Folk Art

Treasures from
The Smithsonian
Art Museum

Tom Patterson

There are almost fifty artists represented here --- none of them famous, most of them self-taught, not a few with considerable genius. There is, for example, Peter Besharo's "Lady Liberty of 1953 to 1962?" moving along smartly with headlamp, jets, flaming wheels, complete with rocket instructions: "MAGNET BEAM over 450 COBIT LONG" --- and "EAGLE WING not DRAWING!!" Lorenzo Scott gives us floating angels in the "Baptism of Jesus," all filled with a fine sense of balance --- horizontal and vertical forces flowing from the folds in the clothing.

Jack Savitsky provides a merry train surrounded by child cartoon houses in "Train in Coal Town" --- the houses stalking by in regular formation, the train cutting dramatically across at a 75° angle, the train windows echoing the theme of the houses in the background, and in the border.

There's Mamie Deschillie's toothy, smiling "Buffalo," and an anonymously fabricated grinning giraffe made up of over a thousand Coke, 7-Up, Pepsi, Labatts, tonic water and bitter lemon bottle caps. Justin McCarthy's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" shows fourteen or so figures (plus horse) looking tortured and grim, the faces masks of death, even the American flag curled up in a knot of snakes.

Gustave Klumpp has painted, according to Patterson, some fifty sketches, mostly of nudes. The one here --- "Wedding Dream in a Nudist Colony" --- involves a multitude of revealed folks in revealing activities, swimming, playing volley ball, lying about on blankets, and --- under the guidance of the one clothed figure, a man of the divine persuasion --- presumably giving out the marriage vows. Klumpp started painting when he was sixty-eight, they tell us, which should inspire all us geezers to get to work and stop whining about these years gone by so quickly and nothing left to do.

Finally, at the top of our list, down there at the bottom of the page [Fig. 3 below] comes a cheerful mutt, "Winged Dog," by Stephan Polana. The tension between the black "boots" and the white wings are neatly offset by floating ears, tail, and low-thrust muzzle --- a considerable (and successful) balancing act. The editor's notes tells us that nothing is known about Mr. Polana, but who cares? As a matter of fact, the critical comments on these paintings, drawings, and statuary --- this one in particular --- are straight out of Duh-ville:

    We can only speculate about the artist and his intentions, since virtually nothing is known about Polana, beyond the fact that he lived in Pennsylvania. The carving attests to a lively imagination, which has transformed an earthbound spotted dog into a fantastical creature. The clever use of wood, metal, and glass suggests an artist who saw rich possibilities in ordinary materials.

Some day we would like to take up a collection and retire all these fancy-dan art critics and editors, send them off to, say, early retirement in Hoboken --- rather than have them clutter up the pages of an otherwise excellent study of folk art with their boorish commentary.

--- Lolita Lark

Going on

Buddhism and the
Way of Change

Mark Epstein
Mark Epstein is both a Buddhist and a psychotherapist. He has found that the two disciplines have an interface, and that is the thrust of Going on Being. "What is the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist?" people ask him. The answer: "A non-Buddhist thinks that there is a difference."

Going on Being is a fine piece of theological and psychological writing, for Epstein is wise on both psychoanalytic theory and Buddhism. He has obviously read his Freud; his short (three page) summary of psychoanalysis is one of the best I have come across. "Freud's favorite metaphor for psychoanalysis was of an archeological dig,"

    Freud was a great explorer, and like the Greek and Roman heroes whom he so admired, his discoveries were often problematic. He positioned the ego between a hostile outer world and a volcanic inner one. He tended to find knots, complexes and stasis; unresolvable guilt feelings, and opposing forces exhausting themselves into paralysis. Sisyphus pushing his rock, Oedipus gouging out his eyes, or Ulysses tied to his ship's mast to avoid the Siren's call... Blind prophets, jealous suitors, and grown men struggling to return to the breast fill his works. He created his own mythology populated by wolf men, rat men, sadistic Prussian counts, and hysterical femme fatales.

But this pursuit, Epstein points out, does not always give us what we want --- that is, to be able to be done with it. "I had the idea...that by excavating the facts, or the memories, of the past, I could be free of their emotional consequences," he writes.

    Yet this did not always turn out to be true. Often such understanding does not release us. It gives us an explanation, but we are still stuck with the results and, all too often, the persistent desire to change them.

He compares this with what one can learn from meditation. He describes his own early days of Buddhist practice, where he thought he was involved in "something akin to battle, an ever-deepening, ever-opening confrontation with the way things are."

    Obstacles to my peace of mind were everywhere, from the chattering of my thinking to the intensity of my emotions to the rustling of the person next to me. I thought at first that I had to conquer them all.

Only with the passing of time was he able to shift --- to see himself conjoining with reality, dissolving into the "fabric of life...a vast tapestry of which I was but a single stitch." It became more ephemeral. "The closer I looked at things, the less solid they seemed." In perhaps his most revealing passage, he tells of suddenly watching his thoughts bubbling up, realizing that he himself was unnecessary to the process. "Thoughts, feelings, emotions, and reactions all arise of their own accord. It is quite possible to notice them without identifying with their content... they just keep on coming."

    Usually we notice ourselves thinking somewhere down the line of a train of associations --- we catch ourselves "lost in thought." But at certain times in mediation we can observe a thought just as it is forming, just as it is bursting into consciousness. This is a very strange experience at first, for it immediately begs the question "Who is thinking?" The thoughts appear to come from nowhere, and the tendency to identify oneself as the thinker of these thoughts is loosened. The thoughts just come and go, artifacts of some mysterious process that we ourselves are also a part of.

