Reading note: Roosevelt, Taft—Then like Now

I recently finished The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This is a great read. As I was reading I marked a few things that seem very relevant to today’s issues. These are quotes from the book; my comments within the text are in brackets. Other comments by me in italics.

As S. S. McClure [extremely important magazine publisher that I knew nothing about before] well understood, the “vitality of democracy” depends on “popular knowledge of complex questions.” Two interesting things here: that the populace must be knowledgeable, and that the questions are complex—so simple sloganeering won’t do.

Theodore Roosevelt was by birth a New York patrician Republican, but as is well known went roughing it in the West with cowboys, etc.—the working class. He said that his fellow politicians were out of touch, not understanding the issues. He realized that real connection was necessary: “When you have worked with them, when you have lived with them, you do not have to wonder how they feel, because you feel it yourself.” It seems many politicians remain out of touch today.

“I passed my days in a state of exasperation,” Roosevelt told his son Kermit, “first, with the fools who do not want any of the things that ought to be done, and, second, with the equally obnoxious fools who insist upon so much that they cannot get anything.” That was 112 years ago.

The cost to both his party and the country would be immense, [Roosevelt] believed if “the people at large” perceived “that the Republican Party had become unduly subservient to the so-called Wall Street men—to the men of wealth, the plutocracy.” It would result in a “a dreadful calamity,” Roosevelt told a conservative friend, to see the nation “divided into two parties, one containing the bulk of the property owners and conservative people, the other the bulk of the wage workers and the less prosperous people generally; each party insisting upon demanding much that was wrong, and each party sullen  and angered by real and fancied grievances.” 1905—and the perception 110 years later might be that the “dreadful calamity” has come.

[For the 1908 election] Taft pledged to make public all campaign contributions as soon as the election was over. Realizing such transparency might paralyze large donors, Taft told the president [Roosevelt ] that he was “willing to undergo the disadvantage in order to make certain that in the future we shall reduce the power of money in politics.” How’s that working out?

Though “every special interest is entitled to justice,” [Roosevelt] declared, “not one is entitled to a vote in Congress, to a voice on the bench, or to representation in any public office.”

 Of course there has been a lot of improvement over the last century, but some basic concerns of the early 20th century remain basic concerns for us today.

Art, Marriage Equality, Confederate Flag

For a long time I’ve believed that art relates to everything. No area of thought is irrelevant to thinking about art.

Recent events have brought me to thinking about how thinking about art could be a useful model for considering how things change, and how that change can be uncomfortable for those not accustomed to dealing with change.

I began my involvement in art at a particularly interesting time—the late 60s and early 70s. Being an admirer of folks who could really draw, such as Ingres and Degas, I somehow muddled my way through the changes in “art” from the Impressionists, through the Abstract Expressionists and to the strange stuff in Artforum like the fabric polygons of Richard Tuttle, neon pieces by Keith Sonnier and conceptual works by Mel Bochner. How I managed to so quickly accept these changes I don’t know, but change was in the air back then.

In his essay for the exhibition catalog Stella Since 1970, Philip Leider refers to Thomas S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in discussing the progress of painting that leads to Frank Stella’s work: “Kuhn distinguishes four stages in this process: normal science, anomaly, crisis and paradigm conflict.” I understand that philosophers of science might disagree with Kuhn, but Leider makes good use of the theory in his essay.

Leider quotes Kuhn:

The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy, and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research.

 Leider himself continues: “With Pollock and his generation abstract painting became no longer an anomaly, but a competing paradigm.” Further along he says, “Those artists who have been persuaded of the difference between Pollock’s paintings and simple badness are at the same time persuaded that painting itself is something different from that which they once thought it was.” He concludes the section of the essay by saying, “In choosing abstract art we choose to acknowledge what it is to live in the twentieth century, as those who chose Masaccio chose to acknowledge what it was to live in the Renaissance.”

I thought of this essay, which I haven’t looked at for maybe 30 years, because of recent discussions of events. For example, for a long time I’ve wondered at those who have been stuck on the paradigm that “marriage” could only be between a man and a woman. I think most of those folks have some kind of religious tradition that hinders their ability to conceive of another model. It seems that they cannot see a difference between the perceived “sanctity” of religious marriage and the straightforward conferring of certain rights under civil marriage. It is that conferring of rights that the Supreme Court decided was protected by the Constitution. Sanctification is still in the province of the religious community.

Because my thinking has been broadened by encountering and accepting things like two steel blocks in a 5,000 sq. ft. space (Richard Serra at Portland Center for the Visual Arts in 1975) as an interesting art proposition, I can easily see that “marriage,” like “art” can be a term that is malleable. On the other hand there were lots of folks wondering where the “art” was when they entered the Serra installation.

Then there’s the Confederate battle flag. Is it a symbol of “southern heritage” or a “symbol of racism?” This makes me think of a graffiti incident in southeast Portland years ago. There were some flowers spray painted on a retaining wall with the question: “Art or vandalism?” And I thought BOTH! If you made it, you want to display your art. If it is your wall, you want vandals to leave it alone. The question is what takes precedence? Similarly, the Confederate flag.

The Confederate battle flag can be both a symbol of “southern heritage” AND a “symbol of racism.” Yes, it relates to southern history, but especially after it was raised over the capitol in South Carolina in 1961 in protest during the civil rights movement, it became overtly an in-your-face symbol of racism. Note that it is the “battle flag” and not the national flag, so there is an intent to “battle.” The question is what takes precedence? For those who truly want to celebrate southern heritage (I will accept their sincerity), they can do so in a museum—with a display about the past—which would involve an intentional pilgrimage. And then the flag would not wave a slap in the face to those who have felt racial oppression. How a flag is displayed can very much affect its meaning.

At the time I was learning the basics of art, I was also a supporter of Robert Kennedy in 1968. I remember this from one of his speeches:

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Some people see things as they are and say why?  I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

This works in art and life. Think “why not?” first.