Never before in the history of the world—

Only a small percentage of visitors to Missouri’s Capitol get to go up to the Whispering Gallery, a place where a person can stand facing the wall and whisper something that is clearly heard by someone facing the wall on the other side of the gallery.  It is unlikely that those who have been there or those who have noticed from their position far below the railing high up in the dome that is the gallery’s home have ever heard that the Missouri Capitol Whispering Gallery was unique in the history of architecture when it was designed.

Never had anything like it been done before.  And as far as we know, the story has never been told before. Or if it has, it hasn’t been told for a long, long time.

Deep in the files of the Capitol Commission Board at the Missouri State Archives is a letter written September 29, 1924 by Egerton Swartwout, the architect whose firm designed our capitol, a few days before the building’s dedication in 1924.  This letter, as is the case with so many of his letters, is an incredibly human document these ninety-plus years after that event.  In it, he recalls his company getting the bid to design the building, the struggles with the contractor over the stone to be used, and other issues that had to be dealt with.  Toward the end of the fourth-page of the five-page letter, he writes of his partner, Evarts Tracy, who had left the firm to help create the Army’s Camouflage Corps during World War I and who had died in Paris in 1921 while helping the French with their postwar reconstruction effort, “Poor Tracy, he was extremely interested in the Capitol and very proud of it and one of the things that appealed to him particularly was the whispering gallery, the only one, by the way, that has ever been made artificially, or rather made on purpose, and that was done by Professor Sabine.   Poor chap, he is dead now but he talked to me about it often and mentions it in his Memoires…”

That mention sent us off in search of Wallace Sabine and his memoirs.  Wallace Sabine was a physics professor at Harvard when Tracy and Swartwout were students there.  When Harvard built the Fogg Auditorium, the school quickly learned the audience could not hear what was being said on the stage and asked Sabine to find out why.  Sabine’s research made him the father of architectural acoustics. The measurement of sound absorption today is the Sabin.  When Tracy and Swartwout were designing the capitol in 1913, they sought Sabine’s advice for ways to make sure members of the House and Senate could hear the speakers in their cavernous, stone-lined chambers.  The sound-absorbing curtains and fabrics in both chambers, including in the ceilings, are the result of Sabine’s study of the original plans.  Some old timers your reporter talked to a long time ago recalled that debate could be heard in the pre-public address system days quite well.

Sabine was only fifty when he died in 1919. His successor at Harvard as the Hollis Chair of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, Theodore Lyman, edited a volume of Sabine’s papers and speeches and even some unpublished presentation, one of which was about whispering galleries.”

Sabine began that paper, “It is probable that all existing whispering galleries, it is certain that the six most famous ones, are accidents; it is equally certain that all could have been predetermined without difficulty and like most accidents could have been improved upon.”  There six he wrote about in his paper were the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, The vases in the Salle Des Cariatides in the Louvre in Paris, St. John Lateran in Rome, the Ear of Dionysius at Syracuse, and the Cathedral of Girgenti.  Statuary Hall in our nation’s capitol was the original chamber of the United States House of Representatives until it was outgrown.

Eighteen pages into his discussion of whispering galleries, the father of architectural acoustics wrote that the whispering gallery at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London could have been more efficient had the walls been “slightly, indeed almost imperceptibly curved.” And then he continues, “Such a gallery will be in the dome of the Missouri State Capitol, a gallery unique in this respect that will have been planned intentionally by the architects.”

By the time this paper was published in 1921, editor Lyman added, “The building is now complete. One of the architects, Mr. Edgerton [sic] Swartwout, reports that the whispering gallery in the dome exactly fulfills Professor Sabine’s prediction and has been the cause of much curiosity and astonishment.”

There was some technical stuff in the paper that explained why our whispering gallery works so well and was better than any of the “accidental” ones in previous world history that we won’t get into.   But the fact remains—-

The Missouri Capitol’s whispering gallery was the first one in the entire history of world architecture that was designed specifically to be a whispering gallery.

We just dug that story out in the last ten days or so to put in the next capitol book (don’t ask us when it will be out—maybe 2019 if things work out but look for it when you see it).  But we couldn’t wait that long to tell it.  We’ve known our capitol is an extraordinary place.  But this feature puts it on a whole new scale.

There have been several intentional whispering galleries built in this country and internationally since then.  But the Swartwout/Sabine Whispering Gallery in the Missouri Capitol was the first of its kind.

Ever.

Next time you’re in the rotunda. Look up.  Climb up, if you have permission.  And step through a door to world architectural history.

(The photo is from the blog, “Opulent Opossum,” by Julianna Schroeder, who said some nice things about the Capitol art book back in 2011.  She was a great editor to work with.)

Carol

It’s not one of the Christmas carols or hymns we are likely to hear in our churches during this holiday season, but it’s one we need to hear in a year when brotherhood has taken a beating throughout the world.

There are thousands of paintings and other depictions of Jesus, the most ubiquitous—probably—being those of Warner Sallman, particularly his “Head of Christ,” which has been reproduced a half-billion times, some say.  But Jesus probably didn’t look much like the pretty Aryan Jesus made famous by Sallman. And how he really looked is immaterial anyway.  It’s how we see him.

And that brings to Alfred Burt and his wonderful Christmas carol, “Some See Him…”

Alfred Burt was the son of an Episcopal minister in Michigan who began in 1922 the custom of sending special Christmas cards to parishioners that included the words and music for a new Christmas Carol the Reverend Bates Burt had composed. After Alfred graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in music in 1942, “Dad” Burt suggested he take over the Christmas card custom.  Alfred’s wife, Ann, asked the organist at the Bates’ church to write the lyrics while Alfred wrote the music.

Alfred Burt and Wihla Hudson created fifteen carols before his death because of lung cancer in 1954 at the age of thirty-three.

