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Posts Tagged ‘workingman’

Barnes-3

 

 

 

Barnes-waterfall

Today I need the Indian goddess with the many arms because I want to say about the Barnes Collection in its new home, “On the one hand, on the other hand, on the third hand …”

After I saw the documentary The Art of the Steal, about how the fabulous art collection that was willed to a historically black college to keep it from art-world experts ended up in the hands of art world experts, I thought a trustee at Lincoln University had sold his patrimony for a mess of pottage. Now I think that receiving untold wealth is a curse and the donor better have a good plan and lots of resources to support the unfortunate recipient. (More about the movie.)

That’s two hands.

On Thursday, having visited the Albert C. Barnes collection in its new Philadelphia Museum of Art building, I needed a few more hands.

On the third hand, the building is gorgeous in its simplicity and displays the art (69 Cezannes, anyone? How about 60 Matisses? 44 Picassos? 178 Renoirs? Do you love Seurat? Van Gogh? Pennsylvania Dutch furniture?) in the quirky layout of the old Merion, Pa., setting and without labels as Barnes did. On the fourth hand, lack of labels is annoying. On the fifth hand, the art experts provide an ipod with lectures on selected works and a booklet to identify all the items exhibited. On the sixth hand, faithful as the layout is, Dr. Barnes, who made his money in pharmaceuticals and wanted ordinary working families to enjoy and study art without the filter of the art establishment — would have had a heart attack about the entry fee and the standard gift shop and coffee shop and other luxurious museum appointments.

The museum is definitely worth seeing, for the building, the art, and the way the roaring controversy was all handled. But it’s the little things I will cherish like finding black and white illustrations that reminded me of Dickens illustrations and turned out to be by the school friend Barnes asked to help form his taste and get him started on collecting (William Glackens).

Giorgio de Chirico, Portrait of Albert C. Barnes, 1926

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Back before “labor” became a dirty word in the minds of some politicians, “workingmen” were more appreciated.

A corporation might even honor workers in the architecture of a headquarters. (Note the photo taken in Boston’s financial district.)

These days, looking around the subway at the tired bodies heading home at night, I’ve begun to think of almost everyone as the workingman. All but a few folks who are very well off. There is hardly anyone in the middle anymore.

The people slogging back and forth, doing whatever they have to do, are unconscious of a kind of heroic aura that envelops them collectively. You can see it if you look.

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Philip Levine, 83, is a poet laureate for our times. He expresses, as the NY Times puts it, the “gritty voice of the workingman.”

“Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric …”

Read the Times article.

Levine’s appointment as poet laureate feels timely to me for several reasons.

While income inequality in the country has become increasingly pronounced over the last few decades, public attitudes toward the labor unions that worked to level the playing field have become markedly negative. Are unions really no longer needed? Certainly, there have been abuses of their power: for example, the way some teachers unions have protected bad teachers. And weak government officials in Central Falls (RI), having routinely succumbed to the demands of public safety workers, now find there is no money to pay the promised benefits. This summer Central Falls filed for bankruptcy.

But intensely hostile antilabor actions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and even Maine are like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A balance between workers and other stakeholders seems to make more sense. Workers are still sometimes abused, after all. That’s why I was happy to see unions helping out foreign “cultural exchange” students to protest conditions at a Hersey’s plant in Pennsylvania last week. (I blogged about that here.)

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