Baltimore's Washington Monument

Baltimore's Washington Monument (Baynard Woods / August 4, 2014)

The writer Lawrence Weschler has spent the last several decades helping two very different artists, David Hockney and Robert Irwin, conduct an argument about the nature of cubism. Neither artist knows the other, but whenever Weschler runs a story on either of them, the other calls him up to argue a bit—resulting in yet another story. 

Both of the artists believe that cubism was the most important artistic development since the Renaissance, but each has an entirely different understanding of its revolutionary impact—and they are both probably right. For the first time, cubism collapsed the distinction between foreground and background, or form and surface, and it added Einstein’s fourth dimension of time to the world of painting—among other things. 

Walking my dog through the Mount Vernon parks this weekend, I was thinking about cubism and thrilled that the city was honoring the hundredth anniversary of the birth of this important movement with our own Washington Monument. A few weeks back, the Baltimore Business Journal ran a piece that showed George Washington’s head up close. I’d also been sort of fond of the monument because Washington actually looks more like Augustus Caesar, but this picture reminded me of the extraordinary ugliness of his head. 

In his dialogue “Sophist” Plato writes about large statues like this as phantasmata which must incorporate the perspective of the viewer: The head has to be made extra large, or, from the ground, it looks like a pinhead. He equates this with sophism, which functioned much like our advertising (selling lies). Seeing this head up close in the BBJ picture was a revelation. How hideous (though it is like the head in the great “George Washington” video by Brad Neely’s Creased Comics) he looks, as if all of those slave teeth he tried to harvest from the heads of other human beings and put in his own face had begun to grow into marble demons inside his marble skull.

So, it was extraordinarily clever of our Oberlin-going, art-loving mayor $RB to decide to turn the Washington Monument into a cubist monument as the movement reaches (actually just passed, but whatever) its centenary. The scaffolding not only recalls the lines in those analytical pictures by Braque and Picasso when they weren’t signing their names; it evokes the Eiffel Tower, which was still new then, while also commenting on our own crumbling infrastructure and the death of the American Century. We are now more like Paris was a hundred years ago—a once-great city in the heart of a once-great power that now finds itself in a drastic decline that keeps it cheap for artists, at least. 

All of this got me thinking of Guillaume Apollinaire, one of my heroes, and his great poem, “Poem Read at the Marriage of Andre Salmon,” which imagines that Paris on Bastille Day is actually dressed out for the nuptials of his old drinking buddy—it was especially apt as one of my own old drinking buddies, Jeff Lewandowski, is getting married and brought a bunch of guys to Baltimore this weekend for a bachelor party. On Saturday afternoon many of those dudes went to do that most American thing:  play baseball in Dundalk. But, since playing baseball was one of the ways the world tortured a poor chronically uncoordinated kid when I was young, I was happy when the more nerdy and less athletically inclined among these pals took the more-decadent, European route and went to a stripclub. I’ve always had a soft spot for strippers. When I was 18, a gracious 22-year-old woman, who happened to be both a dancer and a writer, took me under her wing, told me what to read, tried to teach me to write, and took me on the road: She danced, I drove, and we traveled the country from strip club to strip club (way more difficult in the pre-internet days). The dancers were always very kind and lovely to me. So, I feel that it is my duty to go and give some money at the temple of Aphrodite from time to time, and, having been married for 12 years, as long as I don’t spend too much money, my wife doesn’t mind. 

We have, of course, entered into an age of hypocritical pornographic prudery, however. The fact that everyone can watch any kind of porn they want without leaving the house means that it is easier for them to hide their own predilections and judge people who either work at or go to a strip club. But I feel the opposite. Porn tends to make people antisocial and weird, crouched in a dark corner illumined by whatever horribly plastic video they happen to watch, whereas strip clubs require human interaction and decency. Sure, many guys go and are terrible commandeering assholes—it is pretty gross to see some of these dudes—but you can also be polite and generous and not an asshole. There are still all kinds of weird power dynamics involved in masculinity and all that, I know, and I simultaneously apologize to and thank all of the people who have been kind of enough to allow me to see them naked. 

As we walked down there I looked up to my favorite statue in Baltimore, the one above the B&O, which I read as Apollo and Hermes sitting on either side of the world. It reminds me of the greatest scene in all literature, from “The Odyssey,” where Ares and Aphrodite have an affair and are caught under an invisible net by her husband, the lame and ugly tech god Hephaestus, which is the perfect emblem of the human condition: love and war captured under the invisible net of technology as the other gods watch. Apollo nudged Hermes and asked if he’d be weighted down by the nets in order to sleep with Aphrodite. Hermes would take three times the weight, the shame, and the nets, he says. This, I think, is the only appropriate response to existence. And, as we walked beneath the gods, I prayed that Apollo give us the rationality and Hermes the cunning to make it home safe. 

The statues, along with that of the Apollinaire-inflected cubist monument, did keep us safe, and, on Sunday, in order to attempt to become civilized again, we went to the O’s game and sat back behind the outfield, which felt, gratefully, anti-modern. It was not a multimedia spectacle with a screen and all that junk. Just guys on a field running around after an invisible ball. It was, to quote my pal Patchen Mortimer, who was quoting Michael Chabon, “a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.”