Their 1951 composition, Some See Him is a favorite in our household and seems appropriate for this year.

Some children see Him lily white,
the baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
with tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
with dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
this Savior whom we kneel beside.
some children see Him almond-eyed,
with skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
and, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place
will see the baby Jesus’ face
like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
and filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
and with thy heart as offering,
come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight!

In a world that sometimes seems pretty short on love and brotherhood, Alfred Burt’s carol seemed to us pretty important—although we aren’t aware of any service where it will be sung.

If you’d like to hear it, we recommend this performance by Santino Fontana and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v83iNif0hEw

And if you are not familiar with the Alfred Burt carols, we invite you to enjoy this first recording of them, in the year after his death, by the Columbia Choir:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXI6mjujeU8

May we see each other in the spirit of peace this season.

-0-

 

 

 

 

Oh, how Tom Benton would love to wade into this!

Indiana University has decided that its students should no longer be forced to attend classes in a room that contains part of a large mural painted by Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton in 1933, three years before he painted the mural at the Missouri Capitol.

An online petition had demanded removal from a classroom of the offensive section of the mural, which shows, amidst a lot of other things, a Ku Klux Klan rally with a burning cross. The university won’t remove it.  But the chancellor has decided the university won’t “force” students to see it—and, of course, ponder what it’s about.

The mural was created for the Indiana building at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, billed as “The Century of Progress.”  The entire mural is 230 feet long and fourteen feet high. It’s so big, much bigger than our capitol mural, that it is housed in three buildings on the campus at Bloomington, Indiana.

IU’s Provost, Lauren Robel, says in part of a 1,902 word statement, “While I believe that we can and should educate the public and our community about the murals, that intellectual work can and should take place in a context that does not involve the captive audience of classes devoted to other subjects.”  So, starting with the next semester, Room 100 in Woodburn Hall will be put to “other uses.”

The Indiana mural generated a certain amount of controversy from the start. Lawrence County (Indiana) Historical Society President Zora Askew said the mural “should offend the sensibilities of every Hoosier who has resect for the hardy pioneers from the East, West, North, and South that came to form the melting pot now known as Indiana.” State conservation director Richard Lieber, who supervised the mural’s creation, claimed the Klan had no significance in the state.  Benton wrote in his first autobiography, An Artist in America, that he arranged a happy hour with some legislators and invited Lieber, rigging the meeting so someone would ask if he thought the Klan was important to Indiana history. Benton responded that he was doubtful but appealed to the legislators. “They being newly-elected Democratic politicians, while the Klan business occurred under Republican auspices, promptly informed me that it was of immense importance and had nearly ruined the state,” Benton wrote. “When they got through airing the importance of the Klan, I shouldn’t have dared to leave the organization out of the factual history of Indiana.”

This writer would like to see Ms. Robel discuss the shutdown of the room as a classroom with Mr. Benton who has, fortunately for her perhaps, been dead since 1975.  But when he finished his Missouri mural in December, 1936, he faced severe criticism from people who didn’t like some of the things in it–a baby’s naked bottom, a depiction of bank and train robber Jesse James, an illustration of the violence of Missouri’s guerilla warfare (including a lynching) during the Civil War, the portrayal of a slave sale, and particularly a depiction of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast.

His critics felt the unsanitary parts of history had no business being on display in our state capitol that is otherwise decorated with depictions of Missouri’s more noble or victorious moments.

He didn’t give an inch to them.

The House Lounge for many years was a place where captive audiences often met. The House Appropriations Committee, particularly, used to hold its hearings there. State department representatives were forced to sit in a room surrounded by images that might make them “uncomfortable” and justify their budget requests, a process we guarantee you was much more uncomfortable than the images on the walls. The use of the room for hearings was abandoned in 1980 not because anybody was traumatized or might have been traumatized in some way, but because smoking was banned in the room because of the damage and potential damage to the mural.

Discomfort is a big reason for the decision, however, at Indiana University.  The university apparently doesn’t want any of its students in these post-Charlottesville days to be discomfited by a mural showing a part of Indiana’s history.

Indiana University historian James Capshaw is discomfited by those who try to link the panel to Charlottesville. He told the Star, “It’s not like a Confederate monument that was erected in the 19-teens or ‘20s that was specifically to enforce Jim Crow practices and basically put blacks in their place again…It’s very different from what’s going on in Charlottesville and other places.”

Roble seems to sympathize somewhat with Capshaw’s view that the mural should be discussed in the proper context but she says teachers don’t like time to be taken away from their courses to explain the significance of the mural segment. Furthermore, she maintains, such sessions haven’t worked.

The Indianapolis Star has reported a petition campaign was started by a 32-year old former IU student now living in Florida who said the school “has a responsibility to do something to address student and faculty discomfort,” although the newspaper reports she didn’t recall hearing much about the mural when she was a student in Bloomington. But now she has referred to the mural segment as “a symbol of hate” and worried that “something as simple as a picture can sometimes, to some people, be justification for those kind of acts.”  She wanted to have the panel taken down. In fact, she suggested the entire mural be removed from the campus and put in a museum “for educational purposes,” a place where it could become “a learning opportunity” instead of just “sitting in a classroom” (where, we note, educational purposes are practiced and learning opportunities are a constant).

A petition reflecting her concerns was circulated on campus in August. It got more than one-thousand signatures.

—on a campus that had more than 43,000 students for the start of the 2016-17 school year, with record numbers of minorities.

We haven’t seen the 2017-18 final fall enrollment figures. We also haven’t seen any breakouts of those thousand-or-so students showing how many of them have or have had classes in that room and how many of those who did were so distracted by Benton’s reference to the era when the Klan was a powerful political force in Indiana—as it was a force in 1920s Missouri—that it disrupted their school work.

