Monday, October 28, 2013

MFAs # 2

The previous post is from facebook. I got comments from other writers and a potter, which led the conversation in a different direction.

The potter said ceramics is divided between working potters, who make and sell useful objects, and academic potters, who see themselves as artists and make sculpture rather than pots.

A similar distinction may exist in writing, another commenter wrote, and this might explain the hostility of academic programs to genre writing. Genre writing is commercial and may even be useful. It doesn't hold water or coffee. But it entertains. Literary writing is art.

I commented:
I have bought a lot of stoneware over the years, and it's almost all utilitarian. I love eating off handmade plates and drinking out of handmade cups. I have one pot that I saw at the Northern Clay shop and loved, then went back to buy, and it had been returned to the artist. But the shop was able to get it back for me, and it sits on a high shelf, just to be looked at -- like my mother's Chinese oxblood vase, which serves no useful purpose except to be beautiful.

So my argument would be, ceramics can work either as art or dinnerware. But I tend to like pots, even if they are just for looking. I think that is due to all the years looking at Chinese and Japanese and Korean pots and cups and dishes in art museums.

There is nothing more beautiful that a really beautiful bowl.

Forty years ago, an auto worker asked me the difference between art and an artifact. I was sure there was a difference, but I couldn't define it. His job, by the way, was putting the rear axles on Dodge vans. All day he would bend over, pick up an axle and lift it in place, then do the same thing over and over on an assembly line that was moving fast. Since then, I have decided there is no useful dividing line between art and artifacts. It's all skill and sweat.

Once you decide all artifacts are art, then you can move on the question of what art is well-made and lovely. If a crappy paper cup is art, then its utility is no longer an excuse. It's bad art. We are surrounded by bad art.


I have trying to figure out why I am so hostile to MFA programs in writing. It may come in part from my college. When I was there, Swarthmore made a big deal about not teaching any "practical" arts, such as studio art or creative writing, though it did have an engineering department that was one-third of the student body.

I know part of it comes from the cost of an MFA, which is a very useful degree if you want to teach creative writing, but is no help if you want to be a writer -- is a hindrance, since you will have student loans to pay back on your miserable income at Starbuck's. I worked with someone who got an MFA in printmaking and was loud on what a mistake it was, since she wanted to be a working artist, not a teacher. She had $40,000 to pay back. In the end, she started a house cleaning service. Its selling point was all the products used were environmentally safe, and all the house cleaners were artists. Last I heard, she was doing fine, making money and art.

Part of it comes from a gut feeling that I would have done really badly in an MFA program, since I write genre fiction and play games when I write.

By playing games I don't mean I have computer solitaire on while I write. I play games with the rules of fiction. My ideas of art come from the visual arts in the late 19th and 20th century, when artists were challenging the idea of a painting as a window into a 3-D space full of solid and real figures. The Impressionists and Post-impressionists and their successors flattened space and broke it apart and broke the boundary between the art work and the outside world. I wanted to do something similar in writing, though -- because I wrote in a genre that was stylistically conservative -- I didn't want to be too obvious.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Met friends to write at coffee shop to write and gossip. There was a brief flurry of snow while we were inside, but it had ended by the time we left. Still and all, the first real snow of the year.

Then I came home and made Chana Masala, a dish popular in Punjab that involves chick peas, onions, tomatoes and spices. For me this is cold weather food, and I love cooking when it's cold.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


The government shutdown ended, though the sequester is still in effect. The weather in the Twin Cities is finally getting cold, which is nice. I made baked apples today and found a recipe for stuffed baked pears which looks good. The cold weather makes me think of baking and roasting and making soup.

The fall colors are pleasant, but not great, I think because the weather stayed warm for so long. Lots of yellow with red sumac and maple. I'd like to go down the river and look for eagles or go the Crex Meadows Nature Preserve in Wisconsin and see migrating waterfowl. The tundra swans usually arrive in Alma, Wisconsin in November, so I'd like a trip down there.

Otherwise, no news. I'm finishing some writing and thinking about life.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Shutdown

I want NASA back. I want the CDC back. I want the NIH back, the FDA, the national parks and monuments... The list goes on and on...

We put off our trip to the Black Hills because of the four foot snowfall. But we might not have gone anyway, because the Badlands are a national monument and thus closed. They are amazing, a high point of every trip. If we go off season, they are almost entirely empty, very lovely and peaceful. Well, the prairie dogs makes noise. I think it was our last trip there... We saw three bighorn sheep walking along a ridge at sunset, outlined against the western sky.

