10th Anniversary: Poetry and music songs of Salcman

This essay was originally published on February 13, 2013. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Music starts with sound and silence. As such, music and literature likely arose as a single entity. Even as the two drew apart, they maintained a continuum, causing Alphonse de Lamartine to state, “Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” And continued to influence one another in both form and content, causing Ezra Pound to pronounce, “Poets who will not study music are defective.” Be that as it may, literary figures as disparate as William ShakespeareTS Eliot and Ralph Ellison have made music an essential part of their works.

Join us in exploring this ageless theme and its contemporary variations through poetry, prose and the visual arts in preparation for our Summer 2013 Music issue.

Lorraine Whittlesey

Lorraine Whittlesey at the piano (Photo: John Dean)

A few words to set the stage, so to speak. Music has always been an integral part of my life. Family legend has it that I sang my first sentences to the popular tunes of the day. The combination of words and melodic line continues to be a powerful force in my life.

 NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music.  https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/14-summer-2013/

10th Anniversary: Multigenerational Music: Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

This essay was originally published on May 13, 2014. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith at The Noguchi Museum (Photo: Patrick McMullan Company, 2012)The subject of intergenerational performers has been dear to my heart since I learned that my maternal grandmother’s family had broadcast a live AM radio show on Saturday nights from New York City in the Thirties and Forties. I was inspired to explore the topic further while attending Patti Smith concerts in NYC and Baltimore, where her son Jackson and her daughter Jesse joined her onstage. Since I am a musician and the theme of the upcoming LPR issue is music, I wanted to share what I learned. To get it right, I enlisted the help of Jesse Paris Smith, Patti Smith’s daughter.

Jesse describes her mother as “a true Renaissance woman,” which is evident from any bio. Known as “the Godmother of Punk,” Patti is a singer-songwriter, a poet and a visual artist. In 2005, she was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010, she received the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids and an ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, she won a Polar Music Prize. And it won’t end there.

Jesse, whose guitarist father is the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, notes reverberations of Patti’s polymath persona in herself. 


NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 14: Music.  https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/14-summer-2013/

Multigenerational Music: Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith

Jesse Paris Smith and Patti Smith at The Noguchi Museum (Photo: Patrick McMullan Company, 2012)The subject of intergenerational performers has been dear to my heart since I learned that my maternal grandmother’s family had broadcast a live AM radio show on Saturday nights from New York City in the Thirties and Forties. I was inspired to explore the topic further while attending Patti Smith concerts in NYC and Baltimore, where her son Jackson and her daughter Jesse joined her onstage. Since I am a musician and the theme of the upcoming LPR issue is music, I wanted to share what I learned. To get it right, I enlisted the help of Jesse Paris Smith, Patti Smith’s daughter.

Jesse describes her mother as “a true Renaissance woman,” which is evident from any bio. Known as “the Godmother of Punk,” Patti is a singer-songwriter, a poet and a visual artist. In 2005, she was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010, she received the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids and an ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, she won a Polar Music Prize. And it won’t end there.

Jesse, whose guitarist father is the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, notes reverberations of Patti’s polymath persona in herself. Growing up in Michigan, Jesse recalls picking out melodies on the family piano. She never took it seriously until she heard her music teacher play Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” Soon she was taking lessons, and music was becoming increasingly important. But she never intended to become a musician, considering environmental science as a career. In a college essay, she acknowledged the difficulty of deciding. Then she received an acceptance letter that asked, “Why choose between music and science? Maybe you can find a way to combine them and do both?”

Jesse says that her mother never planned a music career, either. “I think she believed that as she was following a path to be an artist, poet and writer, it happened that way by chance and fate. Music became the common voice that allowed her to carry her thoughts in a broader way and to reach people in a more accessible manner.” Jesse acknowledges envying those who have one dominant capability that they master but concludes,

There are all different kinds of people, and finding your clear path and purpose sometimes includes following a lot of different paths, a lifelong pursuit of learning and ever expanding and growing. My mom has never stopped learning, expanding her mind and knowledge and following through with her creative endeavors and projects. She loves to be busy and loves to work and create. And that is very admirable.

