The Mueller Report (and Facebook too)

Some time ago I recused myself from joining political discussion on Facebook. I’m convinced that the political content we post on Facebook, no matter how salutary a contribution we think it will make to the conversation, makes an even more salutary contribution to the profiles and algorithmic precision used by the Russians and their domestic fellow travelers to manipulate and undermine our political discourse and those who participate in it.

Social networks ought to be a powerful forum for political discussions and debates, but Facebook is a poisoned environment. Even though I know that my good friends and their good friends can participate in debates there without risk of suddenly switching sides, that doesn’t mean their emotions won’t be manipulated algorithmically. More importantly, it doesn’t mean that their words, ideas and emotions won’t be harvested and used to analyze and manipulate the minds of people like them, which is the heart of what Facebook does. That’s pretty much what happened in 2016 and what is likely to happen in 2020 given who is in charge at Facebook, the government, the Republican Party and Russia.

So on Facebook I confine my participation to politically anodyne arts, culture and social matters. However, having just finished reading the Mueller Report, I couldn’t help myself and made my first political post in a long time. The Report is more shocking than it has been given credit for, and my Facebook friends, especially those who still use the platform for political purposes, really need to read the document, the second half in particular.

The first part of the report understandably has received the most attention. The idea of a U.S. president being elected with the active, and probably decisive, intervention of Russia is the province of fiction rather than actual politics, a mind-boggling shock that many of us have still not gotten over (and some still do not believe). The possibility that the candidate and his campaign actually colluded with that intervention ought to be catastrophically distressing, whatever your views about the legal technicalities around the term collusion. 

Yet if the this part of the report provides grounds for suspicion, even in its heavily redacted form, it is nonetheless anti-climactic. It unmistakably says that Mueller’s team did not turn up compelling evidence of a legally actionable conspiracy. That might just mean that the conspirators were smart enough to cover their most damning tracks, but those tracks are not in this report, as much as Trump’s detractors would like to find them there. 

Volume II of the report is another story, however. Obstruction of justice is a lot less sexy than conspiring with Russians to get elected, but it is here that the Mueller case is firm.

Where the report’s first half mostly concerns aides and relations, the second half is all about Trump himself. More importantly, where the first half is explicitly inconclusive, the second half is just as explicitly decisive. If you read all the details, not just the few sentences that get recited in the reporting and by politicians, Mueller’s conclusion cannot be clearer: In a jaw-dropping recitation of particulars, the report shows a dozen and more ways that Trump attempted to impede the Russia investigation and influence witnesses in order to protect himself — often in statements and activities that were fully public. And in a lengthy legal analysis immediately after that bill of particulars, Mueller makes a detailed case that this behavior was illegal and not protected by the president’s constitutional authority. It seems certain that only deference to Justice Department policy prevented him from issuing an indictment. 

There is no ambiguity at all. Whatever you think about Trump and Mueller, Mueller’s obvious intention was to tee up Congress for impeachment and/or prosecutors for post-presidency criminal proceedings. Anyone who claims the conclusions are uncertain either hasn’t read the document or — believe it or not — is lacking forthrightness. 

Download the report here.

John Evelyn: Diary Of A Different World

I loved the three years I spent with John Evelyn and his lengthy diary. But poor John Evelyn — polymath, public citizen (and official), friend to kings and scientists, but destined always to be second fiddle to his friend Samuel Pepys in the 17th century diarist derby. Pepys is the one who is (sometimes) still read, and still frequently cited whenever the English Restoration era is mentioned. Where Evelyn was a pious man and a devoted Royalist, Pepys was scurrilous and a political skeptic, making his commentary more consistently pointed. Both let you enter the everyday life of someone in a very different world than ours, but Pepys paints a much more detailed picture, which makes sense given that his diary covers just one decade to Evelyn’s seven. Pepys’ frankness is sometimes mind boggling; Evelyn wasn’t one for plumbing the depths. So even among those who spend time with this kind of literature, Evelyn is mostly just an occasional footnote to some event he may have referenced. I quite like him nonetheless.

Evelyn does seem to have cared more deeply for more people than Pepys, and that makes a difference in the story telling. All but one of his eight children predeceased him, most in infancy and childhood. And since Evelyn lived to be 85, he recorded the demise of many others close to him. (At no point does it appear that his piety failed him, at least that he documented.) The emotional impact of these accounts more than make up for the diary’s less dramatically interesting elements, such as his dutiful reporting of decades worth of weekly sermons. Pepys, too, reported on sermons, though not so exhaustively as Evelyn, and more as if he were reviewing a play than engaging theologically. 

