I recently took a break from reading about the endless and insoluble suicide bombings and warfare in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Congo. And from the more immediate horror and national trauma of innocent children being slaughtered in a serene, prosperous, middle class Newtown, Connecticut, by one of their own. (Of course, the notion of a serene world is an illusion -- the most harmonious towns and lives carry destructive undercurrents.)
In the case of the Connecticut horror, the head of the NRA, which has done much to enshrine gun culture and promote the almost divine right to carry assault weapons, callously informed us that guns are not the problem, everything else is: movies, video games, the political elite, and the mentally ill. From his tone-deaf, blameless perspective, entirely insulated from criticism, it was simply a pathological young man murderously running amuck, and the ready availability of assault rifles and Glock pistols in his mother’s home was besides the point.
The solution one Texas Republican Congressman offered was that he wished the principal "would have had an M4 in her office, so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out and takes his head off before he could kill those precious kids," even though the whole incident was over in seconds. That’s the kind of magical thinking many gun advocates indulge in -- believing if only our educators could suddenly turn into quick-on-the-draw Wyatt Earps, the problem with school mayhem would be resolved.
For the moment, I have put the world’s violence and America’s love affair with guns in the background by going to an art exhibit and a play, both of them grounded in New York life. About a month ago my wife and I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see the large (100 works) George Bellows exhibit, which runs until February 18. Bellows, who died prematurely at 42 in 1925, was an American realist painter and member of the Ash Can school, which included painters like its founder Robert Henri, John Sloan, William Glackens, and George Luks. Henri wanted art to be akin to journalism. He "wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-dung and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter."
The Met exhibit begins with Bellows most famous early works, his big, dynamic, muscular, fleshy depictions of boxing matches and his gritty, complexly detailed scenes of New York City’s tenement life and boys diving into the East River. Bellows’ city paintings are filled with coarse, crowded, and exuberant life, and they are rich painterly works, not illustrations or social polemics depicting lives of deprivation.
That’s especially true for his painting New York (1911), which captures the intense life of a hectic city intersection during winter -- a patch of gray sky, shops, skyscrapers, advertising signs, and the El in the background, with the foreground a jumble of trolleys, horse-drawn carriages, and crowds of pedestrians of all classes. I see it as a love letter to the tumult of the city, a feeling I share with Bellows.
I am also stirred by the beauty of his paintings of the excavation of Penn Station, the Battery, and especially those of the Hudson with their lush evocation of lustrous white snow and the churning blue of the river, with a boat spewing smoke, and the black and blue of the Palisades looming over the river on the New Jersey side. There’s much more to this expansive exhibit -- landscapes, portraits, seascapes -- and in the mode of Goya, paintings of World War I German atrocities against civilians. Bellows was an artist interested in a great many things, and restlessly kept on shifting subjects. This show is worth making a trip to the city for.
A couple of weeks later I attended a revival Of Clifford Odets’ 1937 hit play "Golden Boy" at the Belasco Theater on Broadway. This large-scale play (19 New York accented, multiethnic characters) centers on a young violinist, Joe Bonaparte, who gives up his music (he feels he is going nowhere) to become a successful boxer. It’s a prime theme in Odets’ plays, the conflict between integrity/art and the promise of glory and big money. The character who represents integrity is the boxer’s father, a soulful, decent, music-loving Italian immigrant, whose heart Joe breaks. Winning matches turns Joe into an arrogant, angry fighting machine, enthralled with fancy cars, and it predictably dooms him.
Odets is a more vivid than subtle playwright. This old-fashioned play has its melodramatic moments, and some speechifying about serving humanity. But the cast, set design, and bouncy dialogue work seamlessly. Odets was a poetic naturalist, whose ethnic and urban street dialogue was filled with striking metaphors: Joe speaking about driving fast -- "you mow down the world with headlights" -- and another character speaks of Joe’s father as "sitting on the kid’s head like a bird’s nest." Yes, the play can seem dated, but it’s alive and emotionally moving.
At moments like then when the world has turned into a charnel house, there is no greater solace than immersing oneself in the work of first-rate artists.
Leonard Quart writes for Cinwrit@aol.com