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 Seattle Ringer
Fifth of a completely inconsequential six-part series about my trip to Seattle this past August to see Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" performed by Seattle Opera.

(Jan. 5, 2010)

          There it was, on the floor of the Seattle Art Museum: a piece of canvas, in the middle of a gallery of modern paintings by various artists. My first impulse was to remove it, lest some lost-in-thought art-gazer might slip on it and sue the museum for a broken sacroiliac. But as I approached, I saw that the filthy piece of cloth. . .
          Had a title!
          I should have known. It was. . .art.
          Yes, this was “Painting to Be Stepped On.” Really.
          Who, I wondered briefly, had perpetrated this prodding little stunt?
          Ah. I should have known.
          Why, that prodding little stunt-artist, Yoko Ono, of course.
          I walked over to this fine and undoubtedly pricey bit of aesthetic accomplishment, Arts Gratia Footus, to appreciate it more closely. Yes, it was a piece of canvas, all right, covered in dust and dirt from the many cooperative “artists” who had participated in its “creation.” I imagined some art scholar/critic’s comments:
          Playful and provocative, deceptively profound, Ono’s subtle device invites the entire world to help create this work, and thus becomes a gritty (literally and figuratively) but lyrical statement of human cooperation, participation. Some perhaps stamp on the fabric in disgust, others might leave their imprint with a humbled sense of being part of the human family, still others might simply find it an exercise in mirthful absurdity. Ono’s conceit breaks down all barriers, equalizes all races/religions/philosophies through the commonality of having feet, and in so doing boldly strips away pretense, artifice.
          Art critics always say “boldly.”
          At least, I thought, it was preferable to “Painting to Blow Your Nose On.” Me, I wanted to go and pick it up, and threatened to do so in a muttered aside to my accomplice, Annie.
          “Don’t do it,” she said.
          “Well, it’s a ‘Painting to Be Stepped On,’ so why not show a little anti-authoritarianism and turn it into 'Painting to Be Picked Up?' Yoko would approve. Maybe toss it around a little, like pizza dough, then drop it back on the floor?”
          “Don’t do it,” said Annie.
          “Why? Do you suppose they might bust me? Arrest me for damaging an expensive work of art? Throw me in the clink?”
          “They miiiiight.”
          She was right, of course. Art is art, no matter one’s opinion of it. If you have a reputation as an artist, then anything you deign to be art. . . is. If Yoko says a piece of canvas on the floor is art, who am I to say otherwise? As Muhammad Ali once observed, “If I say a mosquito can pull a plow, don’t question me---hitch him up!”
          By the way, I’ve known Yoko for many years, and later dropped her an e-mail about this incident, including my threat to have picked up the “Painting To Be Stepped On.” I added that next time I would make good on that threat, just to make the papers. Er, the blogs, I should say.
          Judging by her lack of response, I guess she was not amused. I briefly wondered, there in the museum, what Wagner might think of the "Painting to Be Stepped On." But only briefly. Which reminded me of a statement Yoko made to me a few years ago, after I mentioned having seen a particular opera.
          “Opera is a dying art.”
          Actually, the statement, “opera is a dying art” is the only thing dying about opera. When I noted to Ono that opera is actually more popular than at any time in human history, that “great arias” are routinely recorded and sung (horribly) by pop stars, that there are more opera companies and opera singers and opera subscribers than at any time in human history (even in these hard times), that people buy tickets years in advance for “The Ring” cycles in Seattle, Toronto, L.A., Berlin, and on and on, she. . .
          Did not respond.
          I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t respond to e-mail that disputes their opinions, however politely.
          And while Ono has achieved a place in art history, I have my doubts that “Painting To Be Stepped On” will be around as long as Wagner.
          We moved on to other exhibits in the spacious museum on the Saturday “day off” between the third and fourth operas in the Ring Cycle, “Siegfried” and “Gotterdamerung.” There was a nice display of Andrew Wyeth paintings of that lanky red-headed girl with the freckles and braids, and while they were perfectly wonderful pieces of art, they did not capture my imagination, as that rather nice, old-fashioned turn of phrase used to go.
          Still, I found Wyeth far more artful than some colossal madness in the main lobby, in which all sorts of cars (actual cars) had been suspended from the ceiling, with thousands of light-emitting diodes (or something similar) extending from them like fireworks. This was the installation of one Cai Guo-Giang, and it bore the hilariously non-sequitir title, “Inopportune.” I read the unintentionally ridiculous critical notes with great amusement---how the cars evoked “an overall feeling of discomfort and anguish despite one's urge to keep looking” and how the exhibit was “politically charged and entertaining at the same time.” (At least the critic didn't call it "bold.")
          Politically charged?