Pepys quite clearly wrote his diary for himself and spared no one, himself included, from embarrassing details. Evelyn, who authored a number of other books, seems to have intended that his diary be read, and probably published. Presumably he would have wanted to spare his own legacy from embarrassment, and also to communicate the right lessons to posterity. Late in life he seems increasingly remorseful about unspecified past sins, but it’s not clear whether he had truly done bad things, as Pepys definitely did (at least with regard to women), or whether he was simply going through the motions of repentance that he felt were required of a good Christian preparing for death. 

Because Evelyn kept adding entries to that very month, the diary is a fascinating case study in aging. We’re there when he starts to frequently doze off at church. We hear more and more about the weather. And of course his ailments gain increasing prominence until he fell silent just three weeks before the end. 

Finally, in both cases it’s fascinating to see the way educated men wrote before English spelling was standardized. Among the most striking features of their diaries is the lack of consistency from entry to entry in both names and common words. Reading either diary in full takes a certain kind of commitment, but if you like losing yourself in obscure detail they are highly recommended. For full effect, be sure to get an edition where the language hasn’t been modernized.

A Single Game of Thrones Grievance

Game of Thrones
Who else matters?

Please forgive this one comment on the Game of Throne finale: The chuckles of the lords and ladies over Samwell Tarley’s plea for a democratic resolution nicely encapsulated the show’s most consistent weakness. Far worse than the final season’s many notorious failings was the show’s lack of interest over its entire run in the lives of ordinary people.

Not to take anything away from Arya and the Hound and other worthy characters, but it would have been nice if a few commoners had had a part in the great events other than as victims or as cannon fodder for the aristocrats and their factotums. Of course that’s all they look like when stories are told from the viewpoint of the high nobility. But a show that was mostly about the lethal inadequacies of that exact viewpoint should have taken a lesson from itself. The princes are always prone to thinking that they’re the only people who matter, and they are always wrong about that.

E.T. Wickham: Well that it is as it is

Confederate Sam Davis and Union supporter Bill Marsh. Marsh was E.T. WIckham’s grandfather. “It is all over with now Bill and well that it is as it is.”

The E.T. Wickham site in Palmyra, Tennessee, is one of the country’s spookiest art environments, even in the open field to which the family has relocated most of the statues. Credit the vandals who wrecked the work, but even more the ghost of E.T.’s vision that survived their pummeling.

The statues lining the north-central Tennessee back road were erected in the 1950s and 60s by Enoch Tanner Wickham to honor historical figures and family members. They did not fare well after his death in 1970s, but their state seems to have mostly stabilized.

Thirteen years ago Wickham family members relocated most of the statues to a slightly less back back road. While it’s on the edge of a clear farm field rather than next to woods like the original site, the effect when the work comes into view is still powerful. And several statues remain in the first location.

When I see how compelling these ruins remain, I’m reminded of Wickham’s Civil War tribute: “It is all over with now Bill and well that it is as it is.”

I recently made my first visit to the site in some 25 years. You can see my older photos and commentary here. You can visit the very worthwhile Wickham Stone Park site here.

Danielle Jacqui: The House of She Who Paints

Danielle Jacqui and her environment, The House of She Who Paints

I wish I could add to the story of the prolific and ambitious artist Danielle Jacqui and her House of She Who Paints, but not being a French speaker I don’t know much beyond what’s been published in a few English-language venues, including a Raw Vision article here and a SPACES account by Jo Farb Hernández here.

But I do have photos from a serendipitous 2018 visit to her environment northeast of Marseille. We were going to do just a drive-by and take some pictures, but it happens that two friendly French ladies were arriving for a tour just when I was photographing the facade. They welcomed us along, and Jacqui was willing, so we got to go inside, with the official guests translating her commentary as best they could.

The House of She Who Paints, Danielle Jacqui’s environment northeast of Marseille

Jacqui’s environment is wedged into a row of houses on the busy highway through the small town of Rocquevaire in Provence, about 17 miles from Marseille. The outside is stunning enough, covered with mosaics, sculptures and paintings, but inside is mind boggling. The walls, ceilings and floors are all intensively decorated. Paintings are piled up, and sculptures are everywhere. It’s one of the most dense art experiences you’ll ever encounter.

