Art Everywhere: Coming to a Billboard Near You

Beginning next month, many of my readers in the States who live in urban areas will be seeing the work of an initiative known as Art Everywhere US.  On both traditional and digital billboards, on bus shelters and train platforms, among other locations, the organizers will be displaying a selection of images from American art history.  The original pool of 100 of these works, “curated”, if you will, by experts from five of America’s major art museums, was narrowed down to a final fifty by online voters on the Art Everywhere website.  These fifty will be seen on approximately 50,000 different types of displays across the country starting August 4th in Times Square, and then continuing to spread throughout the country until August 31st.

Of the pieces making the final cut, that with the single highest number of votes was Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 Nighthawks, which is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.  I do love the painting, though I must confess it isn’t my favorite work of Hopper’s, being somewhat overexposed both in terms of its fame and indeed the lighting of the piece itself.  Still, it’s nice to know that it will be included, and that it’s so well-regarded by the public.

Other works which will be featured in the campaign include probably my favorite work by James McNeill Whistler, his 1862 portrait titled Symphony in White No. 1; one of my favorite John Singer Sargents, his Repose of 1911, which like the Whistler is in the collection of the National Gallery here in D.C.; and Chuck Close’s astounding 1969 painting Phil, a portrait of composer Philip Glass from The Whitney in New York.  The fifty choices are for the most part fairly safe, since apart from photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe (clothed, thank goodness) and the overrated Cindy Sherman (yuck), the 20th century pieces tend to stick largely to the easy and familiar: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc.

It was disappointing however, to see that the earliest painting which was included in the final cut – and the second earliest in the original 100 voting list – was John Singleton Copley’s 1778 Watson and the Shark. While the piece has its merits as a form of composition, it’s not my favorite Copley by any stretch of the imagination.  Moreover, in only choosing one pre-Revolutionary portrait for the voting list, one has to question the thinking of the jury with respect to their art history parameters.  If 1776 was not in fact the cut-off year, then why not go back as early as possible into American art history?

Be that as it may, I won’t quibble with the results.  There are some truly great works of art on this list, and I am looking forward to seeing how they pop up around town.  August is always such a dreary time in the Nation’s Capital, with the oppressive heat, humidity, and flocks of tourists.  It will be terrific to be visually refreshed with images like these, and reminded of the great art collections in this city, just a short train or bus ride away.

"Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper (1942) The Art Institute of Chicago

“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper (1942)
The Art Institute of Chicago

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Independence Day Giveaway: Books for Little Patriots

In honor of Independence Day – and courtesy of my friend, the lovely and talented Amelia Hamilton – this Friday, July 4th, we’re giving away a free copy of each of her two fantastic children’s books: “One Nation Under God: A Book for Little Patriots”, and “10 Steps to Freedom: A Growing Patriot’s Guide to the American Revolution”.

One Nation Under God is a wonderful teaching tool, which uses counting and poetry to explain concepts which can sometimes be tough for young readers to grasp.  Beginning, appropriately enough, with the number 1 for God, Hamilton takes each number from 1-10 in turn, and explains different aspects of the American republic and its history, from the Bill of Rights to the branches of the military services.  For example, for the number 4, Hamilton explains who each of the four U.S. Presidents carved on Mount Rushmore were, while for the number 9, the nine Justices of the Supreme Court are engaged, appropriately enough, in a tug-of-war.

In 10 Steps to Freedom, Hamilton again uses numbers to great effect, only this time by tracing ten key moments in the path to Independence, from the Boston Tea Party to the election of George Washington as the first President of the United States.  Along the way, we get to meet important figures from our country’s history, including Paul Revere, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.  It’s not easy to explain concepts like the Declaration of Independence or the ratification of the Constitution to children, but Hamilton’s poetry and the colorful accompanying images draw readers in, encouraging them to learn more about the people, situations, and concepts presented.

Anyone who has read to a child knows that oftentimes these books can be a chore for adults.  So often these days, children’s books seem to talk down to their audience, using babyish or relativist terms.  This is not the case here, and those who have children to teach or entertain will enjoy reading these books as much as their charges will.  In her poem about what the Statue of Liberty symbolizes, for example, Hamilton explains the seven rays which emanate from the crown atop Lady Liberty’s head in a way children can understand, and adults will ponder over, giving both an opportunity for further reflection and discussion:

On her crown, those seven rays

Remind Americans every day

That on seven lands and seven seas

Many still are not yet free.

It’s also a delicate balance, presenting stories of warfare to children without intentionally and unnecessarily frightening them.  Hamilton admirably handles the task, by pointing out that brains and brawn had to work together in order to gain the freedoms which Americans enjoy today.  In asking children to remember why we celebrate Independence Day every year, she notes how freedom came at a cost, and was achieved by two different types of fighters: “Some with guns, and some with pens.” Realizing that both were necessary to form and preserve the United States is a crucial step for children to reach, in their civic understanding.