As one observes this creation and dissolution, the arising and the passing away, Epstein says that one may find oneself on a wave of terror. If our very thoughts are so insubstantial, then all is insubstantial. If there are no "fixed, independent entities, then how can they die?" At this point, he says, our whole view of death may change.

    If things do not exist in their own right and are flickering rather than static, then we can no longer fear their ultimate demise. We may fear their instability, or their emptiness, but the looming threat of death starts to seem absurd. Things are constantly dying, we find. Or rather, they are constantly in flux, arising and passing away with each moment of consciousness.

Epstein has welded together a meaningful study of traditional psychotherapy and Buddhist philosophy, and it may apply to many of us, especially those of us who have gone through therapy. The hopes with which we went into our sessions may have been partly realized: we were able to excavate, to find some rather strange statues in the garden, statues laid down by us so many years ago.

However, once we discovered them, our miseries did not necessarily go away. I may now know why I am so lonely, but that doesn't stop me from continuing to be suspicious of people, and thus, continuing to be lonely. Switch now to meditation. Supposedly it will give us greater peace --- but as Epstein points out, these moments of truth may bring their own terror. The truth is that to seek the truth can be a comic lie.

§     §     §

Epstein's avid readings in Freud and D. W. Winnicott and his studies with the likes of Jack Kornfield and Ram Dass offer the reader the opportunity to participate in the merging of these two disciplines. In addition, he's a fine writer. He is able to give us insights on varied topics in a very few lines.

    The self-starvation of anorexia and the incessant self-criticism of the judging mind are ascetic practices in their own right.

Or, speaking of those peak solitary experiences that we all had as children,

    The path to enlightenment requires us to recover the capacity for joy, not by imitating the Buddha's process but by initiating our own.

Or, in an excellent recapitulation of the insights of Alice Miller,

    Children who are forced to cope with intrusive or ignoring parental figures develop a compensatory self that manages their parents' needs or neglect. This self develops out of a need for survival, but the price that is paid is a high one. The child's own going on being is sacrificed, and the child loses confidence in himself or herself. Falseness and unreality replace aliveness and vitality.

"Meditation," he concludes, "seems to me an effort at reparenting. The mind is trained through restraint not to interfere or abandon... The reactive mind gives way to a vast holding capacity."

--- Carlos Amantea

On the Air:

The Death and Life of
Great American Radio

Jesse Walker
(New York University)
Present-day American radio --- both public and commercial --- has, with its appalling blandness, hidden the bodies of hundreds of idealists who tried to make it meaningful, and interesting, and alive. We're speaking of the Quakers who founded Pacifica, the KRAB stations, and a sprinkling of other alternative broadcasters --- few of which still survive in their original form. There are, for example, the legendary alternative rock stations of the 60s, microradio, illegals (AM, FM and short wave), and public radio (now on its deathbed as an art form).

Starting with the early days of AM and FM, coming down to the pirates of today, Walker has delved, with some astuteness, into the history of radio. Rebels in the Air thus becomes part history, part commentary, but, also, a tragedy of the first order.

He's not only a critic, but a broadcast historian, one who can take the stories of fifteen or twenty radio experiments and make them come to life. We get to discover the roots of the many weird strains of alternative radio, now mostly disappeared. He shows us how, for instance, in the very early days of radio, how government and commercial operators ganged up to drive out the experimenters, and those daring enough to think that radio belonged to the people. He gives us the history of KPFA and the early KRAB stations, tells of the very few experiments that continue to this day, mostly in the hands of the pirates.

The villains in the piece, as you would expect, are the fossils at the National Association of Broadcasters, the U. S. Congress --- which is owned by the radio and television heavies --- and the powers-that-be at the Federal Communications Commission who are, perforce, dictated to by the legislators.

But other creeps emerge from the woodwork. National Public Radio, which was started thirty years ago with such high hopes for a Canadian or English type of broadcasting, quickly got coöpted. The daring programs of its early years were abolished; the creative people were driven out.

Most appallingly --- NPR has joined with commercial broadcasters to abort the idea of Low Power FM which would give us a few more voices in each community. Interference was the technical reason but, in truth, it was fear of competition --- even a tiny competition. NPR with their annual $100,000,000 (a hundred million dollars a year!) hired the best lawyers in town to murder LPFM in the crib.

§     §     §

Walker is at his best when he is relating the often funny stories of illegal broadcasters, like Joe Ptak of San Marcos, Texas who started a radio station in his garage not because he had a license from the feds, but because he felt like it. Too, he tells of the crazies of the old and now defunct KDNA, St. Louis, who one day went off the air because they had forgotten to pay their electric bill. They adjourned to the building that housed their transmitter, cranked it up, and broadcast to the city --- complete with live traffic reports and, as it got rainy, wet weather reports.

Alternative radio has found its Boswell in Rebels in the Air. Walker brings an historical perspective of the media, giving us an enlightened vision of not only what American radio is, but what it could have been. Despite its tragic cast, and despite unnecessary off-road jaunts to European radio, or CB --- Walker's book is a pleasure to read. If you are a fancier of radio's could-have-been, you will find Rebels on the Air a kick in the pants.

--- A W Allworthy

Go Home     Subscribe to RALPH     Go Up