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August 19, 2008

Hey Tom Allen, the answer is Yes

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee just sent us a quick note saying they had a bunch of videos showing a "behind the scenes" look at the race for US Senate, which pits Democratic US Representative Tom Allen against Republican incumbent Susan Collins.

Here are the names of the five videos they told us about (they're linked, but trust us and finish reading before you click).

"Canvassing in Maine"

"A day on a lobster boat"

"Fly fishing with Tom Allen"

 "Is Tom Allen boring?"

"On the trail with Allen"

 So which one of those boringly titled options do you think we watched first? You're right. And the answer is above. Even as a canned piece of promotion not paid for by Tom Allen's campaign, the idea of posing such a question (even rhetorically) is dangerous. And then when the answer is a sleepy video with a lullaby soundtrack, the DSCC should know it's missing the boat.

Give it try for yourself. (NSFW only because you'll fall asleep at your desk.)


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by Jeff Inglis | with no comments
August 19, 2008

A daily paper notices our prison series!

Well, sort of. While Maine Public Broadcasting has been good about paying attention to our ongoing revelations about the conditions - living and working - at the Maine State Prison, none of the state's daily papers has picked up what appears - to us - to be a major story. (Never mind, we like owning scoops for two-and-a-half years and counting. Thanks, daily journalists!)

But today the Bangor Daily News has broken the silence. Admittedly, it's with an opinion piece by someone not on the paper's staff. But now, at least, readers of the BDN who happen not to read the Phoenix will find out about how badly Maine officials have been treating Maine inmates - Mainers torturing Mainers - for years.

Thanks, John Buell of Southwest Harbor!

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by Jeff Inglis | with no comments
August 19, 2008

FairPoint continues to screw up

At least it's in New Hampshire this time. Last month I explained why the FairPoint takeover is so terrible, and explored all the things that are going wrong, including the painful - and dangerous - failures of the E-911 emergency phone system. (See "We Told You So," July 4.

But early last week, FairPoint customers in wide swaths of New Hampshire had no dial tone at all for something like 11 hours. Helpfully, a daily paper - in keeping with that industry's trend to tell you yesterday's news tomorrow - had as a headline "Lakes Region Phones Down for 11 Hours." And the local TV station did one better - "Telephone Problems in Large Part of N.H. Fixed."

Also helpfully, both the Union Leader and WMUR TV asked about emergency calls during that time. In the WMUR report, the director of the state's Department of Safety suggested people need to be prepared to "get in the car and drive to the local fire station or police station to seek help there." And he told the Union Leader that while E-911 dispatchers were at work and ready to receive calls, "if someone needed an ambulance, they couldn't call 911 with no dial tone."

The system is breaking. FairPoint is counting on keeping its customers happy - and keeping more of them happier than Verizon was. This is not a good beginning.

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by Jeff Inglis | with no comments
August 17, 2008

On Good Art and Bad

 A responder to a previous post questioned my criteria for making distinctions between good art and bad. Many gallons of ink have been consumed on this topic, much of it by people a whole lot smarter than me, but it’s worth considering anyway.

 This is not a matter of taste. For instance, my own preference is for abstract art, but one of the best contemporary painters I know about is Lois Dodd, a landscape painter. If I could have any half-dozen works from any point in history, the list would be something like this: Cézanne, Matisse, Pollock, Rodin, Rembrandt, Giotto. Give me some more and I’d add Manet, Monet, Caravaggio, Mondrian, Dürer, and Brancusi.

 It’s also not a matter of theory, although theory does drive much of contemporary art. Theory is nothing more than a way to try to gain a meta-understanding of what is an otherwise mysterious process, and much of contemporary theory is less helpful than advertised.

 Here’s what I think good art is, distilled from close to forty years of looking seriously at art: A good work of art is one that will deeply engage you no matter how many times you look at it. A really good work will do that basically forever. You own a Warhol because you want to be the owner of a Warhol. You own a Matisse because you want to look at it.

 Discerning whether a work of art will fulfill that criterion is itself a mysterious process, but it can learned. It’s pretty easy to comprehend the quality of a work well after the artist’s time has passed, but much harder when the work is new. Part of the function of art dealers, curators and critics is to make that sort of judgment, although many do it poorly or not at all.

 My own journey in that area began when I asked an eminent critic whose judgment had been repeatedly ratified by history how to go about learning to look at art. I had expected him to recommend books to read, but he told me, in essence, to spend a lot of time looking at art, and to keep looking at Cézanne until I knew what I was looking at. Being young, in New York and living on next to nothing (you could do that in New York in those days), that’s exactly what I did, for hours, weeks, days, years.