I grew up on stories of the Populists and the New Deal, the founding of national parks and government regulatory agencies. That used to be heroic. Government by the people and for the people. The post office is now selling off buildings that have WPA murals, and the question is, how to make sure the murals are not destroyed.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Minnesota Orchestra in Exile

Tonight we listened to Osmo Vanska's farewell concert with the locked out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, broadcast live on MPR.

There were three performances over two days, all three sold out. The one tonight had people standing in the lobby watching on monitors.

The performance tonight was the last of the three and well worth hearing. The distinguished pianist Emmanual Ax was the soloist, playing a concerto by Beethoven and another concerto by Mozart. In addition, the orchestra played Beethoven's Egmont Overture and Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. I usually like Mozart better than Beethoven, but in this performance I liked the two Beethoven pieces better than the one by Mozart. The Firebird Suite was also good -- and sounds far less modern than when I first heard it 50 years ago. The encore was Valse Triste by Sibelius, and it was fabulous. Osmo Vanska asked for no applause after the encore. He said the situation the orchestra was in was too terrible for applause. Vanska sounded close to tears, and -- per the MPR announcer -- many members of the audience were in tears as they left.

The Orchestra musicians are planning their own fall season, since the Minnesota Orchestra Association is not having a season. They are fundraising at the moment and have a $150,000 matching grant. You might want to donate. A concert in November is already set.

I spend my money on season tickets for the opera, but I have been thinking recently to going to some concerts of classical music. I'm especially thinking of the November concert that the Orchestra musicians are planning. Former Minnesota Orchestra conductor Stanisław Skrowaczewski will be conducting at the age of 90. The program is Wagner, Mozart and Brahms.

Information can be found here.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Breaking News

Osmo Vanska, the very fine conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, resigned today, as he said he would if the lockout was not resolved. This may be the end of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Musicians and Buildings

I went to the Minnesota Opera last Sunday: a performance of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. It was good. Going there, I noticed the construction next to the Ordway Theater. A note in the program said this was going to be a new 1,100 seat concert hall, that would be the home of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Previously the orchestra played in the existing concert hall, the one I was watching the opera in.

In addition, the note said, "The (new) Concert Hall will make new programming initiatives possible for the Ordway and serve as a venue to many outstanding local ensembles."

This construction reminded me for the huge new lobby at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Both the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra locked out their musicians at the same time that they were involved in large capital campaigns and major expansions of their concert halls.

(The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra did not go it alone in building onto the Ordway and in creating a new endowment. Rather, per my program, it is working within an Arts Partnership, which includes the orchestra, the Ordway, the Schubert Club and the Minnesota Opera.)

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians settled with their administration, taking a 20% pay cut and a reduction in the size of the orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra musicians are still locked out.

What I am noticing is that the management of both orchestras seem more interested in building up assets -- buildings and endowments -- than in paying their workers, the musicians. They seem to be shifting from being orchestras to being the owners of real estate.

In point of fact, this stage of American and European capitalism has moved from production to the acquisition of (and often the stripping of) assets. FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) dominates the American economy, and the economy has seen one asset bubble after another. The real estate boom is the most famous, leading to the financial crash of 2008, but the stock market has provided a number of bubbles, the technology boom of the late 1990s being one; and the people I read say the stock market is looking like a bubble right now. In case you are interested, bubbles always burst. There is always a crash.

Companies that actually make things have become secondary. Many of them -- General Motors and General Electric are examples -- make much of their money from finance, not production.

Orchestras are labor intensive. More than anything else, they require the time and labor of highly skilled professionals. But administrators and boards don't seem to get this. They seem to think everyone (except themselves) can be replaced and at a lower cost. American factory workers have been replaced with cheap workers in Asia. Tenure track professors have been replaced with adjunct faculty. Highly trained and experienced musicians can be replaced with young music school grads...

I may be reading too much into the lockouts and the construction, but I have a sense that the rich and much of the upper middle class, the people I think of as the upper servants of the rich, believe they can float free of the rest of society, that most of us aren't necessary. They don't need working people anymore. They will survive just fine without us or with us in a state of abject poverty. They can make it with their assets -- buildings, money and modern technology.