When she was 16, Jesse collaborated with her mother on the album Trampin’:

…she wanted to do a version of the old gospel song where the title comes from. She had a vinyl of Marian Anderson singing it, accompanied by piano, but we didn’t have any sheet music. My piano teacher worked with me, transposing the vinyl to sheet music, working out a lovely arrangement for me to play. So our piano lessons for a while were focused on learning “Trampin'” in time to record it for my mom’s album. When I was ready to play it, we went to Looking Glass, Philip Glass’s recording studio in NYC, and played it for the first time together, and that first take is what is on the Trampin’ album. I’m not sure it was a take that my teacher would have been very proud of and maybe if we would have tried it a few more times it would have sounded better, but there is something very human and humble about going with that first take, especially since I was so young and it was a mother-daughter recording, our first meeting at the song after having our own journey with it.

Listen here and judge for yourself:


Jesse subsequently collaborated with other musicians in the Detroit and NYC areas and has been involved in many multimedia events, especially those in art galleries and museums. In particular, she has been working with Eric Hoegemeyer, a multifaceted musician, composer and engineer whom she met in Detroit and who eventually relocated to NYC, where Jesse now lives. She and Eric share Tree Laboratory, a studio in Brooklyn.

She considers the Patti Smith Band to be family, since she’s known the members all her life and feels she that she has learned so much about musicianship through watching and working with them. During her summers as a teenager, she was involved in behind-the-scenes aspects, learning about production, staging and touring. One summer, there was a change in the lineup. A keyboard player was needed, and she was asked to fill in. She still remembers the first song that she played with the group: “Pissing in a River.”

She describes working with her mother by saying, “She is a true performer, and it’s amazing to watch. The stage presence, confidence and energy she has is remarkable.” She credits her mother with helping her dive into new worlds.

She will do something like bring some poems, part of a book or stories or a letter to me, and we will talk about what is happening in it, what it sounds like, the mood of the different lines and parts of the text. And through looking at that and talking about it, write a piece of music that corresponds to it. Another way we will work is that I will write a piece of music and bring it to her and she will think of a piece of writing or look for something that she thinks fits with the music, and we will try it out. If it doesn’t quite fit, we will find another text that suits it better.

An annual event where Jesse and Patti present is a performance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They select an exhibit and create a musical program in response to the subject matter. Jesse also composes pieces, and her mother reads a variety of texts appropriate to the subject matter. In 2012, her tenth performance there, Patti paid tribute to Andy Warhol, her fellow traveler in the Seventies.

Jesse, Jackson and Patti Smith at Detroit Institute of Arts with Diego Rivera's fresco as a backdrop.

Jesse, Jackson and Patti Smith playing at the Detroit Institute of Arts with a Diego Rivera fresco as the backdrop. (Photo: Michelle Pesta Culkowski)

Jesse also performs with her brother Jackson, a Detroit-based guitarist. “When I play music with my brother and my mom, it feels even more like family. My brother is such a technically advanced and gifted musician, and when we all play together we just laugh and have fun.” She says the same about performing with Eric, who will join her and Patti in an upcoming Met performance this fall.

Making multigenerational music has worked well for Jesse:

My family and I, as well as Eric, have developed a rapport working and playing together, developing our language and collaboration skills. This has helped teach me to relax, breathe properly and find the right notes. It’s so wonderful to work with people who believe in you. Music helps you to develop in so many areas of your life. It helps you with your brain functions, with developing your creative mind and exploring different facets of the world, which leads you in all directions. Just like how on an instrument there are so many songs and pieces just waiting to be written and found. It’s the common language of the world. It is a pretty remarkable thing.

And what does Patti Smith herself feel about the future of her musical family? She says,

I feel very optimistic about our future, collectively and individually. We are all healthy, positive and diligent workers and have a loving and communicative relationship. Professionally, I believe we will continue to evolve. I look forward to recording and performing with both of them. The three of us together really magnify the memory of their father. Jesse and I are planning our own album. So, as Elvis Presley sang, “The future looks bright ahead.”

Note: For information about upcoming releases and events, check Patti Smith’s website. And keep an eye out for Jesse’s new site (jesseparissmith.com), which will go live soon.


Meet the Neighbors: Columbia Festival of the Arts

A journal such as ours requires a vibrant literary and artistic environment to thrive—and even survive. In appreciation of the various cultural entities around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” a series where we provide you with personal introductions to a diverse assortment.

I met the people who put on the Columbia Festival of the Arts over champagne, a good way to start any relationship. We were at the launch of the LPR Audacity issue, the first time that the summer iteration of our biannual event was formally part of the Festival.

MOMIX's Botanica

MOMIX’s Botanica, performed at the 2012 Columbia Festival of the Arts. (Photo: Max Pucciariello)

I then attended an intimate reading by award-winning writer Edith Pearlman, hosted by HoCoPoLitSo and part of the Festival. I was there not only because I admired Pearlman’s short fiction but also because she was featured in our Audacity issue. My final Festival events were to be more pleasure than [literary] business: the performance of Botanica by MOMIX, a company of dancer-illusionists, and a reception celebrating the Festival’s 25th anniversary, where I assumed that more champagne would be consumed.

But the derecho intervened. I was trapped in my historic house, built into the side of a hill on a steep bank overlooking the Patapsco River. No power, no phone or computer connectivity and trees down everywhere. So I sipped bottled water instead of champagne. But a mere seven miles away, Botanica went off without a hitch, as did the reception.

Recalling that, I was determined to give the Festival its due by placing it first in the series of articles that will appear here in preparation for the June 22 launch of the LPR Music issue. And I asked Nichole Hickey, Executive Director and CEO, for the inside scoop.

Here’s how she responded:

When asked to give a first-hand perspective of the Festival, I wasn’t sure where to begin or how to summarize both the Festival and my experience with it. Especially not at this time of the year, just weeks away from the 2013 season and days away from our annual gala, which this year featured Paula Poundstone. But I couldn’t let this article pass. After all, it is a perfect fit for LPR readers: you are our audience.

There are so many people who contribute to the production of Howard County’s premiere arts festival each year. We are fortunate to have a talented, capable, hard-working staff, people who year in and year out help make the season the unofficial start to summer in our area. I am also lucky to work with a supportive Board of Trustees as well as the 200 volunteers who offer their time and support annually. And then there are the sponsors and donors who step up each year, providing financial and in-kind resources. There could not be a Festival without all of them.

I am in my 11th year working with the Festival. What began in 2002 as a part-time role as deputy director has turned into a full-time, year-round, 24/7 job. I start with a blank slate each year, conferring with my team on what to present over 16 days in June. Our goal is to offer a varied, well-balanced lineup of non-stop events from the international, national, regional and local scenes that serves to celebrate our own community. Budget, performer availability and a host of other factors help to define each season. It’s a great deal of work, but we have a lot of fun along the way, as well.

The desire to produce an arts event of this magnitude isn’t what brought me to the Festival. My husband, Michael Hickey, was a founder of the Festival in 1987, and we have remained supporters ever since. When the Festival needed someone to help re-staff the organization in 2002, they tapped into my human resources background. Before I knew it, I had stepped into the role of deputy director. Late 2004, the Board convinced me to take on the role of executive director when it again became vacant.

I was tenuous during my initial year, being a visual artist who was suddenly running an organization focused on performance arts. Certainly, one of my first priorities was to identify ways to enhance visual arts programming. I succeeded in doing this, but there is plenty of room for improvement. During my tenure, film was also added as a regular feature and more emphasis was placed on literary offerings. This year, attendees will be able to enjoy the unique pairing of poet Patricia Smith and the Sage String Quartet playing a Wynton Marsalis composition. Programming that melds artistic disciplines is something that I try to bring to the Festival each year.

My job is not without challenges. Budgets are tighter, fundraising is more difficult and staff reductions have occurred. These are universal issues, particularly in the arts and for nonprofit organizations. Also universal is question of audience development: how to best secure the next generation of devotees. Faced with the challenges of the past decade, economic and otherwise, we need to work harder than ever to arrive at the correct formula for making our Festival a regularly recurring success.

Each year, we seek a mix of recognizable names and eclectic acts that we hope will appeal to the widest possible audience. This season’s weekend headliners—Rhythmic Circus, Reduced Shakespeare Company, Pilobolus and Preservation Hall Jazz Band—offer a balanced array of high-energy performances. Additions such as award-winning Sundance movie shorts, the return of Baltimore’s Stoop Storytelling, the zany family-friendly AudioBody, a theatrical hair and makeup competition and the Patricia Smith event add the sort of flavor to the Festival that attendees have come to expect.

When asked about my favorite acts over the years, it’s tough to respond. Blood, Sweat & Tears, America and The Neville Brothers were personal indulgences and, fortunately, the performances were well-attended. Household names such as Wynton Marsalis, Judy Collins, Ed Asner and Smothers Brothers also come to mind.