 As a reviewer, I choose not to write about shows that I think don’t have much value. In the shows I do write about, my task, as I see it, is to try to elucidate what’s going on in the works of art for those who may have less experience or may not be familiar with the issues at hand. I don’t take it as my job to say whether a show is good or not because a show is, essentially, private and transitory. If I write about it, it’s because I think it’s worth seeing, and I give my reasons. There are good shows I don’t write about, but that’s a function of scheduling.

 This issue has come up in the context of public art, which is not private, and is permanent. When I say a work is bad, or weak, or unsuited for its site, it’s because I firmly believe it does nothing to improve  the quality of life of those who have to see it. Over the long term, its effect will be negative, or at best neutral, and that’s a sad thing for both the artists and those who have to see it, day after day. I’ve seen enough work, including my own, in public places where it shouldn’t be, to have a pretty clear idea what works and what doesn’t.

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by Ken Greenleaf | with no comments
August 12, 2008

Air Guitar Addendum

From McNallica:

"One more thing!

I couldn't have rocked as hard as I did without the AIR alliance!
My sister caitlin, justina + nonsee all flew out there with me"


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by Deirdre Fulton | with no comments
August 12, 2008

McNallica Slays in San Fran

Just heard from McNallica, Portland's pride and joy when it comes to air guitar greatness. She recently returned from San Francisco, where she competed in the US Air Guitar Championships on August 8. The Phoenix congratulates her on her impressive fourth place showing! (Hot Lixx Houlahan, who won for the second year in a row, now goes to Finland for the international championship.)

I talked to McNallica (Erin McNally) via email after her harrowing return to the East Coast...

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by Deirdre Fulton | with 1 comment(s)
August 11, 2008

Needing Public Art III

My post on public art drew some pointed responses. Annie Larmon had some comments that deserve attention, although one assertion was a little weird: “The first sentence of your article reads much like an argument for intelligent design.” I don’t know where she gets that, what she means or how to respond.

The root of my argument is that bad art in public spaces, or even good art that is not suited for the space, is not a benefit to anyone, and that most public art works are one or the other. This assumes that there is a qualitative difference between works of art. Some are better than others. The nature of the distinction between good and bad art is too complex to deal with here, but suffice it to say it exists. A Caravaggio is inherently better than a Thomas Kinkade. The distinction is a continuum without sharp lines, and there’s plenty of room for disagreement within that range, but its existence is beyond question.

Later on she said “You provide no reference to the benefits of public art in community building, beautifying space and even rendering public spaces safe.”

There are three points here:
            Community building - there might be some community building with the meetings to choose an artwork, and a little more if it’s, say, a group mural project, but the community built is pretty small. Sometime the community-building is in opposition to a piece. I once had show of mine in a now-nonexistent greensward at the lower end of Free Street in Portland, and the community mobilized in opposition to it, even though it was only a six-week installation. They were interesting works, I think, but really in the wrong place. I’ve had other pieces in public spaces, mostly in New York but in other places as well,  over the years, and they have never really worked,
            Beautifying space - Maya Lin or Richard Haas can render a space more interesting than before, but lots, if not most, public art makes them less, rather than more, enjoyable.
            Safe - This is an assertion I’ve never heard before, and I don’t think it's credible. 

A. L.: “Art organizations, to my knowledge, revere public art for its accessibility (physically and often conceptually) to those who don’t frequent galleries and museums or haven’t read volumes on art theory.”

            It’s a little off topic, but arts organizations do have limited utility in the visual arts, which are by their nature a solitary enterprise. Public art can help give them a raison d’etre and help draw grants.

            You don’t learn to look at art by reading art theory, and in any case, really good public art does reach everyone. Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial reaches deeply for everyone who sees it. Richard Haas’s trompe l’oeil  renderings on the side of buildings are immediately appealing to all who see them, and have generated dozens of lesser copy-cats. James Wines’s integrations of sculpture and architecture are also easy to like, as are the Roger Majorwoicz pieces scattered around Maine. People get married inside Richard Serra’s pieces.

            Good art lasts and people enjoy it over time, even if they have no prior experience with art (see my first response on this topic here ). 

A. L.: “I certainly can think of bucketfuls of art in public spaces that are more of an eyesore to me than something to admire, or are kitsch to the degree that I find them laughable or obnoxious.”

             My point, exactly.

