(Hatred) Tender Age Internment Camps

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It is entirely unclear which is the worse name to call these things. Are they “concentration camps” or “tender age shelters”? This is the searing picture on the front page of today’s New York Times. No words can quite match the hatred reflected in this image. The racist hatred that powers the policy of “zero tolerance” and the furious hatred one feels for the people responsible for creating these conditions form part of a circuit, the hatred one feels against the President of the United States and the Republican Party. Never forget and never forgive.

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Jerry-rigged Church Space (Rescue Baptist Church)

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Walking down W. 123rd Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick, you are at first not sure what you are looking at. Illuminating a basic point made by Durkheim about the sacred, the only thing that distinguishes Rescue Baptist Church as a physical structure from the row of brownstones, of which it is a part, is the economical application of the simple whitewash, which is enough to set it apart from the surrounding environment.

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Harlem Green Space (New West 123rd Street Block Association Garden)

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Harlem is full of community gardens that humanize the urban landscape and preserve it from developers. This one, the New West 123rd Street Block Association Garden, has a particularly lush layout with generous places to sit, places to plant, and areas of heavy green growth in the corners. And, yes, those are beehives over there in the garden.

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Norman Street (Queens)

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Norman Street in Queens is modest, low slung and leafy

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Philosopher & Abraham Lincoln (Leon Golub)

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Two more figures, massive, bloody, and lacquered,  from Leon Golub’s shop of horrors.

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Philip Roth (Jewish)

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Writing about Philip Roth in the New Yorker, Zadie Smith proffered that there is something “ancient and rabbinical” in Roth’s “attraction to paradox and imperfection.” That may or may not be true depending on what one means by either of the two key terms. Roth, of course, was neither “ancient” nor “rabbinic.” And yes, while the oeuvre is obviously modern and American Jewish, by ancient and rabbinic one might still mean two “primordial” characteristics, which when held together, are echt Jewish. These would be the predilection for biting contradiction and conflict coupled with deep, tribal fellow feeling.

Roth famously claims to have been an American writer, not a Jewish writer, but as Plato understood, artists always lie. I am pretty sure, for instance, that he was never invited to appear on panels at Protestant theological seminaries, as he was at Yeshiva University in a famous event, famously mischaracterized by the author and described here by Steven Zipperstein, correcting the record. As did other American Jews writing in the 1950s and 1960s, Roth wrote himself out of the Jewish ghetto from within a position deep inside a Jewish cave. Against the ghetto of Jewish narrowness circa 1959, Roth stood out and still stands out as the acrid critic of clichéd Jewish tripe. But the more he dug his writing out of “Jewishness,” the more he dug it back in, like a burrowing creature in a short story by Kafka.

Returning again and again to Newark, New Jersey, Roth was a profoundly local American writer. About this, though, there’s nothing especially “ancient” or “rabbinic.” As my friend and colleague Gail Hamner pointed out in a private conversation, Roth was no different in this respect than Faulkner. And to Faulkner one could easily add Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, and James. Except for one major difference. Unable to enjoy the majority privilege of American Christian whiteness, Roth’s writing was savage. At once social and existential, it came from a deeply self-conscious and beleaguered minority subject position that lent itself to parody and aggressiveness. The place in the world in Roth’s writing, its place in America was hemmed in by doubts, questions, and kindred inconsistencies relating to sex, death, and comedy. Uninhibitedly vulgar, the binary oppositions in Roth’s fiction are uncomprehending ones between Jew and gentile, Jew and Jew, men and women, reason and unreason.

But there was always this. Steeped in postwar middle class, third generation Jewish family ambience, there was always something deeply heimisch about Roth’s writing. Always coming back to fathers, mothers, brothers, sons and, on rare occasion, daughters, it didn’t matter that these settings were couched viciously. The family fellow-feeling was something that I first noticed a long time ago when I read Patrimony, a non-fiction work about his father, and in the family setting that defines Plot Against America, a vulnerability in the world together. Almost mawkish, except for that bite. Roth’s fundamentally sympathetic relation to the inner circle of Jewish social being gave to many of his stories a warm tint of kindness, just on the other side of explosive anger. The family ambience accounts, as per Smith, for that arch tolerance for the stain of human imperfection, unable to adjust and to make it, viewed from inside. I don’t think anything else interested Roth as much as the sexual, social, and existential failures of fathers and of men.

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Leon Golub Raw Nerve Radical Art

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Leon Golub was a one-note painter of political art active in the 1960s. But on what an eviscerating note. Most interesting paintings are now on view at the Met Bruer. Anti-racist and anti-war, they are all of them epic in scale. His canvas never settled down. The paintings allow for little by way of quiet reflection, except for maybe the second one above, The Conversation, which, according to the wall text, was mostly like based on a photograph from South Africa during the time of apartheid. A painter primarily of men caught in brutal situations, he was the husband of feminist artist Nancy Spero, also a painter of dynamic, kinetic mythic and mythological figures, and whom I first encountered here, literally underground.

This interview about Golub, which you can read here, with Kelly Baum is very helpful in terms of placing Golub in the radical art political circles of the time. About process and techniques, she writes that, for Golub, these “were both opportunities to express meaning, to explore violence. For most of his career, he brutalized his surfaces, did violence to his canvases. It’s especially apparent in Gigantomachy II where he added and subtracted, applied and removed paint continuously, using implements like meat cleavers. Because of this subtractive technique, the figures appear flayed. He was working on the floor sometimes, too. It took a lot of strength and endurance. I want to emphasize that his very technique, and the effects it achieved, are also political. In at least one piece of writing, he compares his treatment of the canvas’s surface to the damage done to skin by napalm, which literally just dissolves the skin off the bones.”

For Golub, the human condition is torture all the way down. It’s art that leaves an acrid taste in the back of the throat.

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