March 27, 2009


Simple. Powerful. Relevant. The opening page to Enough. True Measures of Money, Business, and Life by John C. Bogle (published 2009 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., NJ) is one of the most elegant page layouts I've seen in a long, long time.

Mr. Bogle is founder and former CEO of the Vanguard Mutual Fund Group and often considered the 'conscience of Wall Street.' In an interview this past year he said "We Americans are one lucky bunch. But let's face the truth. While the Declaration of Independence assures us that 'all men are created equal,' we'd best face the fact that we may be created equal but we are born into a society where inequality of family, of education and, yes, even opportunity begins as soon as we are born."

In Enough, Mr. Bogle writes of the problems he sees in the contemporary world of finance. A world that is "marked by too much cost, and not enough value; too much speculation, and not enough investment; too much complexity, and not enough simplicity. Similarly, our business world is focused too much on counting and salesmanship, and not enough on trust and stewardship; and our society at large is too obsessed with charisma and wealth, and not enough with character and wisdom."

I have noted previously in the blog that it is said in the United States alone, the top 5 percent of the wealthy controls nearly 50 percent of the nation's wealth. Following are Mr. Bogle's insightful introductory paragraphs to his latest book:

"At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, "Yes, but I have something he will never have...enough."

"Enough. I was stunned by the simple eloquence of that word - stunned for two reasons: first, because I have been given so much in my own life and, second, because Joseph Heller couldn't have been more accurate. For a critical element of our society, including many of the wealthiest and most powerful among us, there seems to be no limit today on what enough entails."


Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will begin performing its 139th edition at Madison Square Garden in NY this week. Tens of thousands of children and adults are entertained each year, while some take issue with animal rights and others confront their childhood fear of carnies and clowns. The truth is what's there to be afraid of but "Man's inhumanity to man?" 

It all brings to mind an amazing series of photographs taken by Bruce Davidson at the Beatty-Cole-Hamid Circus, Palisades Amusement Park, New Jersey in 1958. The artist writes of Jimmy Armstrong, billed as "Little Man" on circus flyers:

"There was a cold drizzle on that afternoon when I first saw the dwarf. He was standing alone outside the tent smoking a cigarette. His distorted torso, normal-size head, and stunted legs both attracted and repelled me. He was dressed in a "Little Tramp" costume wearing a tux with tails, sporting a black derby, and holding a small bouquet of fake paper flowers. He stood there pensively in the privacy of his inner thoughts. As I moved closer he sensed my presence but the click of my camera shutter did not seem to disturb him. He seemed to know that it was the inner moment I was drawn to and not his clown face or physical appearance. I wanted him to be himself and not act the clown because I was taking his picture. He was waiting for the musical cue that would send him into the brassy sounds and glitter of the wonderment world exuding from inside the big top."

"He disappeared into the tent and I felt his loneliness and at the same time a certain power standing over a man less than half my height."

Bruce Davidson is represented by the Howard Greenberg Gallery, NY.

March 16, 2009

Jenny Holzer - The Art of Words

Conceptual artist Jenny's Holzer's Protect Protect exhibition is now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art from March 12 - May 31, 2009. Follow this link to Roberta Smith's art review in the New York Times

The artist has embraced technology and LED signs in recent years, but we've been quite taken with Ms. Holzer's work since we first came across her simply presented Inflammatory Essays, 1979-82. As noted on the Tate Online website: 

"The Inflammatory Essays present a range of provocative statements which were inspired by the texts of political theorists, religious fanatics and impassioned 'folk' literature. Since childhood, Holzer has been interested in 'rapturous writing' and wanted to write 'ecstatic, fantastic things'."

"Each essay has exactly 100 words in twenty lines, and Holzer uses this rigid format to explore a range of extreme ideas. She questions the viewer's response by setting fanatical statements against the certainties of common opinion. Originally the Essays were fly-posted across New York City."

March 8, 2009

Why Be Creative?

Way back in the days of graduate school, I remember reading that the best poets hoped to make a modest few thousand dollars from their writing per year. The obvious question from an Average Joe or Jane, or perhaps one's parents would be "Well, why do it?" Why be creative? It's not easy to speak of inspiration, or creative energy, or guiding principles when the world view of success is quite the opposite. As everyone knows though, the best writing and the best art can sometimes make the act of living an easier pill to swallow.  

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (born 1923) is a writer and an artist in the best sense of the word. In 1996, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her poetry. Ms. Szymborska's words of acceptance speaks with dignity about the process of writing, and shows her humility and mindfulness in having been chosen for this award.

Following are several excerpts from her Nobel Lecture:

They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that's one behind me, anyway. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come - the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line - will be just as hard, since I'm supposed to talk about poetry. I've said very little on the subject, next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that I'm not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. All imperfection is easier to tolerate if served up in small doses.

. . . . . . . .

When I'm asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people who inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."

There aren't many such people. Most of the earth's inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn't pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven't got even that much, however loveless and boring - this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there's no sign that coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes.

And so, though I may deny poets their monopoly on inspiration, I still place them in a select group of Fortune's darlings.

. . . . . . . . 

The world - whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we've just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don't know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing.

From "View with a Grain of Sand" by Wislawa Szymborska, published by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995:


They're both convinced
that a sudden passion joined them.
Such certainty is beautiful,
but uncertainty is more beautiful still.

Since they'd never met before, they're sure
that there'd been nothing between them.
But what's the word from the streets, staircases, hallways-
perhaps they've passed by each other a million times?