Nichole Hickey

Nichole Hickey (Photo: Nicholas Griner)

I love the fact that we can bring these iconic artists and others to perform in the accessible settings of our local theaters, the Smith and the Rouse. They provide a personal experience that doesn’t exist in the larger venues of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. That’s what we strive to offer at the Festival: a personal, interactive experience between artist and audience. What’s the best part of the job for me? When I stand in the lobby after an amazing performance and feel the energy of audience members as they exit the theatre. That makes all the hard work worthwhile.

I can’t say where I will be ten years from now, but I do hope the Columbia Festival of the Arts is still going strong and has engaged a new generation of arts lovers.

I completely concur with Nichole, having experienced what she describes for myself last year. The Edith Pearlman reading, for example, was held at a lovely Columbia venue, the Historic Oakland manor house. Sitting in the last row, I was still close enough to engage her without a microphone. But others had good questions and comments, so I remained silent. One person observed that what Pearlman had read was not quite what appeared on the printed page. Pearlman smiled, saying that she never stopped revising. We smiled in assent, and the whatever distance remained between audience and author disappeared.

That reading also illustrates the kinds of synergies that can occur among neighboring cultural entities. Three organizations came together around Edith Pearlman: Columbia Festival of the Arts, Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (aka HoCoPoLitSo) and Little Patuxent Review. The first two brought Pearlman here, and the latter, through a print-issue interview conducted by Susan Thornton Hobby (who not incidentally sits on both HoCoPoLitSo and LPR boards), to an audience extending beyond county borders.

I now offer “An Interview with Edith Pearlman” online, giving it international reach since approximately 10 percent of our blog readers reside outside the States. Click and enjoy!

In the Face of Doubt and Uncertainty: LPR Cover Art Selection

The Ideal City

The Ideal City, Fra Carnevale (?), c. 1445-1484, oil and tempera on panel, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

It was a beautiful weekend for the Baltimore Book Festival. My parents were in town, enjoying the bookstalls. The great weather meant huge crowds at the food trucks, though, so we ducked into the Walters Café for lunch. While my father enjoyed his books and a sugar-free mango soda, a Walters specialty, my mother and I headed to Renaissance Hall to visit a painting.

The Ideal City sits apart, its light shades and imposing landscape contrasting with the richly hued Madonnas and portraits of saints that share the gallery. LPR Contributing Editor for Art Michael Salcman had proposed this painting for our Winter 2013 Doubt cover a few months ago.

I found the idea a compelling one for our Doubt issue. Can an ideal ever be achieved? Is this city, with its streets nearly empty of life, really the image of perfection? So I asked Michael to tell me more about why he made this selection. Here’s what he had to say:

I always thought it somehow unfair to place the work of an established contemporary master on the cover of an issue devoted to the theme of doubt. Most significant visual art is created with a great deal of certainty as to purpose and method, even more so when an element of chance is involved in its production. Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman spent months adjusting individual lines until they were satisfied; others such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko destroyed or over-painted numerous less than perfect canvases before they could ever leave the studio.

As writers we often find ourselves filled with doubt, especially in the face of an ideal, a standard, even if much loved and admired (such as the poetry of Shakespeare or Yeats), one that is impossible to live up to. This kind of doubt is closer to insecurity, a psychological state brought on by fear of failure.

Philosophical doubt is something deeper, an intellectual questioning of a system or style put forth as ideal; as Laura said to me “once an ideal has been set, doubt must set in.” In response, I proposed we place The Ideal City from the collection of The Walters Art Museum on the cover of LPR, a magnificent painting by an unknown artist who wished to reconcile competing civic virtues in a mathematically perfect depiction of an ideal urban environment. We hoped to typify, and perhaps even inspire, doubt through the use of its opposite, that philosophic certainty implied by the artist’s ideal city plan; we little imagined the degree to which the painting itself was a response to uncertainty and how much the force of its response had been unnecessarily compromised by its unknown authorship.

The Urbino variant

The Berlin variant

The situation in regard to the Baltimore painting is further complicated by the existence of at least two other variants, each by an unknown hand and each decidedly inferior to the painting resident at the Walters. The other two are in municipal collections in Urbino and Berlin. It is thought that all three were painted in Urbino, at the court of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, in which court Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), a significant poet and architect, and the great Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492), were distinguished guests.

The one on our cover (c. 1480-1484) represents a visual reconciliation of classical and religious principles; this is just what we would expect in a Renaissance subject. In this masterpiece by an unknown hand, intellectual certainty, the opposite of doubt, has been enshrined by the perfect proportions of a mathematically designed city and the atmospheric clarity of the scene. In the Renaissance, the graphic depiction of an ideal city plan was a kind of trope or metaphor for other philosophical concerns.

In the near distance one can see a rounded building based on the Roman Coliseum, a Roman three-part arch erected in military victory and an octagonal building based on the Florence Baptistery. The three central structures symbolize three civic virtues found in a well-regulated city: recreation, security, and religion, respectively, and reprise the value of Roman ideals in urban planning. In the foreground two private dwellings partially enclose a public square in which four columns and a central fountain form a perfect pentagram.

The statues on the columns and the open side of the square nearest the viewer recall features of St. Mark’s in Venice. It is possible to imagine Venetian waters behind us. The view contains the same number of buildings as the five polyhedra of Plato and the columns are Roman. Perspective is used here as an ideal expression of artistic thought and the harmony of mathematics and architecture summarize the ideal city as a type of utopia. Good design makes for good citizenship. But the few visible citizens are probably later additions.

The three paintings share the use of a perfected linear perspective, originally invented one hundred years before by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the first modern engineer, a painter and architect, who designed Il Duomo, the Cathedral of Florence. Alberti and Piero, both resident in Urbino, perfected Brunelleschi’s work into the single-point perspective of the Renaissance; Piero was perhaps the finest amateur mathematician in the history of painting. At one time the Baltimore Ideal City was ascribed to him.

There is a progressive reduction in open space and airiness of the atmosphere from Baltimore to Urbino to Berlin, the order in which the overall quality of the three paintings can be ranked. There is also a reduction in the complexity of the symbolism and the variety of architectural examples. A pair of minor artists and architects, Luciano Laurana (c. 1420-1479) and Fra Carnevale (c. 1420-1425-1484), who lived all their lives in Urbino, have been proposed as the authors of either the Baltimore painting, the Urbino painting or both. The Berlin painting has been credited to Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1502), a painter from Siena better known as an architect. In the full essay in LPR’s Doubt issue I plan to discuss, purely on iconographic and historical grounds, why no single artist could have painted all three versions and why the Baltimore painting requires an artist of significant stature.

And if we never discover the true author of the Baltimore painting, what difference does it really make? Will the satisfaction of our doubt in regard to this historical problem change in any way our appreciation of the mysterious masterpiece he left behind? Does it matter in regard to Homer? To Shakespeare?

We know this artist attempted to square Roman civitas, religious faith and the dawn of Renaissance science into a harmonious whole. We know that he combined a close study of classic architecture with the more modern tool of mathematical perspective. We feel certain about his knowledge of the greatest painters of the age but remain at sea about why he and the authors of all three variants remain anonymous figures in an age of burgeoning humanism. Perhaps he and they wished to remain secret movers in an age of philosophical doubt, men so conflicted they didn’t wish to risk their true identities on the pyre of a pure belief in modernity. We know he had doubts. That’s why we chose this painting.

I hope you will stop by to visit The Ideal City. I was surprised by its size and grandeur, the calming effect of its orderly lines. As I headed back out to Mount Vernon with my parents, I realized that The Ideal City is nothing like lively Baltimore on Book Festival weekend. Of course, I don’t doubt in which of the two cities I’d prefer to spend my time.

We thank the Walters for allowing Little Patuxent Review to reprint this masterpiece.

Online Editor’s Note:

For another perspective, you might want to consult Caspar Pearson’s Humanism and the Urban World: Leon Battista Alberti and the Renaissance CityPearson argues that Alberti’s urbanism was far more complex than previously thought. Instead of proposing the ideal city, he presented a variety of possible cities, each different from the other.

Also, you might want to read about an exhibition on the ideal city that sought to bring together the three variants described above that was held in Urbino this past summer. 

Our Memorable Audacity Issue

LPR Editor Laura Shovan

LPR Editor Laura Shovan, showing her audacious side (Photo: Sport Photo, Inc.)

Audacity and I had a test of wills a few weeks ago. On a whim, I’d signed up my teenaged son, my brother–eight years my junior–and myself for a mud run. We had eight weeks to train for the run, my first 5K, but there was no way to prepare for the obstacles: walls, nets, slides and a whole lot of mud. After a sleepless night of agonizing over what I’d gotten myself into, it was race day. Once we started moving, there was no time to think, to doubt, to say, “I’m doing something audacious.” I was climbing 20-foot walls and going over the other side.

For most of us, audacity comes and goes. Sometimes, we can call up the chutzpah required to do wild, wonderful or dangerous things like crawling through mud pits for fun. Other times, we have to hold back, become cautious. The blind enthusiasm of youth is in constant conflict with the experience and limitations of age. As submissions came in for our Summer 2012 issue, I was gratified to see that potential contributors explored both the audacity of the young and the audacity that can only come with experience. This diversity was reflected in our final selections.

Representing youthful audacity in the upcoming issue, Dee Roy’s short story “Different Kind of Snake” introduces us to Barbara-Jean, a shotgun toting 12-year-old who outdoes her older brothers when it comes to nerves. There is also a young voice in the poem “Watermen 1979,” where Dennis M. Kirschbaum takes us oystering. Just as Barbara-Jean is egged on by her brothers, Kirschbaum’s speaker is induced to act audaciously by peers.

Representing a more mature form of audacity, LPR Art Consultant Michael Salcman walks us through Baltimore painter Raoul Middleman’s career, which has taken him from abstract expressionism and pop art to a revisiting of the old masters and, finally, to his own artistic voice. Middleman is a master portraitist, as is poet Dan Vera. Vera sketches a wily, wild old man outsmarting the Feds in “Mr. Guzman Makes a Fool of Himself.” If Vera shows us that age can be used to advantage, Moira Egan counters that age should be both celebrated and bemoaned in “Dryness Sonnet,” a savvy look at sex in later life.

Like Egan, a number of other contributors equate audacity with sex, exploring how it breaks down or bumps up against our inhibitions. Angie Chuang’s engaging essay “Thanksgiving with the Shirzais” describes her complicated relationship with an Afghan-American family and the wayward, attractive son.

Our Audacity issue also features art by Towson University Assistant Professor Amanda Burnham. Her work has transitioned from ironic sketches of Baltimore’s urban landscape to whole-room installations that leap from walls into the viewer’s space. Our featured author is fiction writer Edith Pearlman, interviewed by LPR Contributing Editor Susan Thornton Hobby. In her short story “Self-Reliance,” Pearlman spends an afternoon with retiree Cornelia Fitch, who chooses her audacious moments with steely self-control.

I learned from the mud run that audacious behavior is a means of testing courage and resolve. The outcome can be laugh-out-loud funny, thought-provoking or disastrous. Whatever the result, audacity–like the pieces in our summer issue–is always memorable.

Online Editor’s Note: To learn more about some of the contributors mentioned, read the previous post “Concerning Craft: Raoul Middleman” and catch “Shapeshifting Through a Short Story Collection,” a piece on Edith Pearlman coming next Tuesday. And if you’d like to meet these two remarkable people, join us for our free Audacity issue launch event on June 23, where Middleman will discuss his work, and purchase a ticket for Pearlman’s appearance on June 27. Both events are part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, which runs from June 15-June 30 and is well worth attending.

What Audacity Looks Like

The Voina Group

The Voina Group

The other day, I came across photographs of the audacious Russian street-art group Voina. What struck me most was how ordinary the members looked. They could have easily been any undergrads from any American campus. Yet, the Russian government has brought more than a dozen criminal cases against them. The same government that also saw fit to grant them the Ministry of Culture Innovation 2011 award for modern visual arts. Though perhaps not precisely for the giant phallus that they had painted on the Liteyny drawbridge leading to the Bolshoy Dom headquarters of the Federal Security Service in Saint Petersburg.

I took these photos as further evidence for a hypothesis first formed at my father’s knee: that there is no necessary correlation between audacious appearance and audacious acts. The seemingly unremarkable people sitting around my family’s kitchen table, all war refugees, had routinely done things that you and I wouldn’t dream of doing. The others that I later encountered, either directly or indirectly. Rosa Parks, the small woman with the rimless glasses whose singular act sparked the US civil rights movement. The girls in shirtwaist dresses and guys in plaid shirts who adopted the Port Huron Statement, written by the curly-haired Tom Hayden, that launched 50 years of student protest and mass action for a more democratic society. The controversial authors that I read–James Joyce, Vladimir NabokovHenry MillerGeorge Orwell, JD SalingerKurt Vonnegut— who, on looks alone, would have been welcomed at any of the libraries where their books had been banned. The more flamboyant forming the remainder of my world–the Hippies and their successors–seemed to be mere eiphenomena, not the driving force of audacity.