 A. L.:  “But to dismiss “public art” as a whole, unspecific genre, without even paying heed to it’s(sic) many forms, political possibilities, site specificity and potential for historical commentary, seems very uninformed, brash, and whiney.”

Three more points:

Political possibilities - Of course there are great political possibilities in  public art, as has been recognized by, for instance, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin. Political public art is almost always in service of the state, either the established state or some theoretical one, e.g., Social Realism.

Site specificity - All good public art is site-specific, either as matter of its intention, e.g., Smithson’s Spiral Jetty,  or its result, e.g., Picasso’s Horse. By itself, site specificity is a neutral characteristic.

Potential for historical commentary -  Visual art is very limited in its ability for any sort of commentary, and public art even less. My late friend Sidney Tillim labored for years trying to bring back history painting, in his case about colonial American politics, and he created some quirky and enjoyable works, but I don’t think they added much to the historical discourse.

Uninformed - I don’t think so. Having looked at public in a lot of different states and for more years than I care to admit, and having had some of my own pieces in public spaces,  I have the qualification of experience.

Brash and whiney. That’s up to you.


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by Ken Greenleaf | with 1 comment(s)
August 06, 2008

Phoelympics Phever

 Who needs China? Here's how the Phoenix does the Olympics.

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by Deirdre Fulton | with 1 comment(s)
August 05, 2008

Music from Music Seen: Cerf-Volantes

In tomorrow's Music Seen, we'll have a review of last night's performance at the Dooryard by Andrew Frederick, a/k/a Cerf-Volantes, written by Sonya Tomlinson. It's pretty well within the "conflict of interest" realm for me to promote the young singer-songwriter - I've heard many of his songs being built through a closed bedroom for much of the past two years - but I'm not good at mincing words about my enthusiasm for much of anything, so trust me as I highly recommend you pay a visit to his Myspace page.

As Sonya mentions in her review, the highlight of Frederick's current material is "Me and the Wolf," a conflicted lullabye with an indelible climax, where Frederick's looped refrain of "ready or not" gradually swells and clutters into a lo-fi eruption of sorts. Is it foreboding, fearful, defiant, triumphant? Probably a shade of each. Regardless, it's given me the extremely proud warm fuzzies all day.

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by Christopher Gray | with no comments
August 05, 2008

Local craftsters plan indie music+arts festival

Localists about town, including Diane Toepfer of Ferdinand; her husband Ron Harrity, who runs Peapod Recordings; former Phoenician and current Bollardian Sean Wilkinson; and Noah DeFilippis and Amy Teh, who own the Pinecone+Chickadee design and silkscreening studio, are organizing a juried craft fair scheduled for September 13 in Lincoln Park.

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by Deirdre Fulton | with no comments
August 03, 2008

Needing Public Art II

My recent post about public art drew two pointed responses.

Paul wrote that my argument that made a direct comparison from art to newspapers, and by extension if we couldn’t have good newspapers we shouldn’t bother to have any. The function of newspapers is to provided information for civic life. A bad newspaper is probably better than no newspaper at all, although we may find that out soon anyway, for reasons unrelated to my argument about art.  The Press Herald is a shadow of its former self, but that doesn’t mean it is without value.

 Art doesn’t function that way. A mediocre work of art in a public space adds nothing to civic life and degrades the space. On the contrary, it proves to most people who see it that art doesn’t have much to add to the quality of life, even if that transaction occurs unconsciously.

 One of my arguments is that the process currently used to get art into public spaces is fundamentally flawed. My other argument is that it is in fact better to have no art in public spaces than bad art.

 Here’s an example, limited in scope for clarity of argument. Let’s say you have a public lobby in a high-rise apartment building with a space for a painting. Whatever painting you put there will be passed by dozens of people hundreds of times over the years. You could put, say a Thomas Kinkade (‘the Painter of Light’ franchise brand) print or a Bill Manning painting there. It is my conviction, based on my own experience and that of many others, that over time the Manning would still be looked at, and the Kinkade would become wallpaper. Prior experience with art wouldn’t matter. Over time repeated exposure to the better work would have an positive effect, however small, on the spirits of the passers by. People would occasionally find themselves looking at it.

This is not a matter of style. You could replace the Manning above with Lois Dodd or Rackstraw Downes or Sam Cady  and the same thing would happen.

Outdoors in a big public space it’s much harder to get it right, but the same rule applies.

 Annie Lamon had a much more complex response, about which more later.

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by Ken Greenleaf | with no comments
July 30, 2008

Did Wild Oats close in vain?

