Art History and Destiny Join Forces


“Manifest Destiny” by Michael Paul Miller

On the first Thursday of every month, Seattle’s Pioneer Square art galleries throw open their doors from 6 to 8 p.m. and hordes of art lovers rush in to admire (and often to buy) fresh works of art. Most galleries time their new exhibitions to open during these First Thursday Art Walks. Last night at the Linda Hodges Gallery I saw Michael Paul Miller‘s post-apocalyptic painting titled “Manifest Destiny” and was excited to recognize his inspiration right away. Take a look at Jules Bastien-Lepage‘s portrait of Joan of Arc:

Joan of Arc, Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painted in 1879, it hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it has always been a favorite of mine for Joan’s pale-eyed, thousand-yard visionary’s stare  and the barely visible images of saints in full armor floating above the ground and delivering their messages from behind her in the trees.

Michael Paul Miller’s “Manifest Destiny” clearly reverses this same visionary woman and shows her having a powerful experience that we can’t fathom, but it seems her destiny has become manifest before her. She grasps at a plume of smoke that originates far behind her but miraculously also appears to extend to the spot upon which she stands, seeming to indicate that she has an ability to reach into other dimensions, perhaps the future, perhaps the past, and to literally grasp things that others cannot. The destiny the title refers to is not the land of endless opportunity that 19th century expansionists envisioned when they coined the term “manifest destiny” and used it to justify their push westward across North American, smug in their belief that they were entitled to dominion over all the land’s riches. Instead, this seer stands amid the destruction and desolation left in the wake of those who “advance” by using their technology and greed to seize and destroy rather than to build, refusing to work within existing systems or integrate into the world around them.

I admire both the painting, difficult as it is, and the clever visual quotation within in it. Just as jazz (and classical) musicians often quote other compositions in their tunes, playing a quick riff that adds to the overall complexity of the piece and provides a fun in-joke to those in the know, artists often make reference to other artists’ works both in homage and to tease new meaning out of old tropes. It is this sort of technical skill and richness of symbolism that makes a study of art history so profoundly moving and rewarding.

My understanding of the history of art has enriched my life daily since I studied history and art history at Mills College decades ago. That is why I become upset when I hear people being so quick to dismiss art history degrees and castigate those of us who believe in the power and importance of exploring and understanding the creation of visual art. Even President Obama derided the attainment of an art history degree in a speech recently, joining in with many who seem to believe that any non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or business-related major which does not lead directly to a $100,000+ annual salary in a technical field is  inferior and unnecessary to our culture and economy. Some colleges are even considering dropping their art history classes because students feel that anything that doesn’t lead to a likely increase in their earning potential does not seem important. (And who can blame them when a private undergraduate college education can cost $60,000 per year, and most students need to find remunerative jobs ASAP upon graduation to pay back their crushing student loans?)

The facts that such artistic studies enrich their hearts and souls, help them to better understand other times and cultures and allow them to make connections among disparate subjects and styles mean nothing to arts denigrators, even though studies show that people with a well-rounded liberal arts education not only benefit from their STEM studies but also benefit from their studies of the arts, since those studies make them better writers, researchers and synthesizers of information, all of which are skills in great demand in more technical fields. Many articles on this topic are popping up in popular media recently, including this one from the Washington Post.

How shortsighted and indeed stupid it is to assume that arts are mere fillers meant only for bourgeois, time-wasting rich people! The same people who disdain art historians often pay thousands of dollars per year to buy video game consoles and new games to play on them, and they download films and go to action movies that they enjoy specifically because the visuals are arresting and meaningful. They spend hours online each week looking at animal videos or comedy sketches, hungry for quick impulses of emotion that come from enjoying endearing visuals that provide instant sensory gratification. Because visuals matter. The arts in general matter deeply to people even if they don’t always recognize this. People listen to three-minute long songs at work or in the car or while running because they know that the power of acoustic arts gives them a rush, inspires a feeling, changes their attitudes and makes them feel more connected to the world or to their feelings. These are all arts created by sensitive people who believe in the importance of following their aesthetic dreams whether or not that leads to monetary riches, and we are all better for it.