I want to ask them
if they don't remember-
a moment face to face
in some revolving door?
perhaps a "sorry" muttered in a crowd?
a curt "wrong number" caught in the receiver?
but I know the answer.
No, they don't remember.

They'd be amazed to hear
that Chance has been toying with them
now for years.

Not quite ready yet 
to become their Destiny,
it pushed them close, drove them apart,
it barred their path,
stifling a laugh,
and then leaped aside.

There were signs and signals,
even if they couldn't read them yet.
Perhaps three years ago
or just last Tuesday
a certain leaf fluttered
from one shoulder to another?
Something was dropped and then picked up.
Who knows, maybe the ball that vanished 
into childhood's thicket?

There were doorknobs and doorbells
where one touch had covered another
Suitcases checked and standing side by side.
One night, perhaps, the same dream,
grown hazy by morning.

Every beginning 
is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through.

March 4, 2009

It's No Longer A Culture

Holy Batman! Vintage World's Finest Comics cover.

Speaking of surfing, a Los Angeles Times article titled "It's gnarly out there for surf gear makers" by Andrea Chang detailed how the recession is hitting surf retailers hard. The article ended on a philosophical note:

"The worst thing about the surf industry is that it's an industry," said Casey Cagle, 19, a surfer and sales associate at Jack's Surfboards in Newport Beach. "It's no longer a culture."

I think I know what young Casey's talking about. Does the idea of soul surfing exist anymore? 

Can the same be said of the arts? As an artist, I've long wondered about the apparent lack of something deeper in the arts of today. Everyone learns an angle and then the hard sell of life and living begins. It shouldn't have to be this way. Art is supposed to be different. Following is a paragraph I jotted down many years ago from an article titled The Ivory Tower of Tearlessness by James Elkins in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

"By imperceptible steps, art history gently drains away a painting's sheer wordless visceral force, turning it into an occasion for intellectual debate. What was once an astonishing object, thick with the capacity to mesmerize, becomes a topic for a quiz show, or a one-liner at a party, or the object of a scholar's myopic expertise. I am still very much interested in Bellini's painting. But the picture no longer visits me in my sleep, or haunts my thoughts, or intrudes on my walks in the countryside. It no longer matters to my life, only to my work."

March 2, 2009

Yvon Chouinard

Excerpts from Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, by Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner, Patagonia. Published by Penguin Books, 2005. Cover photo by Max Mills.

. . . . . . . . 

"Our Values" as presented by Jerry Mander:

We begin with the premise that all life on Earth is facing a critical time, during which survivability will be the issue that increasingly dominates public concern. Where survivability is not the issue, the quality of human experience of life may be, as well as the decline in health of the natural world as reflected in the loss of biodiversity, cultural diversity, and the planet's life support systems.

The root causes of this situation include basic values embodied in our economic system, including the values of the corporate world. Primary among the problematic corporate values are the primacy of expansion and short-term profit over such other considerations as quality, sustainability, environmental and human health, and successful communities. 

The fundamental  goal of this corporation is to operate in such a manner that we are fully aware of the above conditions, and attempt to re-order the hierarchy of corporate values, while producing products that enhance both human and environmental conditions.

All decisions of the company are made in the context of the environmental crisis. We must strive to do no harm. Wherever possible, our acts should serve to decrease the problem.

. . . . . . . . 

The functionally driven design is usually minimalist. Or as Dieter Rams, head of design at Braun, maintains, "Good design is as little design as possible."

. . . . . . . . 

Patagonia's image is a human voice. It expresses the joy of people who love the world, who are passionate about their beliefs, and who want to influence the future. It is not processed; it won't compromise its humanity. This means that it will offend, and it will inspire.

. . . . . . . . 

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appear to be doing both. - Francois Auguste Rene Chateubriand

. . . . . . . . 

I'm a total pessimist about the fate of the natural world. In my lifetime I've seen nothing but a constant deterioration of all of the processes that are essential to maintaining healthy life on Planet Earth. Most of the scientists and deep thinkers in the environmental field that I know personally are also pessimistic, and they believe that we are experiencing an extremely accelerated extinction of species, including, possibly, much of the human race.

Thinking these dark thoughts doesn't depress me; in fact I'm a happy person. I'm a Buddhist about it all. I've accepted the fact that there is a beginning and an end to everything. Maybe the human species has run its course and it's time for us to go away and leave room for other, one hopes, more intelligent and responsible, life forms.

. . . . . . . . 

I don't really believe that humans are evil; it's just that we are not very intelligent animals. No animal is so stupid and greedy as to foul its own nest - except humans.

. . . . . . . . 

Photograph by Marc Riboud, 1967

...To expect corporations to function any differently is to engage in make-believe. We may as well expect a clock to cook, a car to give birth, or a gun to plant flowers. The specific and explicit function of for-profit corporations is to amass wealth. The function is not to guarantee that children are raised in environments free of toxic chemicals, nor to respect the autonomy or existence of indigenous peoples, not to protect the vocational or personal integrity of workers, nor to design safe modes of transportation, nor to support life on this planet. Nor is the function to serve communities. It never has been and never will be.

To expect corporations to do anything other than amass wealth is to ignore our culture's entire history, current practices, current power structure and its system of rewards. It is to ignore everything we know about behavior modification: we reward those investing in or running corporations for what they do, and can therefore expect them to do it again. To expect those who hide behind corporate shields to do otherwise is delusional. - Derrick Jensen

. . . . . . . .

I have a different definition of evil from most people. Evil doesn't have to be an overt act; it can be merely the absence of good. If you have the ability, the resources, and the opportunity to do good and you do nothing, that can be evil.

. . . . . . . .

As Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."