Reading Note: Americans in Nicaragua

I recently finished reading The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles, a terrific biography that gives great insight into the beginnings of American capitalism in the first half of the 19th century. Much could be said bout this book, but I’m not going to review it, just pass along a little anecdote that I bookmarked as I passed through it.

Vanderbilt was involved with the transportation of passengers to the gold fields of California in the 1850s. The steamship plus overland route he worked on developing went through Nicaragua. For a time a private army of Americans called “filibusters” had taken over the country.

“Filibustering” had entered the American vocabulary around 1850 as a name for armed invasions of foreign territory by private American citizens– generally with the hope of annexing those lands to the United States.

That occupation only lasted a short time, but some had hopes for what it might bring:

Soon after Walker [the leader of the filibusters] landed in Nicaragua, Paulding [a US Navy officer] wrote to his wife, “Central America will soon be brought into harmonious action by the introduction of our own beautiful system of government.”

Evidently Dick Cheney never studied this part of American history.

Two Kinds of Art

Those of us who are engaged in art are familiar with he question: Why is that art? The question comes from folks who are either very new to engaging in art, or folks who generally have not become interested in art at all.

It has taken me a long time* to figure out that there are two kinds of art:

  • Art for people who are interested in art
  • Art for people who are not interested in art

People who are interested in art generally enjoy finding new art, new challenges, getting new information, having to contend with the unfamiliar (and that could be ancient art as well as contemporary art).

People who are not interested in art (I think that’s OK, by the way) just don’t have the same purposes for art. The art for people who are not interested in art tends to be stuff that fits comfortably into home decor—because that is the mosgenerally accepted function for art.

My friend and colleague Terri Hopkins illustrates the idea like this:

Imagine that you are a real baseball fan, you’ve been following the game since you were a kid, you know all the current and past statistics, baseball is almost a religion for you. Imagine you have a friend who recently moved here from abroad, and just doesn’t get the “baseball thing.” So you take him to a game. It’s a beautiful summer day, the stands are full, and, wonder of wonders, there’s a great “pitchers’ duel.” And one of the pitchers pitches a no-hitter! The game ends 1-0. As you leave you say to your new friend, “Wow. That was great!” And he replies, “What do you mean? Nothing happened.”

Hard to have baseball for people who aren’t interested in baseball.

*One of my favorite sayings: You get too soon old and too late smart.

Grammar Peeve: $ dollars

OK, this just bugs me because it is so obvious.

$ is a symbol meaning “dollar(s).”

“Dollars” is a word meaning “dollars.”

Use just one, not both, or we get redundancy.

I just ran into the problem in Art News online:


BY Dan Duray POSTED 02/23/15

“…Peter ultimately came back and said that the $6.5, $2.4, and $1.1. million dollars was how he wanted to set up the pricing structure.”

Do they have a copy editor?

Cheap gas!

I bought my first car in 1969. It was a 1958 Volkswagen bug. Extremely basic. No radio. Slow heater. And no gas gauge (you kicked in a reserve tank with a lever on the floor!).

As I recall, the normal gas price back then hovered around 33 cents/gallon. Using an online inflation calculator, nowadays that would be $2.06/gallon — just about where we are now.

During the oil embargo of 1973 the price jumped to 50 cents/gallon, or around $2.20 for today.

And around 1980 the price hit a dollar per gallon, or about $2.80 per gallon in today’s money.

So, gas is back to the price from 45 years ago. Fill ‘er up!

Net Neutrality 1876

I’ve had the book The Growth of the American Republic (volume two) by Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager  (1962) for a long time and I just recently began reading it to increase my knowledge of second half of 19th century USA history.

In relation to the growth of railroads and trusts after the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled on the ability to regulate interstate commerce. I was struck by the following quote from a Court decision as it relates to the current issue of Net Neutrality (, and thinking about how we should regard the internet as a public utility:

When private property is affected with a public interest it ceases to be juris privati only… Property does become clothed with a public interest when used in a manner to make it of public consequence, and affect the community at large. When, therefore, one devotes his property to a use in which the public has an interest, he, in effect, grants to the public an interest in that use, and must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good, to the extent of the interest he has created. (Munn v Illinois 1876)

By the way, this 50 year old book is pretty interesting, well-written, obviously with a liberal lean.



PAM: Good Shows/Dismal View

I finally got to the Portland Art Museum to see In Passionate Pursuit–The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection and Legacy and Blue Sky–The Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts at 40.  These are very important exhibitions, both for the quality of work presented and for the great contextual information for those who haven’t been living in the Portland area for several decades.

But while the works were great to see, I was disappointed.

Both shows look gloomy. Example number one:


What is the point of the tan walls for the Schnitzer exhibition? This gallery always feels stuffy and keeping the walls medium dark just makes it worse.

And for Blue Sky, the walls are gray.


While my friend Chris Rauschenberg says that you should avoid bright white walls because, by contrast, they can make your white mats seem dingy, the gray here keeps the whole show from being bright.

When I went up to the contemporary northwest galleries, I saw bright spaces that let the exuberance of the works speak.


Spaces don’t need to be museumey. Let the work breathe.

John Cage on what Art does

I recently came upon these quotes from interviews with John Cage in Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp. To me these anecdotes could be very useful when someone asks, “What is art for?”

“In the case of Duchamp, I was at this exhibition of Dada, and his work acted in such a way that my attention was drawn to the light switch on the wall, away from–not away, but among–the works of art. So that the light switch seemed to be as attention-deserving as the works of art. In the case of [Mark] Tobey I left the gallery and went to catch a bus on Madison Avenue when it still ran both ways, and I happened to look at the pavement, and–literally–the pavement was as beautiful as the Tobey, hmm? So the experience of looking at Tobey was instructive about looking at the pavement.”

“Art is said to be involved with ideas–relationships–and also with a certain sensuality. It appeals to the sense of looking. When you look, your mind goes into a state of finding relationships. Your heart goes into the field of the emotions. In Germanic thought these are supposed to come together. There’s supposed to be some sort of marriage–of form and content. When you find that… that it’s “satisfying”–another word frequently used in the arts – when it’s satisfying you get stuck! So that the art seems to be an end in itself.”