If you are tempted to denigrate artists or those who seek to better understand them (such as teachers of poetry or professors of ancient Indian statuary),  remember that all of these arts and the appreciation of them are signs of mental and emotional advancement. They are the signs of a sophisticated civilization. They are the underpinnings of new thought, forms of expression and connections between people, times and cultures. These arts are what ancient civilizations (and the founders of the United States, incidentally) saw as signs of a great society. These are the fields of study that they believed proved that their cultures were truly great and not just concerned with how to put food on the table but also with how to see, feel and think with greater precision and insight. A world without art is one I would not want to live in, and a culture that does not honor its artists is at risk of losing its soul.

A Difficult Man


My father and his monkey friend, 1979.

My witty, bright and difficult father would have been 76 today. He was creative and talented, and he had a way with words. He also had serious problems with alcohol and anger, and he treated his child, his wives and his siblings with sarcasm at best, with arrogance and disdain as a matter of course, and with violence at worst. He was very good at one thing, though: he was extremely generous to down-on-their-luck people to whom he owed nothing.

My parents met when they were students at UC Berkeley. When my father was a psychology teaching assistant at Cal, he worked with autistic kids before most people had ever heard of autism, but shortly after he married my mother he became disaffected with his professors and left his promising career in psychology behind. My parents fell in love and married quickly, before my mother realized what a volatile and combative man he could be. My father’s alcoholism became  apparent as soon as they were married, but by the time my mother realized what sort of man she had wed, she was pregnant with me. His violence toward her began even before I was born. By the time I was four months old, he had already hurled his glasses across the room in a fit of rage when I, who had been born two months prematurely and was still  tiny and fragile, would not stop crying. My mother had left me alone with with him for the first and only time during my infancy so she could go grocery shopping. She came home to find him fuming and holding his broken glasses. Mercifully, they separated shortly afterwards. His bad health and alcoholism  were already losing him jobs by then, and he stopped paying child support forever shortly after my first birthday. But my mother realized that even without his help, raising me on her own was the best decision she could have made.

Yet my father was not always bullying, threatening, drinking or shouting. When my mom was pregnant with me, he made me a beautiful cradle out of an old barrel. He was  good at making something useful and beautiful out of nothing. Years later, from discarded bicycle parts he created usable bikes for himself and his poverty-stricken friends so they could have free transportation to school and work. He was disabled by serious health problems and unable to work for more than short periods of time for most of his life, and the benefits he received for being a veteran with serious health problems (he’d lied about his age to enter the Navy at age 16) didn’t go very far. But out of a few hundred dollars a month in disability payments, he paid the rent for his room in a dingy, sad hotel and spent the rest on cheap canned foods, books and used clothes so he could keep himself and his neighbors warm, fed and educated. He fixed their broken appliances, helped them write their résumés, computed their taxes, babysat, and, occasionally, he hid their drugs for them when they were afraid of getting raided by the cops. He had almost no respect for authority, and this caused him enormous problems throughout his life but made him popular with his  troubled friends.

My mom had wisely left him as soon as she realized that his violent streak made him a danger to me, but she welcomed him to our house to pay me visits once I was a precocious toddler who could talk and follow orders. She figured I’d be physically safe around him at that point, and I was. But sometimes he’d show up two hours late, other times not at all. His brother, my beloved Uncle Steve, drove across the Bay Area several times a year to retrieve and sober up my dad, who was sometimes still drunk at 10 a.m.  Steve would make sure my dad took his desperately-needed medications, feed him and calm him. Then Steve chauffered my father to my home and chaperoned our meetings. Steve made jokes to lighten my dad’s spirits and distract me from my father’s dark moods and sarcasm, and he bought us deli sandwiches and took us to parks to walk and talk and look at nature. It was Steve who drove my dad back home and soothed him after we said goodbye. If it weren’t for my dear uncle, I would have almost no memories of my father, and my father would have had little idea of who his sensitive, expressive, hungry-for-approval daughter was.

Dad was angry, bitter, depressed and occasionally delusional, and for years at a time he’d refuse to see or talk to me when he was ashamed of his behavior. He would become angry at me for expressing dismay when he called me in one of his drunken stupors to promise things he would never deliver, to tease and sometimes mock me, and to tell me ugly stories about his raw adventures among the downtrodden. I had to trick him into seeing me and my daughter when she was a baby, and though he fell in love with her immediately, his mental problems caused him to withdraw from us again immediately afterwards. He died a few months later having only met her once. No matter how much I wanted to make him a part of my life, he usually refused. I tried to be as perfect, entertaining and gregarious as possible every time he showed up. I could not call him because he was often without a working phone, but I created elaborate cards and drawings for him, and spent hours decorating the envelopes I sent to him with intricate drawings to try to entice him to communicate with me. It rarely worked, and over time I finally realized that this rejection wasn’t about my value as a person but was based in his own fears, pain and self-loathing.

After he died, I spent a lot of time at the sad hotel in which his life had ended. He was a hoarder, so it took me weeks to clear out his single room of all the tall piles of possessions: the small appliances, the books that covered his bed two feet deep so that he was forced to sleep sitting upright; the canned goods and free weights and dressers full of warm clothes; the manuscripts and letters to the editor and the letters to himself that disclosed the depth of his mental illness to me after his death. But while clearing things out, I met several men who had lived in his building and valued his friendship immensely. They told me of the kindnesses he offered them, and after I’d donated most of his clothes to the thrift shop across the road, I realized I should offer everything else in his room to the men who lived alongside him. They were thrilled to have his typewriters, his radios, his food and books and Playboy magazines.

His friends spoke of him as being both cantankerous and immensely generous. My father’s siblings and my mother, who had known him in better times, were happy to learn that despite burning every familial bridge thoroughly and repeatedly, he had managed to salvage some essential good within himself and show it to a few souls even less fit for the world than he. These stories and his writings, which disclosed to us just how far his thinking had strayed from reality, helped us to recognize how much his retreat from us had been a response to his self-hatred and his fear of harming us again. Though he’d blamed us all for his distance and unkindness at one time or another, we knew that he was picking fights in part to have an excuse to keep away from us to avoid doing further damage to those whom he loved.

No matter how many years I spend trying to understand what made him break so many promises and do so many cruel things, I will never entirely understand what caused him to disintegrate so seriously. But I do know that within him was a man who cared deeply about the earth and about animals, who honored labor and learning, who championed progressive values and believed that we all deserved dignity and respect, even if he himself didn’t always treat others as he should have. He loved me as deeply as he could love anyone in the world, and he was delighted and soothed by having met my baby girl. And as hard as my life has  been at times, I am still grateful that he and my mother gave this life to me, in all of its painful, scary, magical, beautiful glory.

For all his many faults, my father helped to teach me to love nature, wordplay, movies and pickles and storytelling. He helped me to always hold a place in my heart for those who falter, who fail and who are too afraid to reach out for help. He helped me to see why some people self-medicate and don’t communicate with those whom they love most in the world, even when they want to. Through his failures I learned to be more careful about judging those who screw up, to have more respect for those who live on government assistance of one sort or another, and to have sympathy for those who come back from military service plagued with violent thoughts and dangerous tempers. Even when such people disappoint or scare or frustrate me, I can usually remember that underneath it all, they are just fragile people with fears, troubles and pains I can’t understand that cause them to do harm when they want to be helpful, and to break things when they want to build them.

Happy birthday, Dad. Thanks for giving me life.

Star-Lord, You Had Me at Hello

One of the best character introductions in the history of film has to be the title sequence in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Though we meet young Peter Quill in a scene just before the title, when we first meet grown-up Peter (alias Star-Lord) he’s walking through a forbidding, bombed-out landscape conjuring holographic ghosts of the past before entering an enormous, dank ruin. Then he presses play on his Walkman, his hips start to sway, the title pops up and he joyfully spins, dances and splashes his way past skeletons, uses a hissing lizard-rat as a microphone and hops up a stone stairway to the strains of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” In two minutes you learn so much about his character: he’s a goofy badass, a joyous loner, a playful rebel. I’ll say one thing about Chris Pratt’s characterization of Star-Lord: it’s perfect.