Apparently the school’s VP for Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs carried no weight in the discussion.  James Wimbush, reports the newspaper, said the panel does not violate the university’s diversity statement: “It does not glorify or celebrate this particular dark episode of the KKK in Indiana, but instead shows that the state’s past has shameful moments the likes of which we do not want to see again, ever.”

And Benton, who believed history had to be taken “warts and all,” would probably appreciate his comment that, “It’s important to understand the state’s history—the good and the bad.”   Wimbush said the mural segment offered a teachable moment.

But instead of using it to teach, the university is going to shield its students from the opportunity to learn a lesson available for eighty years from Benton’s painting.

Roble, by the way, ruled out covering the panel with cloth because would amount to censorship.  Apparently making sure students are not exposed to it during their classes is not.

We do not intend to try to get inside Benton’s head and divine today what he would argue specifically with Roble’s decision.  He did, after all, defend the rights of institutions to do with their public art what they wished.  He went in 1954 to Lincoln University in Jefferson City for a meeting of the National Conference of Teachers of Art in Negro Colleges where he was asked, “Does the public have the right to criticize the symbols of a mural or maybe erase it off the wall?”   He responded:

It boils down to whether the public has the right to destroy the work of an artist…It was never, in ancient times or medieval times, believed that an institution which didn’t like a picture didn’t also have the right to get it out of the way…The question of the property value in works of art is a difficult one to decide even today. Current educated sentiment seems to be with the artist—that is, if the artist puts his soul into a thing, it is believed the average buyer hasn’t the right to destroy it…Certainly, if the majority of the people in a community object to a mural, I really don’t see what the artist can legally do to keep them from boarding it up, or tearing it down, or doing whatever they want with it…Has the community the right to get rid of something it doesn’t like?  Well, generally, even in the most liberal society, I’d say the answer would be “Yes.” 

Benton’s 1954 response would seem to support Roble’s 2017 decision. But, based on his defenses of his Missouri mural, he might question whether the rationale behind letting a few petition-signers representing only a small, small part of the student body make the entire university overly sensitive when public dialogue is so badly needed in the face of events in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

“The purpose of a work of art is not so much to tell what the artist’s thoughts were as to stimulate thoughts in those who view it,” Benton wrote in 1940. “A cartoon tells a specific story and lasts a day—a work of art tells as many stories as there are people to see it. It lasts by that power to continually stimulate…”

We are left to wonder how putting Benton’s painting out of sight and out of mind for young people whose lives going forward desperately need the stimulation of history, “warts and all,” serves education’s oft-stated goal of creating a thinking, responsible society.

(The writer of this entry is the author of Only the Rivers are Peaceful: Thomas Hart Benton’s Missouri Mural, published in 1989.  The photograph of the classroom is from the Indiana Daily Student newspaper. Benton is from Angiesdiay.com.)

-0-

We do not intend with this entry to diminish the extensive thought process behind Provost Robel’s decision, but only to question the decision—as Benton questioned the inclinations of those who sought to keep the public from thinking about the issues raised in his Missouri Capitol mural.  In fairness to her, we offer from the September 29, 2017 edition of The Indianapolis Star her entire memo:

Dear IU Bloomington Community,

I write to discuss the Benton Murals. In 1933, Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned by the State of Indiana to create the Indiana Murals for the Chicago World’s Fair. This work, which has become Benton’s most enduring artistic accomplishment, contains a self-portrait embedded in the panel entitled “Indiana Puts Her Trust in Thought.” Some eight decades after their creation, the murals serve as a vivid reminder of the strength and resiliency of a community that puts its trust in thoughtful reflection and dialogue about its past, present, and future.

I apologize in advance for the length of this communication, but the subject is complicated, the history is long, and the factors to be balanced are many. I therefore put my trust, as always, in your willingness to think carefully with me, and look forward to the discussion and ideas I am sure this letter will spark.

Herman B Wells brought the Benton Murals to the Bloomington campus several years after the World’s Fair. At the time, the IU Auditorium and several other buildings around the Fine Arts Plaza were under construction, and Wells saw the murals as ideal centerpieces for a burgeoning campus arts district. As a result, Indiana University is now steward to this astonishing and celebrated work of art, a 22-panel mural sequence displayed in three separate venues on the campus. Two of those spaces, the IU Auditorium and the IU Cinema, are performance and artistic venues. One, Woodburn Hall 100, is currently used as a large classroom.

The classroom contains a panel of the murals that has repeatedly sparked controversy, as it includes a depiction of a Ku Klux Klan rally and a burning cross. The imagery in that panel, entitled “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press,” has been controversial since its creation. Benton’s intent was to show the role that the press had played in battling the Klan through exposing the Klan’s corruption of and infiltration into all levels of Indiana government in the 1920s. At the time of the mural’s creation, many opposed Benton’s decision to include the Klan, because they did not want to portray Indiana in a negative light, and the memories of the Klan’s political influence were still raw. Benton, however, overcame this opposition, and maintained artistic control. He believed that his murals needed to show all aspects of the state’s history, even the ugly and discomfiting parts, so we could confront the mistakes of the past.

Understood in the light of all its imagery and its intent, Benton’s mural is unquestionably an anti-Klan work. Unlike statues at the heart of current controversies, Benton’s depiction was intended to expose the Klan’s history in Indiana as hateful and corrupt; it does not honor or even memorialize individuals or the organization as a whole. Everything about its imagery—the depiction of the Klan between firefighters and a circus; the racially integrated hospital ward depicted in the foreground suggesting a different future ahead—speaks to Benton’s views. Every society that has gone through divisive trauma of any kind has learned the bitter lesson of suppressing memories and discussion of its past; Benton’s murals are intended to provoke thought.