Both books are beautifully illustrated, with bright, dynamic pictures by illustrator Anthony Resto.  Using a mixture of imagined historical scenes and elements from everyday life to accompany Hamilton’s poems, there are many charming details.  In the illustration of the three branches of the federal government for example, we are shown a large tree, with a boy in a tire swing.  And while Betsy Ross sews the American flag, two colonial children play alongside her with a hoop and a drum.  The pictures give adults the opportunity to go into greater detail with children, about the history and ideas being brought to life through these images.

Interested in seeing more for yourself, or as a gift for some little ones in your life? Visit the entry form by following this link; you may enter to win between now and midnight tomorrow.  One entry per reader, please.  The winner will be announced Friday morning here on the blog.

My special thanks to Amelia Hamilton for allowing me to share these terrific books with all of you, and of course to all of my readers for their support.  Good luck!

Growing Patriots

I’m Not Cool – But I’m Cool With That

Yesterday morning I was sitting outside at a cafe, when a group of college-aged young women walked by.  One of them turned around, came over to me, and asked if she could take my picture.  She explained that she was a fashion design student from Norway, and that she was assembling photographs of people she spotted on the street, to use in one of her projects.  After she snapped my picture, I wondered whether she thought I was cool, when the reality is that I’m far from it.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when I realized the fact that I’m not cool.  Although it might have been when I started sporting rather thick glasses around the age of 6, it was more likely a bit later, when I discovered that I had disastrously poor hand-eye coordination.  This ended up making me the last one to be picked for teams in just about every gym class all the way through high school – meaning that I was decidedly NOT cool.  Obviously, there was no way this poor, deluded design student could have known that, when she asked me to sit still and keep looking serious.

Following my experience as Norway’s latest fashion inspiration, I dropped by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to view their new photography exhibition, American Cool.  Among the pictures of men and women considered “cool” in their time, some were obvious (James Dean), some were questionable (Audrey Hepburn), and some were noticeable by their absence (Janis Joplin).   There was even a bit of “geek chic”, in an image of Steve Jobs riding a Harley.  Of course, certain Americans seemed to possess an almost eternal font of the elusive elixir of coolness as they aged: Lauren Bacall comes to mind, as does Miles Davis, both of whom were featured in the show.

What struck me, as I looked at decades’ worth of photographs of the anointed cool, was that the term “cool” itself was part of a fundamental change in how we value ourselves, and each other.  Consider the evolution of American advertising over the course of the 20th century, for example.  There was a shift away from the notion that maturity and sophistication are aspirational virtues, to a belief that being young and trendy – or at least, being perceived as such – is better than being old and established.  Today commercials for cars, pharmaceuticals, and financial planning products aimed at the retiring Baby Boomers try to portray their target audience as still being hip, even if some of them now need hip replacements.

Today’s trend-setter may well be tomorrow’s has-been, but the desire to be thought of as cool is something which many Americans continue to factor into their daily lives well past adolescence and into adulthood.  The desire to be cool can influence the choices we make about where to eat, where to live, what type of sneakers we wear, and so on.  Something that others determine to be “cool” is often perceived as being better than the available alternatives, even when in real terms there is little or nothing distinguishing about it.

The risk for all of us is, that the pursuit of coolness can prove as shallow as it seems.  It can take away from our opportunities to make the best use of the talents and opportunities we’ve been given, if we’re worried about how we will be perceived.  It can also cloud our ability to form sound opinions based on substantive arguments, rather than on appeals to our vanity.  We already see this problem emerging among heavy consumers of online media: why bother building a relationship with your neighbors, when the people in your online neighborhood seem so much cooler?

To be fair, someone who runs into me on the street may take issue with the childhood self-realization described above.  After all, I’m just as likely to be wearing my favorite biker jacket, from the same company that made them for (the very cool) Marlon Brando back in the day, as I am the standard Washingtonian uniform of blue blazer and khakis.  Of course as an adult, I know that there’s a time to wear the former, and a time to wear the latter, so that being perceived by others as cool is ultimately irrelevant to the task I’m performing.

I’d be dishonest if I said I wasn’t at least a tiny bit conscious of the fact that being thought of as cool is flattering, however ungrounded in truth that designation may actually be.  Let’s face it: everyone secretly likes being told that they’re cool.  It’s a social imprimatur, telling us that we’re relevant, noticeable, or influential in some way.

Yet in my own life, the coolest people I know are those who do what they love because they feel called to do it, not because others will think them cool.  They look for ways to act for good on behalf of those whom they love, regardless of whether they receive any public recognition for those actions.  They may not have all the answers, but they are willing to seek them out, while at the same time showing respect and compassion toward those who come into their lives.  When it comes down to it, these are the people whom we ought to be emulating on the inside, whatever may be considered cool on the outside.

And if that means I’m still not cool, then I’m cool with that.

"Steve McQueen" by William Claxton (1962)

“Steve McQueen” by William Claxton (1962)
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC