Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

Audubon II

There is darn little art without political economy. Welcome back to another way of looking at John James Audubon.

In his book, Audubon’s Elephant, detailing the difficulties of getting the double elephant edition of Birds of America published in Britain, Duff Hart-Davis says Audubon’s portfolio weighed a hundred pounds. Hart-Davis doesn’t inform us that when Audubon referred to “servants” in the 1810s, what he meant were slaves. Richard Rhodes in his biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American gives more details. In the slave state of Kentucky, the Audubons bought and sold nine humans between 1813-1819, investing at least $10,500. Previously, Audubon’s father Jean had worked many slaves on Saint Domingue before the Haitian revolution; that’s what allowed him to invest in the Pennsylvania farm property (which included a lead mine) that JJA was supposed to manage when he came to America at the age of 18 in 1803. (His father also wanted him out of the way of Napoleon’s recruiters.)

After the Panic of 1819, which financially crushed the Audubons and just about everyone else in the West (then the Ohio and Mississippi valleys), the family sold off the last of their slaves to pay their debts. Two, who had paddled Audubon down the Mississippi, were sold in New Orleans, the deepest of the Deep South, where the plantation economy was notorious for its brutality.

Wiped out and demoralized by the Panic, the nation’s first economic nose-dive (sparked by the bill coming due for the Louisiana Purchase), Audubon decided to turn to art rather than commerce. (But of course art was commerce, as it has always been in some form or another, as he knew or learned the hard way.)

The national image of slavery remains one of large plantations, all that Gone With the Wind garbage. Whitney’s cotton gin (1793) had radically transformed the cotton industry; production doubled each decade after 1800. The plantation economy, rather than the domestic labor economy, began to overwhelmingly dominate the slave market. That market was constricted because the importation of slaves had been outlawed in 1808, although an illegal trade continued. It was the internal trade in humans that boomed, seeing a large population transfer from the Upper to the Deep South. In the decade before the Civil War, Kentucky was one of the biggest exporters of slaves to the plantations.

Slavery touched everything.  It was near universal at the birth of America, accepting those who could not afford a human (and, initially, those few who opposed to it on principle). Middle class folk, like the Audubons before the bust, had a middle class life because of slaves. While Audubon was away in Scotland and England producing and selling Birds of America, his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon was teaching the daughters of slaveholders in Louisiana.  The Rathbone family, who welcomed Audubon to Liverpool so generously when others shied away from the long-haired frontiersman, had made their fortune in the cotton trade, although by then they were abolitionists.

In the Audubons’ time in Henderson, Kentucky, a quarter of the state’s population was enslaved. The western frontier was made by slaves just as much as the South was. So, of course, was Brooklyn: almost a third of Kings Co.’s population was enslaved at the time of the Constitution; although full emancipation came in 1827, some slaves were illegally kept until the early 1840s in out of the way corners of the county.

It’s marching season. Tomorrow is the People’s Climate March in DC and elsewhere.

Happy Birthday, John J.

It’s Audubon’s 232nd today. Backyard and Beyond will be noting this in several ways over the next couple of days. Some of you may be surprised to learn that John James Audubon retired to Manhattan. In 1841, upper New York County was still pretty wild, as the city more or less ended at 14th Street. Wishing to get away from their downtown home at 84 White St., the Audubons moved way up the island. They purchased 14 (or 20 or 30, depending on the source!) acres bordering the Hudson for 550 feet in the neighborhood now called Washington Heights. They caught an 8-foot, 200-pound sturgeon their first summer, had a menagerie and planted many fruit trees. But JJ, having lost most of teeth by then, still wasn’t quite ready to park it yet.

The prodigious walker and traveller — he crossed the Atlantic a dozen times when it could take 2 to 3 weeks to do so; his first trip from New Orleans to Liverpool took 7 weeks — had one more journey in him. Out West! Finally! He and companions journeyed up the Missouri in 1843. It was pretty grim going.  It took ages before there was any big game to shoot; at one point they were hungry enough to eat a wolf, but a bison was killed at the last moment.  Also, the land was in mourning: some 17,000 Native Americans had been killed by smallpox spread by the fur trade starting in 1837.

Audubon bagged* 11 bird species in time to add them to the last volume of the cheaper royal octavo version of Birds of America. The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, his last work, completed by his sons and co-writer John Bachman, was published in 1845-46. By 1848, the once indefatigable Audubon was dwindling: his vision had dimmed and he was sinking into senility.

“Alas, my poor friend Audubon, the outlines of his countenance and his general robust form are there, but his mind is all a ruin,” wrote the Reverend John Bachman (the now extinct warbler was named after him). John James LaForest Audubon, born the bastard “Jean Rabin” on Saint Domingue (Haiti), died in 1851 at the age of 65.

I will be giving a short talk about the Audubon legacy at the annual Audubon Birthday Party hosted by the Riverside Oval Association on Saturday, April 29. Festivities start at 3pm at the oval at the western end of 156th St in Washington Heights. There will be cake and what one presumes will be a rousing version of Happy Birthday in the Grinnell Building community room after the outdoor activities. (Yes, that Grinnell!)

The location is just north of Trinity Church’s uptown cemetery, where JJA is buried. (A mausoleum there with the not particularly common name WILLS on it has always intrigued me.) Minniesland, the Audubon home, was knocked down in the early 1930s, long since out of the family. Audubon Terrace continues to carry on the local name. (The Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated, is no longer called that.)

The neighborhood is also the location of the Audubon Mural Project.

*He wasn’t happy if he didn’t take a hundred birds a day. The old boy worried about the decline of the bison and the passenger pigeon, and saw in England the the industrial revolution destroying the land. On the other wing, he seems to have eaten a hell of a lot of the things he shot, commenting on their taste as part of his ornithological writings. 

Avenue U

On the Q Line. Jason Middlebrook, “Brooklyn Seeds,” 2011.

Did you catch the results of Kansas’s special election on Tuesday? In a heavily Republican district, the Democratic candidate did quite well. Not enough to win, but damn close. In dozens of GOP-held Congressional districts, a similar swing would simply drown the rats. And this guy did it with minimal support from his state party and virtually no support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose job it is is to support Democratic candidates for Congress. And you wonder why I despair of this party apparatus? The Democratic National Committee also refused its support; they’ve made plain that actual (as opposed to toothless rhetoric) resistance to Trumpism not a priority for the DNC’s funders. Yet democracy wins in the streets, not in any party’s offices.

Nature Morte

Check out Zane York’s Nature Morte at The Arsenal Gallery, The Arsenal, Central Park, NY NY, through April 27.

We can chortle all we want to at the French, a la Groening’s Law — if I remember my graduate school days correctly — the French are funny, sex is funny, and comedy, obviously, is funny, but no French sex comedy is funny! Yet nature morte is a much more authentic description than “still life.”
Except, perhaps, when ants are on the loose.

Thoreau Thursday

Yesterday in Prospect, the rites of spring were springing. An astonishing twenty-six Wood Ducks were to be found on the Pools. Chipmunks and turtles were out and about in the unseasonable warmth. Behold, two European Goldfinches, far from home. The first Mourning Cloak of the year, velvet over the sere leaves. A pair of male Hairy Woodpeckers jostled for territory. A female American Kestrel on an antenna, right outside the park, was grooming. The frequency-jamming of Red-winged Blackbirds: first time I’ve heard them this year, the avant garde of spring. There were a dozen and a half by and above the Terrace Bridge. Heard a Kingfisher on the other side of the bridge, too.

And now over to a special guest appearance by Helen MacDonald:

“I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing — not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?”

Hm. This is going swimmingly until that last sentence.

Another way of looking at this to think that those who fought like hell to rescue California Condors, and Peregrines, Bald Eagles, etc., from the wretchedness of human society did so precisely to prevent the loss, and to suggest that there was something more than humans in the world that mattered. That was a dog-damned good fight! The Condors are still a touch-and-go situation, bedeviled by death-worshipping hunters, and so richly coddled that they’re only half wild. But what a half!


durerStill a few days left to catch Naturalia at Paul Yasmin Gallery here in NYC. Exhibit ends on March 4th. It’s a thought-provoking mixture of old and new representations of nature in collaboration with Sotheby’s Old Masters division. The juxtaposition may leave you with a confirmation of what you already knew you liked to begin with.horseshoeBe sure to check out both spaces, across the street from each other.mushrooms

The virtual reality piece seemed to be broken, which is not something you could say for the five century old works. This is a first time I’ve put one of these gimcrack devices on. It was blurry, hot, and uncomfortable. Give me real reality any day. (“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” said Philip K. Dick.) I wrote about Albrecht Dürer’s famous rhinoceros for JSTOR Daily. I wrote some more about it here. The poor animal, which Dürer never actually saw, drowned while being shipped to the Pope. At a much larger scale than the Dürer, Walton Ford portrays that fateful moment here:Walton FordMost intriguing having these two works in the same room. Here’s some more I wrote about Ford.

Breaking the Lock

lockRebecca Solnit’s “Tyranny of the Minority” in the March Harper’s nails it:

“Republicans’ furious and nasty war against full [democratic] participation has taken many forms: gerrymandering, limiting early voting, reducing the number of polling places, restricting third-party voter registration, and otherwise disenfranchising significant portions of the electorate. Subtler yet no less effective have been their efforts to attack democracy at the root. They have advanced policies to weaken the electorate economically, to undermine a free and fair news media, and to withhold the education and informed discussion that would equip citizens for active engagement.”

With the vengeful little Confederate Jeff Sessions now in charge of suborning the Justice Dept. and Trump’s deranged fantasies about non-existant fraud voter, expect to see an even greater assault on democracy. Apartheid is their goal; a minority (just 25% of Americans voted for Trump) can stay in power no other way. And the sadism seen in the botched Muslim ban, the ICE-round-ups, and declaring open season on trans youth shows you precisely how they will react to dissent. Remember, this crew isn’t shy about arguing that we need to go back to having only property-owners vote, having the states appoint senators, and getting rid of the 19th Amendment (women tend to vote for social programs, after all).

Only in her next-to-last paragraph does Solnit nod towards how the Democrats have aided and abetted the long-term effort to transform America into an oligarchy. They’ve sold us a socially “liberal” version, but without democracy, rights are only for the wealthy in the long run. Today, the DNC votes for its new chair. The role is mostly symbolic, yet the Obama/Clinton corporate wing of the party are still determined to fail us.


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