Throughout history, art has served many purposes, often to lift up and honor a subject but also at times to call attention to something that is deserving of our condemnation. It is a mistake, therefore, to assume that a depiction of an historical event is the same as honoring it. Picasso, for example, depicted the horrible bombing and destruction of the village of Guernica in one of his most famous and admired paintings. It shows the consequences of the fascist bombings of a Basque village not to glorify that tragedy but to condemn it. That painting now serves as a powerful anti-war and anti-fascist work of art. It does so by depicting and calling our attention not to what we are honoring but to what we are condemning. I believe the same can be said for the Benton murals.

Nevertheless, the imagery in this panel of the murals is vivid, startling, and disturbing; and to reach the conclusion I just stated about the meaning of the mural requires work and time studying the mural and its interrelated images. Like most great art, Benton’s murals require context and history. Many well-meaning people, without having the opportunity to do that work, wrongly condemn the mural as racist simply because it depicts a racist organization and a hateful symbol.

However, even with the proper information and education, many students still feel strongly that a Klan rally and burning cross looming over their classes seriously impedes their learning. For some of our students, the burning cross is a symbol of terror that has haunted their families for generations. For others, the robed Klansman has figured in personal family or community tragedies and anguish. These reactions are absolutely reasonable on their face, and as Charlottesville shows, they are not ancient history. They have to be reckoned with, but it is far from clear that the reckoning should be an inevitable part of a class in finite mathematics, macroeconomics, organic chemistry, or gross anatomy and physiology—all classes taught regularly in this space—particularly since the burden of that reckoning inevitably falls more heavily on students whose race or religion have made their families the historical targets of the Klan.

Every few years, since at least the 1980s, the campus has grappled with the presence of the Benton Murals in Woodburn. We are entrusted with the preservation of this important work of art, yet we must also do everything possible to promote a civil and inclusive campus that provides equal opportunity for all to learn. What to do?

This question becomes especially urgent whenever events such as the march of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville and the current national debate over Confederate monuments occur. These broader conversations become deeply local, and we must come to a decision as a community on how to handle public art and memory as it pertains to the Benton Murals on our campus. On at least eight occasions since the 1980s, diverse committees of faculty, students, and staff have considered the issues raised by the controversial panel. Our campus has held town halls, symposia, and conferences to discuss the panel and its impact, including just this week a faculty-led discussion organized by PACE on “Art, Public Memory & Racial Justice.” Such efforts have consistently led to the conclusion that we need to do what Indiana University does best: educate. We have called on our community to educate through discussions of history, art history, African American and African Diaspora Studies, American Studies, and every discipline that touches on how a controversial and anti-racist piece of art should be contextualized and understood.

I agree that the proper response to the Benton Murals is education, and I have been the beneficiary of a review of the work of all of these previous efforts. However, most committees have concluded that this education needs to be done in every class taught in Woodburn 100. As a result, well-intentioned efforts to require ameliorating discussion of the murals there have foundered, and ultimately been abandoned, multiple times. Instructors without appropriate academic backgrounds feel unprepared for the discussion that should surround such a sensitive set of issues, and unhappy to be taking class time for discussions that have nothing to do with the subject of the class and everything to do with the room it is in. Students are captive audiences in Woodburn 100, and those with repeated classes there resent the repeated discussions related to the classroom art, as opposed to the subject-matter of their classes.

The murals cannot be moved. Benton painted them using egg tempera paint, which has become extremely fragile over time. Moreover, the space in Woodburn 100 was designed specifically to house the two panels that now hang there, and they were installed in such a way that moving them would almost certainly cause irreparable damage. Nor does the notion of covering them with a curtain accord with our responsibility as stewards of this precious art. Covering the murals feels like censorship and runs counter to the expressed intent of the artist to make visible moments in history that some would rather forget. Furthermore, covering the murals during class periods would leave them hidden for the vast majority of time and create a situation in which the decision to uncover them could be used by some as a symbolic act in support of the very ideology the murals are intended to criticize.

However, there is nothing sacrosanct about using Woodburn 100 as a classroom. While I believe that we can and should educate the public and our community about the murals, that intellectual work can and should take place in a context that does not involve the captive audience of classes devoted to other subjects. Therefore, Woodburn 100 will convert to other uses beginning in the spring semester 2018.

We have determined that we can accommodate almost all (and perhaps all) the classes typically taught there as early as this spring in other locations without a loss of classroom capacity, and we will certainly be able to accommodate them all elsewhere by summer. Like the other two venues in which the murals are displayed, Woodburn 100 can usefully serve other purposes, such as a gallery space and public lecture space, that are more conducive to teaching about the mural. Indeed, many departments and faculty members have expressed a need for more such spaces on campus, and Woodburn 100 offers a ready-made solution. Its adjacency to the arts corridor makes it particularly conducive to these purposes and will also allow us to install interactive media that can educate those who come for the gallery space or for other events. We could also put this art in conversation with other pieces of art the campus owns or could borrow, which would allow us to much better use the murals’ potential for education and engagement than the current configuration allows. I believe that repurposing the room is the best accommodation of the multiple factors that the murals raise: our obligation to be a welcoming community to all of our students and facilitate their learning; our stewardship of this priceless art; and our obligation to stand firm in defense of artistic expression. I invite community members to think creatively about how best to use this repurposed space to engage with the issues the murals present.

The Benton Murals are a national treasure. They depict the social progression of Indiana history—including, explicitly, the promise and hope of racial integration and a free press arising out of the fight against the political influence of the Klan—through the visceral and powerful vision of one of the most significant artists of the period. Indiana University is the steward of this incredible public art, we are bound to protect it and educate the world about it, and we will do so in ways that are pedagogically appropriate. Our primary mission is to teach students to think critically and deeply about the world, and great art is an important route to that end. We will continue to strive for this ideal, and challenge each other to think intensively and critically about art, history, diversity, and inclusion, and what it means to be a citizen of this university, state, and the world. Benton’s work deserves no less.”

— Lauren Robel, executive vice president and provost

 

 

 

Walls, doors, and a big creepy thing: Notes from the road, June edition

We’ve been on the road, observing places and meeting people, poring over old newspapers, talking to groups, reading things.  Stuff like that.  It’s good to get away from the political center of things for a while.

Spoke to a convention of state geologists in Branson the other day.  Never talked before to so many people with rocks in their heads.

For those who think there’s never anything new, we offer this note from the Jefferson City Capital News of September 11, 1910:

“The government is planning to build the longest fence ever constructed in the world.  It will extend from El Paso, Texas to the Pacific coast, more than 1,000 miles and will divide the United States and Mexico.  The fence will be of barbed wire.  Work will begin in a few weeks.”

Speaking of walls, we were looking through a recent edition of Archaeology magazine and its article on Hadrian’s Wall, the wall built by Roman Emperor Guess Who.   Trivia question:  How many miles long was (is) Hadrian’s Wall?

The Great Wall of China is 5,500.3 miles long.  Just saying it is impressive.  But let’s put it another way.  If the Great Wall of China were straightened into one segment and moved to the western city limits of Jefferson City and we started driving on it toward China, we would be able to get 82% of the way there

Hadrian’s wall would stretch from Jefferson City to Lamonte (between JC and Knob Noster).  73 miles.

Here’s a nice place to eat in Cape Girardeau.  But it would not be wise to become too enamored of its fine adult beverages while you are there and wait until your bladder was sending such urgent messages that you don’t have time to read some signs and your mind is no longer agile enough to understand them.

Katy O’Neill’s Public House in historic downtown Cape, is at the bottom of a hill. If you go there and your thinking is not as acute as it was before you began to socialize, make sure you read and comprehend the signs.

(They’ll get bigger if you click on them, at least here)

We do wonder, however, why it’s not still St. Patrick’s Day in both rooms.

—–

We’ve checked out the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art on Bentonville, Arkansas.  We were told that some of the snooty art folks on the east and west coasts have their noses out of joint because Alice Walton, who dreamed up this place, had the nerve to keep so much great art out here in flyover country, and particularly in such a Podunk place as Bentonville.  We were reminded of a comment made by Dr. John Pickard (for whom Pickard Hall is named at the University of Missouri), the chairman of the commission that hired the artists to decorate the capitol.  He complained that lot of eastern artists weren’t big enough to see over the Allegheny Mountains.  This was in the days well before we were flyover country.  But Doc P. and Alice W. had it right.

We recommend a trip to Crystal Bridges which is, itself, a work of art.  And it has a very nice restaurant.  If you are a little jittery about arachnids, you might want to close your eyes and have someone lead you into the museum….

The sculpture is by Louise Bourgeois and it’s called “Maman.”  Linda DeBerry, writing for the Crystal Bridges website, says the thirty-foot-tall spider carrying 26 marble eggs is a tribute to her mother.  After you get over your initial shudder at that thought, understand that, as DeBerry writes Bourgeois claimed “The spider…was not an ominous or frightening figure, but rather a representation of the protection and industry of her own beloved mother, who repaired tapestry for a living and died when the artist was 21.” Bourgeois said, “The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.”

Uhhh-huh.

Hold up your hand if you ever thought of YOUR mother this way.

Spider-mom aside, don’t be afraid to go to the Crystal Bridges museum.  It’s spectacular.  You are likely to spend enough time looking at the art and sculpture in the museum’s galleries—and at the Frank Lloyd Wright house that was moved there piece-by-piece that you’ll need lunch or dinner. We thought the food was good.  And before you leave town, fill up the car at a gas station in Bentonville.  It was a buck-98 the day we were there, seventeen cents less than the stations in Jefferson City, where gas prices tend to be suspiciously high most of the time.

Bentonville is an okay place.  Pretty much a company town, as is Jefferson City.

Chatting at the Y the other day about baseball’s desire to shorten the games.  Curtailing visits to the pitcher’s mound.  Requiring pitchers to throw the ball in a certain amount of time.  How about restricting the number of adjustments to batting gloves?  Limiting the amount of time batters can excavate a place for their back foot?

All of that is just playing games with the game. Here’s what would shorten games: Limiting the number of commercials between innings.  And during pitching changes.

Not likely to happen, of course.  The Game, whether it’s baseball or basketball or football—any game that is not continuous, long ago abdicated its right to its own clock when it decided to accept big broadcasting fees.

I think I just nibbled a little bit on the hand that used to feed me.

Didn’t get to see any of the Congressional baseball game on the in-room teevee while we were gone.  Wonder if the Cardinals had any scouts in the audience looking for bullpen help.

The spirits of Eric Sloane

We’ve been thinking a lot in these days of division, anger, and anxiety of Eric Sloane, dead now for more than thirty years, and something he wrote for our nation’s bicentennial.

He was born Everard Jean Hinrichs but he changed his name when one of his art instructors, John F. Sloan, suggested artists should use assumed names early in their careers so their developmental art would not be recognized as theirs in more successful times. So he became “Sloane” as a tribute to his instructor.  And “Eric?”   That came from the middle letters of “America,” an appropriate choice given what he became.

Eric Sloane was likely the nation’s foremost illustrator and writer about Americana, folklore, and country wisdom. He published about forty books known for their illustrations, perhaps, as much as for their written content.  For instance:

For the nation’s bicentennial, Sloane wrote and illustrated The Spirits of ’76, a thin volume that focused on “ten early American spirits which I believe have either weakened or vanished.”  What he wrote for the first of the spirits resonates today. The Spirit of Respect:

“I have often quipped that the best way to learn any subject is to write a book about it, and researching early American patriotism was no exception.  When I began compiling my group of vanishing spirits with patriotism at the head of my list, I at once began learning.  With frequent flag burnings, with the stars and stripes being worn on the backsides of blue jeans and the Pledge of Allegiance ruled out as unconstitutional, I presumed that American patriotism must be at an all-time low, and that it was the national spirit most in need of return.  As I researched and analyzed the subject, however, I soon realized that patriotism has become all too closely related with war: the most patriotic people in history (like the Nazis) were always the most warlike and ruthless.  Great thinkers, I learned, very often frown upon patriotism, and the more I thought about this spirit, the more I too wondered about its real values.  ‘This heroism upon command,’ wrote Einstein, ‘this senseless violence, this accursed bombast of patriotism—how intensely do I despise it!’  One philosopher called patriotism ‘the religion of Hell.’

“I had never regarded patriotism in such a light and I began to think.  I remembered my first encounter with pseudopatriotism about half a century ago while I was a student at military academy:  while folding the flag at sundown with a fellow student, I had accidentally let it fall to the ground. ‘You son of a bitch!’ my helper cried, ‘You let the American flag tough the ground!’

“That was long ago when obscenities were treated as obscenities and I wasn’t going to allow anyone to call my mother a dog.  A fist fight followed and I still carry a small scar of the incident. I suppose it was a mini example of how wars start, where there is as much punishment to the punisher as there is to the sufferer, all in the name of patriotism.

“Stephen Decatur’s ‘Our country right or wrong,’ had often worried me.  I found more to my liking, Carl Schurz’s ‘Our Country right or wrong—when right to be kept right and when wrong to be put right.’ And so I wondered if we have not been using the word incorrectly (or even the wrong word). I went to my collection of antique dictionaries. In one old volume such as might have been used by George Washington or Nathan Hale or Patrick Henry and other early patriots, I found the answer: we certainly have been using the word incorrectly.

“Patriotism in the old sense was defined as ‘The Spirit of acting like a Father to one’s country: A Publick Spiritedness.’  This definition is quite different form todays: ‘One who guards his country’s welfare, especially a defender of popular liberty.’  I recalled how Hitler described Nazism as ‘the popular liberty’ and his storm troopers were known as ‘defenders of popular liberty.’  War, I realized, has for a long while been waged in the name of patriotism instead of nationalism.  Nationalism has been one of the most killing diseases of mankind. The American Revolution was actually a patriotic revolution against nationalism.

“The difference between twentieth century patriotism and eighteenth century respect became more evident as I researched. Johnson said, ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ and Russell said ‘Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.’ Perry said, ‘Patriotic fervor can obliterate moral distinctions altogether.’ But Washington used Shakespeare’s words: ‘I do love my country’s good with a respect more tender, more holy, and profound than mine own life…After what I owe to God, nothing should be more sacred than the respect I owe to my country.’ I began to realize that the early patriot was more aware of his national position than the present day patriot.

“I suppose the first great American patriots were those fifty-six men who signed their names to their own death warrant on July fourth in 1776.  Yet their names are nearly forgotten to history; the average American can name only three or four of the signers of that profound declaration. One librarian was embarrassed about not being able to recall any others ‘besides George Washington and Patrick Henry’; of course neither had signed.  Soon forgotten, true patriotism is a very personal emotion, asking no reward.

“Looking away from the battlefield for an example of patriotism is difficult at first; but they do happen all around us and every day. I found one such example at a wedding anniversary dinner. I don’t like country club affairs and so I really had not looked forward to Haig Tashjian’s surprise party.  Other than my wife and myself, all were Armenian. A diminutive lady arose during the dinner and made a toast.  She confided that she was nearing one hundred years of age and she told how her family had fled in fear of the Turks, and how she came to America.  Then she told how America had fulfilled its promise of being a good home for Armenians just as it has for so many other European people.  ‘And so my toast,’ she said, ‘is not only for the wedded couple, but to the country that has made everything possible for them and for us.  Before I sit down, I want to lead you all in singing God Bless America.

“As the chorus ended I could hear the faraway strains of a rock-and-roll band playing in some adjoining banquet room; there was a meaningful hush as many wiped away a tear; then the dinner continued.  I felt unusually proud to be a native American, and thankful to Armenia for fathering such a gracious people. I had witnessed the inspiration of true patriotism, heroism in humility. Peace has just as worthy patriots as the battlefield.

In the beginning, the word patriotism came from the word pater (father) and patriotism was ‘a quality of respect of one who is devoted to his family in fatherly fashion’; it had little to do with war or nationalism.  Therefore, I offer that the word patriotism be substituted whenever possible, by the better word respect.  I find respect to be the vanishing American spirit most worthy of return to our beloved nation.

“Respect for family, respect for the nation and the land, respect for the flag and the law, respect for mankind and respect for oneself—these have been outstandingly wanting during the last few years.  Within the family, within the nation and to all other nations, the only hope for the survival of civilization is respect or love for one another. In the end, this is all that matters.

Native (-born) Americans are so frequently disrespectful to their nation that it comes as a pleasing and heartening surprise to witness respect for us from those born elsewhere.  The attendant where the Liberty Bell was shown found it interesting that those who most often removed their hats as they beheld the great bell were foreigners. Once two blind Japanese soldiers in uniform came ‘to see’ the bell, and asked the attendant to read to them the inscription thereon.  He led their hands over the raised letters and he showed them where the crack was.  He watched them leave, talking excitedly in their own language and he wondered exactly what their reaction had been.  But stuffed into the bell’s crack, he found two roses that the veterans had been wearing. ‘I didn’t think Japanese soldiers could have done it to me,’ he said, ‘but at that instant I had even more love for America, and respect for the old bell than ever before.’

“”Adlai Stevenson seldom used the word patriotism. ‘When an American says he loves his country, he doesn’t refer to the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.  Instead he means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect.’”

Sloane’s other lost spirits: hard work, frugality, thankfulness, pioneering, Godliness, agronomy, time, independence, awareness, and an eleventh spirit—hope.