Bedroom, The House of She Who Paints

If I knew French I could have understood the friendly and engaging Jacqui’s explanations and stories. She is one of those artists who, like Mr. Imagination and Lonnie Holley, came from outside the art world but has clearly developed into a sophisticated participant. Her work is no less obsessive for that, and parts of her environment, including not only the facade but places inside the house, like the red bedroom shown on the third page of the image gallery below, have the direct power and idiosyncratic vision typical of art brut creation.

Meanwhile, Jacqui had been working on a massive installation of her art at the train station in nearby Aubagne, but newly elected municipal authorities in 2014 declined the privilege of hosting it. The project has been relocated to La Ferme des Tilleuls, a new cultural center in Renens, Switzerland, west of Lausanne. More information on that installation here.

View from other roadside environments here.

Review — Outliers and American Vanguard Art

Outliers and American Vanguard Art, by Lynne Cooke. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 412 pages, 450 color plates, 2018. ISBN: 978-0226522272. Hardcover, $65

Outliers and American Vanguard ArtOutliers and American Vanguard Art, filling several rooms at the National Gallery of Art, is a dauntingly large-scale show. And at five pounds, 412 pages, 450-plus illustrations and a 10 x12 form factor, its catalog is even more daunting. But, despite some excess imbrications and fixed subject positions, the art and the important points being made are plenty sufficient to interest non-academic readers.

Curator Lynne Cooke’s core premise is that the story of modernism is woefully incomplete absent the art of the self-taught. Her exhibit places the work of trained and untrained artists side by side to tell a pointedly joint story — and because the pieces of art have something to say to each other. Continue reading

Review — Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Mythologies

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein: Mythologies, by Karen Patterson. John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, 248 pages, 265 color images, 2017. ISBN: 978-0998681702. Hardcover, $65

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein

Not everyone loves Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s art, and, among those who do, not always equally. Some favor the paintings. Some like the photos of his wife but not the paintings so much. Others prefer the sculpture, maybe the chicken bones better, or perhaps the ceramics.

When I discovered Von Bruenchenhein, I thought the bone towers were an interesting sideline, the photos and ceramics charming, but the paintings the core achievement. Now, 30 years and a 2017 John Michael Kohler Art Center exhibit and catalog later, it seems clear that the paintings were just part of the story — the part for which Eugene himself may have most desperately wanted recognition, but neither the core of his creative achievement nor of his self-created world. Continue reading

Some Really OK New Wacky Store Names

Another batch of the strange, the bizarre, the inexplicable wacky store names of the world.

Wacky store names: Nice Pharmacy, Koh Samui, Thailand

Wacky store names: Favorable Chicken - Kebabs - Ribs, London, England

As someone pathologically prone to understatement, I’m especially fond of business names that don’t try too hard. Do eat some OK paella before buying a simply basic but typical gift.

  • Do Eat Korean Barbecue, Chicago
  • Favorable Chicken-Kebabs-Ribs, London: Photo by Martin Stocks
  • Nice Pharmacy, Koh Samui, Thailand
  • O.K. Paella, Toledo, Spain
  • OK Painters, Siem Reap, Cambodia
  • Simply Basic, Barcelona
  • Typical Gift, Toledo, Spain

Closely related to understatement, and just as dynamic, are the businesses  whose owners favor highly generalized branding. Here are those latest additions:

  • Exciting Things, Barcelona
  • News & Things, Llandudno, UK
  • Rainbows & Calico Things Quilt Shop, Williamsburg, IA
  • Smoke and Such, Dempster
  • Soup and Such, Billings, Montana

Formal titles are always appreciated, though the side-by-side Dr. And Mr. Cell in Chicago’s Little India neighborhood do make you wonder about the back story. Sibling rivalry? Perhaps Ma & Pa unwound their partnership?

  • Dr. Cell, Chicago
  • Mr. Cell, Chicago
  • Mister Gift, Barcelona
  • Mr. Lightbulb, Toledo, Ohio
  • Mister Olimpic, Barcelona

Then of course there are the names that appeal to baser instincts, or at least senses of humor.

  • Kum & Go, Humboldt, Iowa

There also are some new pictures for old favorites:

      

See these and all the other great store names.