“Is it there I’m from?
I wonder where I’m from.”
– refrain from “’66 Wonder Where I’m From”
I recently had the tremendous joy of seeing The Magnetic Fields performing Merritt’s 50 Song Memoir in its entirety over the course of two nights, at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C. I must admit, it sort of altered my geography, as a person. The songs are incredible—maybe the best of his entire repertoire—and the presentation was phenomenal. It’s my favorite record of the year, as of yet.
While in D.C., I also had an opportunity to pay a second visit to the U.S. National Gallery—whose East Wing was recently renovated to expand its explicit focus on modern art.
Giacometti. Kandinsky. Ernst. Bacon. Beckmann. Picasso. Jawlensky. Rothko.
Amazing works… powerful vibrations. As my partner, Craig, and I wandered from room to room, I found myself (inescapably) reflecting upon some of the current events surrounding this casual getaway: namely, the newly unveiled budget proposal, which would cut the National Endowment for the Arts entirely, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and a slew of other arts-related programs (which, combined, form the most infinitesimal fraction of the overall Federal budget). I thought about this new museum wing, bursting at the brim with pieces of such tremendous energy, wisdom, ingenuity, and sheer creative (let alone monetary) value. I thought about how this is all made available to us (for free!), as citizens of this country, via an existing conviction that it is essential to support and preserve the work(s) of emerging artists; after all, when the NEA was initially conceived, the atrocities of WWII were not far from the memory of many living U.S. citizens and lawmakers. They had witnessed the willful neglect and outright destruction of art and culture at the hands of an extremist European regime, and they were determined to not let that sort of thing happen over here.
I couldn’t help but wonder, what might happen to these museums if the NEA were to be successfully eliminated. At the very least, one could safely predict that efforts to champion artists and facilitate these vessels of cultural enlightenment would be forcibly diminished. I think about how in past times, when art has been forcibly diminished and/or suppressed, it’s often been the product of fear: a fear of what the artists might have to say. I think about how much bigger, richer, more enjoyable, and how intellectually engaging my life has been as a direct result of access to arts and humanities. I think of all the lessons I’ve been taught by the artists who have affected my being, and I try to imagine a world where they don’t even exist. And I just can’t.
Walking around a display of Giacometti sculptures in the East Wing, I was (typically) enraptured by those grotesque yet stunningly beautiful shapes. The way he chipped away at every angle and curve of his emaciated figures, leaving behind these skeletal ghosts—spectres of past horrors; strange angels of compassion. Nearly a century later, these pieces have retained all the power and urgency of the times from out of which they originated. I think about what might have happened if these pieces weren’t respected, appreciated, and valued as they universally are; if they just vanished into the dirt, or remained stashed away in the private headquarters of some war criminal or other. I suppose some could argue that it wouldn’t have made any difference, either way. The very idea of posing such a theory makes my soul shrink a size or two.
After venturing through the West Wing of the National Gallery, and taking in several amazing works by Van Gogh and Bruegel (including this amazing piece by a follower of his, pictured below), we went in search of the Chagall mosaic we had heard to be a part of their collection. A front desk clerk told us it was somewhat difficult to spot, tucked away behind a pavilion somewhere in the sculpture garden. We ventured through the garden and spotted what we assumed to be the pavilion in question; there appeared to be the section of a wall, hidden behind a small grouping of bare trees. Picking our way through the bushes, we came upon the object of our search: Orphée, a kaleidoscopic rendition of the myth of Orpheus.
The story goes that a collector in Georgetown, Evelyn Nef, had this mosaic in her private collection: a clerk in the museum bookstore informs me that he once lived in the area, and would often peek over the garden wall when walking by, snatching only a glimpse of the epic work. The clerk seemed mildly disappointed that the wall was now public domain, oddly enough; he felt it now lacked some of its original intrigue. It goes without saying, from an objective standpoint, that having a piece like this as public domain is both a priceless gift and a noble gesture (and I appreciate the museum’s efforts to place the piece somewhat out of immediate sight, to avoid damage from heavy traffic). Looking at the various fragments and figures scattered throughout the fantastically imagined rendition of Orpheus, I think of Chagall’s personal history of abuse and exile.
I think about how Marc Chagall was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Germany, after falling out of favor with the increasingly fascistic regime, which now viewed his vibrant and extra-worldly paintings as nothing but “green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air … representing [an] assault on Western civilization.” (from the text of Chagall: A Biography, as cited on Wikipedia). I think about Chagall and his wife fleeing to Vichy, France—only to realize that it, too, was occupied by French Nazi collaborationists, who were shipping French Jews off to concentration camps in Germany. And I thought about Chagall finally escaping to New York, and finding refuge in a colony of other escaped artists: writers, painters, composers… All seeking a safe haven away from a war-torn and fascistically governed European landscape. I think of the immigrants being targeted, in such a seemingly scattershot and disorganized fashion, by our current presidential administration.
I look at the individual tiles of Chagall’s mural one last time, and breathe another sigh of relief at having found the piece, and having experienced this moment with the most important person in my life. We go see the second night of The Magnetic Fields performance at the Lincoln Theater, and I’m once again flabbergasted by the amount of wit, hilarity, musicianship, showmanship, and intelligence boiling over from that stage. I’m moved by so many moments throughout the course of these two special evenings, but one that sticks out in my mind is a penultimate track, “I Wish I Had Pictures.” The final line is repeated several times: “I wish I had pictures of every old day/’Cause all these old memories are fading away.” The video projected on a screen above the stage shows a hand flipping pages in a photo album, but all we see is the glare from the sunlight hitting the camera lens. Even though we all had to make a vow not to at the door, I cannot resist the impulse to snap a surreptitious shot during the final number (which, predictably, turned out a glare-y disappointment). As the band takes the stage for the final ovation of the night, I think to myself: “I hope people get out to see this show. I hope these songs are preserved, and that all that amazing art in the National Gallery’s East Wing doesn’t go anywhere anytime soon.”
We ride the metro train back to the hotel. I check my email on my phone during the ride back and am surprised to see a lot of positive and encouraging feedback from friends and strangers, who’ve taken the time to check out a newly released track I had the privilege of performing on. I thank my lucky stars that art is a part of my life, and then I hop off the train.