogous to the fascination that Paris might hold for a remote Piedmont count. Some Koreans sought to “pass” as Japanese; others surrounded themselves with ostentatious opulence. Into the second category place Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), who resides in a three-building complex that's a graft of an English country estate, a traditional Japanese house, and an annex with a sprawling library. The black-tongued Kouzuki licks his pen and rules the roost, but most of the money is actually that of his niece Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) whom he holds a veritable prisoner, as he had her aunt (Moon So-ri) before her. Because she cannot leave the grounds, young Lady Hideko has the body of a voluptuous woman but the mind, naiveté, and doll-clutching habits of a child. Maybe.

Enter a Korean con man (Ha Jung-woo) posing as Count Fujiwara of Japan. He’s really the head of a bandit’s roost of pickpockets and thieves, but he has a grand scheme: plant one of his minions in Lady Hideko’s household as her handmaiden, have her sing the count’s praises, and pave the way for his wooing—the ultimate plan being to marry Hideko before her uncle does, drive her insane, send her to an asylum, gain control of her fortune, and pay off his minion. How very, very Victorian! Sook-hee (Kim Hae-sook) is chosen and she is soon ensconced in the household as Tamako. But the Count didn’t plan on her seducing Hideko. Or did he?

The film is divided into three parts, the first being the set up, the second delving more into the back story and the revelation that Kouzouki’s library is full of erotic books and that he stages periodic dramatic readings from them for the benefit of randy Korean aristocrats. Part three is the reveal and conclusion. It’s essentially a tease as to whether we are watching a grift, a double cross, a triple cross, or just kinky debauchery. 

Some of this holds promise. The sets are rich, the colors are eye-popping vivid, the narrative closely parallels Waters’ novel, and I’m told that the director and actors are highly regarded in South Korea. But shall we be honest here? This film is about two beautiful women getting naked and having very graphic sex with each other. Can we not pretend that this is a psychological thriller and just call it a high-class male masturbatory fantasy? Mine is not an anti-porn crusade. It’s really up to you to determine where to draw the line between sexuality and exploitation, but it is telling that it’s mostly (but not entirely) male reviewers singing the praises of The Handmaiden. But allow me to be righteous on this point: I object to pure voyeurism pretending to be art. I’m open to the idea that the two can be complementary, but Gustave Courbet this isn’t!

Rob Weir           


Free State of Jones: Overlooked Gems

Directed by Gary Ross
STX Entertainment, 140 minutes, R (violence and extreme gore)

The next time some good ole' boy trots out Lost Cause bullshit, ask if any of his ancestors fought for the Confederacy. If they didn't, chances are pretty good that ancestor was a slaveholder; if they did, there's a 50-50 chance his glorious kinfolk were Civil War deserters.

The Free State of Jones bombed at the box office, returning just half of its $50 million budget. It's not a great movie, but its financial shortcomings have less to do with its artistic merit than with the fact that it blows the lid off any notion that the Confederacy was any sort of noble cause, or that the Civil War took place over abstractions such as states' rights. In a word, it was about slavery, specifically the right of rich slaveholders to use poor boys to defend their assets. There was great doubt from the outset. Slave states such as Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri stayed out of the Confederacy and the 41 western  counties of Virginia seceded and became the Union state of West Virginia. Any claim to Southern morality disappeared when the South enacted a conscription law in 1862 that allowed the wealthy (aged 18-35) to hire substitutes—even those underage–to fight for them. In October of 1862 , they amended the law to expand the draft age and put into place the Twenty Negro Law, which automatically exempted anyone owning or overseeing more than 20 slaves. No one knows exactly who first uttered the phrase "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight," but thousands of po' boys voted with their feet and went AWOL. So many walked away that manpower needed on the lines was diverted into hunting down deserters and runaway slaves. By 1864, the desertion rate was over 60% in some areas.

The Free State of Jones opens in 1862, the month the Twenty Negro Law was enacted. We meet Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) at the bloody Battle of Corinth, where he works with Confederate medical units bringing in the wounded and hauling away corpses, body parts, and viscera.  These scenes are so gruesome they dispel all romantic nonsense about war. Newton already had grave doubts, but when his barely teen-aged conscript nephew Daniel (Jacob Lofland) meets a senseless end, Knight deserts and takes Daniel's body back to Jones County, Mississippi. While there he finds that CSA troops under the command of Elias Hood (Thomas Francis Murphy) are looting hardscrabble farms while local plantations remain enclaves of luxury. Newton will hang if found, so he abandons his wife Serena (Keri Russell), launches a guerilla rebellion of the poor, and hides out in the swamps with runaway slaves. There he strikes up a friendship with Moses Washington (Mahershal Ali) and finds himself increasingly attracted to Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the house slave who secretly provisions the runaways. Soon, local poor whites and AWOL soldiers seek out Knight's guerilla band. After the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, all pretenses are dropped, the county secedes from Mississippi, and the biracial Free State of Jones is proclaimed. But can such a rebellion succeed? And what of Knight's relationship with Rachel, which is doubly problematic because he's already married and Rachel is black. Knight is making advances militarily, but who will arrive first, the Southern Patrol or General Sherman? Is Knight's biracial imagination too much for mid-19th century Southern values?

Ross' film is overly ambitious. Ross extends it to depict Reconstruction, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the end of Reconstruction, and scenes from 1947, when Knight's great-great-great grandson is facing the problem that he might be 1/8 black and his marriage might violate Mississippi's Jim Crow miscegenation laws. Ross' motives are admirable, but it's simply too much for one film. Thorny postwar issues can only be glossed and even then, at 140 minutes, it's a very long film. It would have made for a more coherent film had Ross ended with the war's completion and added explanatory text-over-photo postscripts.

I suspect he didn't because he wanted viewers to smell racism's full fetid stink. He also ran afoul of painting such strong characters that he felt compelled to show us what happened to Knight, Rachel, Serena, and Moses. A word about Matthew McConaughey: Hollywood tried its best to make him into a star and he opted to become a serious actor instead. (See his recent work in films such as Interstellar, Mud, and Dallas Buyers Club). McConaughey is sterling as Newton Knight, whom he plays with piercing steely-eyed resolve. His is a charisma that spreads slowly and soon we are engulfed in it. It is one of the better performances in a film few have seen. The Free State of Jones is well worth a download–not a great film, but a good one, and a timely one given the sorry state of black/white relations in contemporary America.

Rob Weir

Postscript: Historians are divided as to whether the Free State of Jones was a viable entity, a symbol of the war's chaos, or merely a bit of quixotic bombast. It's also ambiguous whether Knight's motives were Robin Hood-like or merely personal. Let's just say there's more nobility to Knight than to the Confederacy.