But what about visual artists, who are–well–more visually oriented? Is it easier to spot the most audacious of that sort? Look at a list of the 10 most controversial artists of our time that I located online and judge for yourself. They’re presented below by birth order, together with a brief description, and shown in a slide show with a representative work:

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Picasso repeatedly outraged the public as well as his associates, but no more so than with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. At that time, the work was deemed crude, unfinished and unusually unsettling. Today, it is considered to be seminal in the development of both cubism and modern art.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). In Paris, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2  raised a ruckus. Among the objections was that nudes never descend stairs: they recline. In New York, reactions were no more favorable. It was called “an explosion in a shingle factory” and spawned satirizations for decades. Today, Duchamp is seen as a key player in the surrealist, futurist and Dada movements.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). The abstract imagery of O’Keeffe’s oversized, sensual flowers and similar depictions such as Blue and Green Music caused a stir because they called to mind female genitalia. Even as she was celebrated by feminists, she denied painting private parts. Today, she is credited with revolutionizing modern art through her portrayal of the emotional impact of nature and man-made entities.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). With his huge Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), Pollock abandoned the convention of central motif and established process as paramount. The resulting action painting genre caused considerable disagreement among critics. His wife, Lee Krasner, may well have been the real innovator. Her Cobalt Night is larger than Lavender Mist and exhibits the same heroic ambition.

Christo Javachev (1935-present). Javachev and his late wife were at the forefront of environmental art. The first version of Valley Curtain, a 400 meter length of vivid orange material stretched across Rifle Gap, was torn to shreds by wind and rock while being hung. A second version was successfully erected, only to be torn apart by gale-force winds 28 hours later. While critics searched for meaning in such massive, temporary installations, the two expanded the definition of what constitutes art.

Ai Weiwei (1957-present). Ai was the artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium and a dissident arrested by the Chinese government. His 10 tons of hand-painted porcelain sculptures, Sunflower Seeds, reference a staple of the Cultural Revolution and the resulting homogenization. Placing Ai first in the 2011 Power 100, ArtReview noted that his “activities have allowed artists to move away from the idea that they work within a privileged zone limited by the walls of a gallery or museum.”

Damien Hirst (1965-present). Hirst is famous for formaldehyde-fixed animals displayed in glass tanks. His Virgin Mothera 35 foot tall statue recalling Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Yearsreveals the insides of a pregnant woman. Critics have variously called him one of few late 20th Century artists who will remain more than a footnote and someone responsible for the decline of contemporary art.

David Černý (1967-present). Černý gained international recognition by getting arrested for painting a Soviet tank pink. While he claims that he merely creates art for his friends and to piss people off, he doubtless has something more serious in mind. His Brownnosers allows visitors to climb a 20-foot ladder and peer into a white rear end to view a video of impersonators of President Václav Klaus and art critic Milan Knížák feeding each other slop while “We Are the Champions” plays.

Chris Ofili (1968-present). Ofili gained notoriety when questions were raised regarding his The Holy Virgin Mary and Tate Gallery’s purchase of The Upper Room containing his 13 paintings of macaques. No Woman No Cry, referencing his Nigerian heritage and the Bob Marley song, has been called a modern Pietà but has also raised hackles since it stands on two dried, varnished lumps of elephant dung–a material favored by Ofili–and a third serves as the Virgin’s pendant.

Banksy (1974?-present). “Banksy” is the pseudonym of an anonymous street artist, painter and political activist who may or may not be Robin Gunningham. Known for his contempt of the government in labelling graffiti as vandalism, he displays his art on public surfaces such as walls and sometimes goes as far as building prop pieces. His stencil of the image of Death on the waterline of an entertainment boat in Bristol is based on a 19th Century etching illustrating the pestilence of the Great Stink.

When I consider these artists, I see nothing that makes me think that there is any way to identify the truly audacious other than through their work. So more power to those who don’t want to look bland or boring. But if they want to be genuinely daring, they’ll have to come up with more than a startling appearance. And put more of themselves on the line. Personally, I’d place my money on one of those inconspicuous commuters sitting near me on the subway. Chances are better that the makings of the next fearless [literary, artistic, social, cultural, political] work is stashed in his or her plain portfolio or briefcase.

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Note: For more on audacity, see the “Audacious Ideas” series on this site. And join us for the launch of the Summer 2012 Audacity print issue in late June.