The Spirits of ’76 is out of print but it is available through the internet. My copy was published by Ballantine in 1973. It is pretty much forgotten in today’s social warfare.  But it might be good for people on the extreme wings as well as those in the middle to get it and give serious thought to those lost spirits and the challenge of finding them again. There is always that eleventh spirit.  Hope.

Reading hymns

It occurred to us a few years ago as we were singing a Christmas hymn in church, reading lyrics without music that were on the screens at the front of the sanctuary, that the hymns—beautiful as they are at Christmas—are sometimes not as good as the poetry or the prose behind them.

We become so accustomed to the pace and structure of the music that the words come from us unthinkingly.   If we remove the music and the false structure it imposes on the lyrics, we might find some of our Christmas hymns have different meanings and many of them could be sung year-around.  In fact, many could be sung year-around by removing one verse.

If we read hymns instead of singing them, we might find ourselves asking questions about the story that is told in the lyrics and sometimes even wondering about the origins of those lyrics. We’re not much of a student of music but we love it, especially at this time of year, but it seems that the lyrics come first and then somebody writes music for them.

Here’s a f’rinstance.  One of the nicest, lightest, Christmas hymns begins with the words, “Bring a torch….”   I bet you hear it in your mind right now, just because of those three words.  But who is “Jeanette Isabella?”

This is an example of how singing the lyrics changes the lyrics.   In this case, the music eliminates a comma.  If you read the lyrics of the poem, which goes back about seven centuries to the Provence region of France, you see that it is about TWO girls, not one.   The original title was Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle. (We appear to have Anglicized the names of the girls.)  Various sources we’ve checked say it originally was a dance tune for the nobility and didn’t show up as a Christmas tune until 1553 and an English version of the hymn wasn’t published until the middle of the eighteenth century.

One interpretation of the lyrics links this Christmas song to the Jewish celebration of Chanukah, the eight-day festival of lights that celebrates, as Chabad.com, puts it “the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality,” a theme with which many Christians identify as they celebrate the birth of Jesus.  The website makingmusicisfun.net tells us, “The torches, or candles, of ancient Hanukkah’s Festival of Lights played an important part in Christmas celebrations in Provence and southern Europe,” and calls this song, “a wonderful example of the torch songs of that time.”

The New-born *oil on canvas *76 × 91 cm *1600-1652

(Musee des Beaux Arts de Rennes)

“Bring a Torch” is one of those songs that draws the participant into the beauty of the music to the extent that the words are sung but the story they tell is not appreciated.   So let’s look at the lyrics (which might be slightly different depending on your faith traditions).   We’re going to change some punctuation and some of the structure of the poem for reading-out-loud purposes.

“Bring a torch! Jeanette, Isabelle! Bring a torch!

Come swiftly– and run! Christ is born!

Tell the folk of the village (that) Jesus is sleeping in His cradle!

Then we change from excitedly telling these two young girls to grab their torches on this night and dash into the village telling the villagers to approach in haste—but quietly.  Adore the child but do not create a disturbance.  He is sleeping the sleep of the newborn.  And although the song does not refer to his mother, she also probably is resting after the strain of childbirth.

Hasten now, good folk of the village. Hasten now, the Christ Child to see. You will find Him asleep in a manger. Quietly come and whisper softly.

Ah, ah, beautiful is the mother, Ah, ah, beautiful is her Son.

Hush, hush, peacefully now He slumbers. Hush, hush, peacefully now He sleeps.

We have seen a translation of the early French lyrics that places heavier emphasis on urging villagers to not disrupt the rest of the child and his mother.  They’re harsher than the more familiar lines of the hymn.  We don’t recall singing or hearing these words but this part of the poem begins with noise and disruption.  Perhaps it is Joseph who asks, or maybe an angel–the wording is not clear.

Who is that, knocking on the door?

Who is it, knocking like that?

 

And someone in the crowd gathered outside answers:

 

Open up!

We’ve arranged on a platter lovely cakes that we have brought here!

Knock! Knock! Knock! Open the door for us!

Knock! Knock! Knock! Let’s celebrate!

 

We can envision Joseph cracking the door open and slipping out to confront the crowd.  Speaking in a loud whisper, he tells the villagers:

 

It is wrong when the child is sleeping.  It is wrong to talk so loud. Silence, now as you gather around lest your noise should waken Jesus.

 

And as the crowd heeds his wishes, he opens the door and reminds them as they go in:

 

Hush! Hush! see how he slumbers.

Hush! Hush! see how fast he sleeps!

Softly now unto the stable,

Softly for a moment come!

Look and see how charming is Jesus,

Look at him there, His cheeks are rosy!

 

And we hear the whispered voices of the people as they file through the room:

Hush! Hush! see how the Child is sleeping;

Hush! Hush! see how he smiles in dreams!

We still don’t know who these two girls are or were.  Perhaps the names were plucked out of the air by the original writer of the poem to fit the meter of the poem.  But the more popular version seems to rely on a painting by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), a French Baroque artist who did a lot of religious scenes lit by candlelight.  The story behind his painting is that Jeanette and Isabella (Isabelle in the French lyrics) are milk maids who have gone to the stable to milk the cows and find Jesus has been born there.  We don’t know who tells them to light the torches and spread the good news in the village.  But we are told the custom remains in France for children to dress up as farm folks and as they go to midnight mass, they sing the song that begins, “Bring a torch….”

If you want to take the time today—if you have the time today—and you have a hymnal in your home, you might want to read some other hymns.  It might be hard because there will be the tendency to read them the way the music has them sung.  But you might find reading hymns as poetry or prose is interesting and might even add a new dimension to this day for you.

Take a look particularly at “Joy to the World” and ask yourself after reading it why this song could not be the opening hymn in worship at any time of the year.