          I wondered if Giang---or Ono, for that matter---could make one brush stroke as descriptive and skillful and poetic as Wyeth. Found myself feeling extra thankful that someone as sane as Speight Jenkins runs Seattle Opera and keeps the interpretations of Wagner, Verdi, et al. literal. I had visions of Valkyries riding through the air in discarded Ford Tauruses full of light-emitting diodes. . .And the whole stage a gigantic piece of canvas by Ono, who would describe it as an “opera to be stepped on.” Gawd. Of course, there have been worse stagings of opera.
          I shook these thoughts off as I wandered further, in search of something saner. I soon came across Imogen Cunningham’s photographs, which was a good start. The problem with photography is that anyone, including a monkey, can accidentally take a great photo, and persons of mediocre or sensationalist vision can and do accrue reputations as great artists because of the way they snap a shutter. Neither was the case, of course, with Cunningham, whose almost casual---certainly unpretentious---way of taking pictures turned image into real art. She just had an eye, sometimes a a journalistic eye, sometimes a portraitist’s eye, sometimes a painter’s eye. I loved the black lady in the sun bonnet in 1950 (see the video), and I loved Cunningham’s disarming summary statement:
          “I don’t think anyone knows his own work. We always make mistakes. One can never tell. I’ve done so many things that I have no idea how to evaluate them.”
          Long way from the legendarily titanic ego of Wagner, I thought, musing on how such disparate personalities can create “great art,” which led to the old saw about how highly imperfect human beings can generate surpassing creative wonders.
          And then I saw it.
          The piece d’ resistance.
          The coup de grace.
          The “final irony,” as John Barrymore was wont to say.
          I knew my visit to the museum was over. That nothing could follow this act. This was Arterdammerung. Goodnight, everybody!
          "Mann und Maus."
          The mouse was about six feet tall, jet black. It sat imperiously, hallucinogenically, yet matter-of-factly, atop an apparently sleeping figure of a man. The man and bed were snow white. This was the ultimate delirium tremens nightmare. (Barrymore would have loved it.) Should have been titled “ Alcoholics Anonymouse.” I didn’t bother to read the “explanatory” notes, if there were any. I didn’t want to know. Didn’t want it spoiled by an “analysis” by some joker with a PhD in art history. The mouse would symbolize the sleeper’s subconscious rejection of blah blah. . .The artist was one Katharina Fritsch, and my hat is off to her. This thing was just a howl, and pretty damned spooky, to boot.
          Speight Jenkins could do worse than to hire Fritsch for some design work on a future “Ring”. . .As is the case with whoever designed the Pigmobile.
          The Pigmobile was parked right outside of Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners, where we went later that evening. Not that we are baseball fans---we just like the spectacle of the ballpark and humans on steroids throwing and hitting a tiny ball around for millions of bucks. The Pigmobile was huge, aluminum and brushed steel (I’m guessing), with a curly steel tail, giant steel pig snout, and huge pointy steel pig ears. It boasted a large portable grill, on which could be found dozens of leaping, spitting, hissing weenies and sausages of various plumps and lengths.
          Beat the hell out of "Painting to Be Stepped On."
          I imagined the critical analysis:
          Representing the animal in such cold, steely (literally) tones, the sculptor is making a bold statement about the callous exploitation of swine, if not all beasts, as foodstuff by human beings, with the grill, where actual porsine flesh is seared and sizzled, as the horrible heart of this dark work. An iron-and-steel icon of irony. . .
          Inside the park, we sat and watched the ever-astounding spectacle of major league baseball, and I could not help but think of how miraculous and strange it is that human evolution has resulted, in part, in the molding of massive amounts of natural resources into gargantuan havens for. . .amusement. Yet the Seattle crowd did not seem very amused. Sure, the Mariners were hardly contenders for the pennant, and they were losing the game decidedly by the fifth inning, but you root for your home team, don’t you?
          Well, the polite, docile Seattle folks rooted, I guess. They clapped little rhythmic clap-chants with all the gusto of people with no skeletons, and sort of whispered, “Let’s go” at the end. Compared with this, the rocking, howling, puking, tobacco-spewing, occasionally gun-firing scene at Dodger Stadium is an Aztec sacrificial rite.
          We stayed for the whole game because we were out of town visitors, and wanted to be respectful. Later that night, on the long walk back to the motel, I remarked:
          “I should have just picked up that Yoko painting and then told the guard that I thought it was a ‘Painting To Be Picked Up And Taken Home,’” I said, but Annie didn’t bother responding.
          That night I had dreams of a giant black mouse singing “Wotan’s Farewell,” and Siegfried slaying the Pigmobile.

next week: the last installment---the meowing squirrel of Queen Anne Hill, and the Seattle Seachorders.
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SEATTLE RINGER PART THREE: Der Rense des Nibelungen
SEATTLE RINGER PART FOUR: Sleepless in Seattle

Seattle Opera Revives its "Green" Ring Cycle

Seattle Ring's Triumphant Finale
Seattle Humanizes Wagner's Ring

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