A ruling by a federal appeals court yesterday said that the Whole Foods-Wild Oats merger, which has already closed four Wild Oats stores (including the one in Portland) and "reflagged" 27 others as Whole Foods, may have taken place without adequate consideration of the effect on the marketplace for natural and organic foods.

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by Deirdre Fulton | with 2 comment(s)
July 30, 2008

Reporting on the Hill, Part 2

First things first, a correction: My too-fast fingers misspelled Cyrus Hagge's name in my piece about reporting operations on the Hill. My apologies to Mr. Hagge.

Secondly, some others have weighed in on their thoughts about the Observer, including former MHNO board member Heather Curtis.

"In my personal opinion, the Observer exists to provide a public forum," she wrote in February (while she was still on the board). "Although a cherished right of the people, freedom of the press is different from other liberties of the people in that it is both individual and institutional. It applies not just to a single person's right to publish ideas, but also to the right of print and broadcast media to express political views and to cover and publish news. A free press is, therefore, one of the foundations of a democratic society, and as Walter Lippmann, the 20th-century American columnist, wrote, 'A free press is not a privilege, but an organic necessity in a great society.' Indeed, as society has grown increasingly complex, people rely more and more on newspapers, radio, and television to keep abreast with world news, opinion, and political ideas. One sign of the importance of a free press is that when antidemocratic forces take over a country, their first act is often to muzzle the press."

"Obviously, we will resist attemps to turn the Observer into just a newsletter for the MHNO Board rather than a robust, vibrant community newspaper," she added in an email this week.

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by Deirdre Fulton | with no comments
July 30, 2008

NY Times on Protest Votes

If you take the argument from a national level to a state one, this is why Tom Allen is happy about the state Supreme Court's decision to boot Herb Hoffman off the November ballot. Hoffman is still deciding what to do next.

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by Deirdre Fulton | with no comments
July 29, 2008

Why We Don’t Need Public Art

It’s an article of faith among art organizations that public art is unquestionably a good thing. The fact is, most public art is far from a good thing; most of it is plain awful.

Making art good enough to hold its own in a pubic space is special skill, and most artists, even very good artists, can’t do it. Even if they could, most committees, and Portland’s is no exception, can’t make a decision for quality art, even if they were offered it. Horses, camels.

For proof, one need look no farther than  around the town. There is, as far as I know, no good public art anywhere in the city, with the  possible exception of some stones arranged on the Waynefleet campus. The Mierle Ukeles piece at MECA is a obvious throw-together. The recent additions are at best banal and at worst silly. There is some humor value in the accidentally autoerotic (at least when viewed from the west) statue of the fireman in front of the firehouse on Congress Street, but otherwise there is little to lift one's spirits.

The Portland public art committee has good people on it, but it the whole idea of a committee selection process is flawed.  Percent for art has left bad piece after bad piece around the state, all chosen by committees, most of whom were unfamiliar with art at all. Go look, you’ll see what I mean. With the exception of a couple of pieces by Roger Majorowicz, who has a flair for making art that is both interesting and accessible, most are prime examples of what James Wines called ‘plop art,’ or the ‘turd in the plaza’ effect.

Good artists can’t always make art for public spaces. There’s an Isamu Noguchi in lower Manhattan that just shouldn't be where it is. For a while there was a David Smith, a great sculptor by any measure, at Lincoln Center and it looked awful. Mark di Suvero, who depends on huge scale for much of his work, can’t always get it right. Anyone who saw the Richard Serra ‘Tilted Arc’ before it was removed from the plaza it occupied could see it was wrong for that spot. During that same period there was another Serra in park-like area near the Holland Tunnel that was great. His big piece outside the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh is one of the best public sculptures I’ve seen anywhere.

It’s best to get a good one that works where it is. Good art isn’t  always popular, but over time it grows on the passers-by. The big Picasso horse in Chicago was like that. After a few years it was embraced by the community. I’m no great fan of Picasso, but that is a great sculpture.

Mediocre or poorly-sited work has the opposite effect. It may generate a little early opposition, but over time it just looks like nothing. It’s better to have nothing than to have something that looks like nothing. These are the only art works some people will usually see in their lives, and to have it be something pallid is a great shame.

 Here are a few good public art pieces in Maine, in no particular order:

 Sculptures by Richard Serra and Sol Lewitt at Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville

Two pieces by Roger Majorowicz, one in downtown Waterville and another at a school in Gardiner.

 I can’t think of any more.

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by Ken Greenleaf | with 4 comment(s)
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