We hope we have not spoiled your enjoyment of the music of Christmas with this little excursion that began by wondering who Jeanette Isabella was.  Remember that our word Psalms comes from a Greek word that means “instrumental music” and the words that go with it.

Let all of us, regardless of our faith tradition, hope on this day that light will prevail.

What were they thinking? Part Two

Some folks at the Capitol who have checked the Benton Mural say they can’t see any damaged caused by the thoughtless use of it for a couple of people to write information on the backs of some business cards a few days ago.   But those thoughtless actions appear likely to change some access to that room.

The House Lounge has become a popular place for groups to hold rallies or press conferences such as the rally to override the Right to Work bill veto last week where this incident took place.

But because of this, it appears likely the House will put some limits on activities in the Lounge and will require a House or Capitol staff member to be present for all of those events just to make sure that someone else doesn’t pull a stunt like that one.

That’s not bad.  The great fear after something like this is that over-reaction will severely limit public access to that incredible piece of art.  While the policy has not been fully implemented yet, it appears to be falling short of the more severe policies that could have been employed.

The lady in the picture has apologized.  The schnook with her who also was writing on a business card hasn’t had the guts to step forward and do the same.  He continues to display bad manners and lack of character, to say the least.

What were they thinking?

The answer is: They weren’t.  And it leaves thousands of people wondering if there is any limit to stupidity.  Or ignorance.  Or bad manners.  Or lack of consideration.  Or…….

Sometimes you just can’t find the words.

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We’ve been contacted by a number of people during the last few days asking if we’ve seen this picture.  Yes, we have, several times now. Your faithful scribe does not do Facebook or Linked In and twitters, twits, tweets—whatever the heck it is—only for limited professional reasons because I have better things to do with my time.  I do not disparage those who do spend considerable time each day being involved with a large network of people they do and don’t know. Call me a curmudgeon.  I wear the hat proudly.

Anyway, yes, I’ve seen it.  Somebody asked for my reaction.  It was instant.

This is inexcusable behavior by someone I otherwise would have assumed to have a certain level of intelligence and common sense.  These people are displaying behavior that one might expect from an ignorant third-grader and are endangering one of the greatest works of one of America’s foremost 20th century artists and showing disrespect for the greatest work of art in our Capitol.  They might also be placing themselves in some legal jeopardy, depending on whether there is any damage to public property.  There are tables in the House Lounge where they could have done their writing. Thoughtlessness is not in itself a punishable offense.  But these two people should at the very least publicly apologize for their unthinking behavior. 

Bob Priddy, author of ONLY THREE RIVERS ARE PEACEFUL:THE MISSOURI MURAL OF THOMAS HART BENTON and THE ART OF THE MISSOURI CAPITOL: HISTORY IN BRONZE, CANVAS, AND STONE.

Dave Marner, the Owensville newspaper publisher who took the picture, called me during the weekend and we talked at some length about this incident.  His photograph has gone viral and has generated worldwide scorn.  We know who the woman is: Valinda Freed of Randolph County, the vice chairwoman of the Missouri Republican Party, who was in the House Lounge for a rally urging the legislature to overturn Governor Nixon’s Right to Work bill veto.  As another friend of mine has written, “I don’t know the jackass joining in alongside her.”

Another friend who has worked in and around the capitol for a long, long time, sent me a note that said, “It also made me think of the definition of a word you don’t hear much anymore, “philistine”

The incident and the photographic record of it have stirred up a fecal hurricane.  Ms. Freed, after a couple of days in the eye of the hurricane, issued an apology to the Kansas City Star.  “I offer my sincere apologies for my completely unplanned and thoughtless act.  The Thomas Hart Benton mural, and all the magnificent artwork in the Capitol are state and national treasures,” she wrote.  She didn’t elaborate and as far as we know hasn’t done any interviews.

The “jackass” next to her in the picture hasn’t revealed himself or issued any statement regretting his action.  In addition to being a “philistine,” he does not appear to be much of a gentleman because he continues to let Ms. Freed take the fall.

It is also worth noting that this incident is not nearly so sad as the ongoing neglect of the other “state and national treasures” in our capitol.  No other state capitol can match the quantity and the quality of art that we find in Missouri’s Capitol.  Decades of deterioration of the structure and its art are far more egregious than what Ms. Freed and her friend have done. The state is spending forty-million dollars to fix a major foundation leakage problem under the main stairway on the south front of the building, a project so big that it might have an impact on the staging of the inauguration of new state officials in January, 2017.  Those who love the Capitol hope governors-to be and legislatures yet to come will find as much enthusiasm about investing in the capitol as they seem to find in granting favors to interests of economic capital.

It is also fair to note that they were not writing on the painting. They were leaning against it, putting their hands on it, writing on business cards or something.  Their “thoughtless act” did have a positive element to it.

It triggered an outrage on behalf of art and culture.  We are living in a political time when there appears to be little room for appreciation of the arts and the values they bring to society.  The loud insistence from many that their definition of “family values” be the rigid foundation of society seems to leave little room for the liberal freedoms that the arts should communicate.

We do not think, as we view Ms. Freed’s actions, that they are symbolic of that attitude.  We do not believe that she intended her thoughtless action to be a commentary on the arts, certainly not Thomas Hart Benton’s use of the arts to celebrate the efforts of independent citizens to build a diverse, serious, sometimes corrupt but always dynamic state.

While her apology strikes some as inadequate, this viewer wonders what more she could say.  Clearly the photograph has been a gigantic embarrassment to her and for some time to come she will be known to some folks as “that woman who….”   So let’s let her statement stand.  She need not immolate herself on the town square to express her remorse. We do, however, wish that her friend showed at least some class and also apologized instead of letting her get the full load from the hurricane.

Those in Missouri as well as outside the state who have generated that hurricane would do well to retain their indignation and use it to evaluate people, parties, and causes to whom art and culture are on the periphery—at best—of their vision