As Cooper Square gets a makeover, and Cooper Union “reinvents” itself — students entering the school now pay tuition for the first time since 1859 — Peter Cooper sits protected, for his own good we are told, in a box at the center of the square.
Some of us still hold out hope, that when Peter emerges from his plywood prison, his pioneering school will have returned to the mission he set out for it: tuition free, open to all, at the pinnacle of higher education in America.
That hope now rests primarily on a lawsuit brought against the Board of Trustees of Cooper Union accusing them of violating the school’s charter and squandering its resources. We wait — alumni and friends — with mounting anticipation for a positive decision from the judge of the New York State Supreme Court.
Please visit the website of the Committee to Save Cooper Union to learn more.
JE SUIS CHARLIE.
Well, actually a more nuanced perspective. This is something I posted today on the blog Daily Kos as a reply to a diary writer who does not support the kind of provocative satire practiced by Charlie Hebdo. The full discussion is here.
Theo van Gogh
I am coming to the discussion rather late, but want to add some thoughts about another similar incident in the Netherlands, where I lived for 15 years. Some years ago, the columnist/TV personality Theo van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic extremist. Van Gogh was well known for his provocative statements about Islam and just about everything, and he collaborated with Ayan Hirsi Ali on a film that attacked Muslim persecution of women. But it was, in my view, a recklessly inflammatory film.
I considered Van Gogh an odious person, even though there was truth to some of what he had to say. He poured gasoline onto the fire, and didn’t seem to care about the consequences.
However, when he was attacked and stabbed to death in the street in Amsterdam, I was left with no choice in the end, but to side with those who defended Van Gogh’s right to live and to speak out. The attack on him was an attack on all of us. As is the case with the attacks in Paris.
So, while I sympathize with the points made in this diary — and I do not endorse many of the cartoons in question — I have to say, in the end, “Je suis Charlie.”
Sat Jan 10, 2015 at 09:56:43 AM PST
One of the photographs from Time and Space on the Lower East Side appeared in the Sunday New York Times .
50 years ago a number of blocks of densely occupied tenement housing along Delancey Street were razed and thousands of low income families, mostly Puerto Rican, were displaced. Robert Moses attempted to build a freeway across Lower Manhattan directly through Soho and the Lower East Side, and these blocks were the first to be cleared. The highway was stopped, but the vacant lots remained a political battleground for decades. A rebuilding plan, reached by neighborhood consensus, is finally moving forward. This article explains why it took so long.
It’s a shocking story of corruption and racism. It centers around Sheldon Silver, the New York State representative from lower Manhattan, and one of the most powerful politicians in Albany. If there is justice in the world, it signals the end of his ignominious career.
Since it’s all over the media, and today in the New York Times, I will briefly enter the fray surrounding the Dutch cultural icon Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).
As many of you know, I am married to a Dutch woman and lived in the Netherlands for about 15 years. My son was born there. It is a small country brimming with creative energy and industrious people. It’s an extraordinary place in countless ways. But with all respect to my Dutch friends and loved ones, let me be blunt.
The problem of Zwarte Piet is not simply that the Dutch can’t understand why outsiders are so upset about the image of a black-faced white person playing the role of Sinterklaas’s servant. Zwarte Piet is, in fact, emblematic of a deeply racist strain within Dutch culture. The reason the Dutch are so upset about foreign criticism of their tradition is because Piet exposes what they pretend does not exist. Something that goes against what they believe about themselves.
When Barak Obama was elected President of the U.S., I believed that it was proof that American society was moving beyond its legacy of slavery and racial inequality–and in some ways that may be true. But the ugliness directed at him since–that he is Kenyan, Muslim, communist etc.–that he is somehow not a legitimate president–all of that exposes the racist undertow running beneath the surface of American society. So, I take care not to single out the Dutch for their Zwarte Piet self-deception.
Seven years ago, a short time before I returned to New York with my family, I wrote the following in this journal. I was clearly in something of a funk, but I still stand by it.
It’s getting late in November and the days are growing short, the sun is low in the sky when it does show itself in this mostly dreary climate. It’s almost time for Sinterklaas to arrive on his steamboat from Spain accompanied by his Black Petes. The Dutch cling tenaciously to the iconography of Sinterklaas: the severe bearded man dressed in Catholic bishop’s attire, the black-faced afro-wigged Petes cavorting about. It’s a children’s thing, but it is promoted with what seems an almost manic enthusiasm by adults. To outsiders interlopers like me who cannot get past the racist imagery of Black Pete, the whole business is repellent–and in bad taste. It is cultural heritage as kitsch–not a uniquely Dutch phenomenon, of course–but especially egregious.
Not unique — but especially egregious.
Art school, protest, and how I got to Cooper Union
Before transferring to Cooper Union in 1977 I was attending MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). It was an expensive private art school — tuition is now just over $39,000 per year. I remember the college president telling the incoming class in a welcoming speech what percentage of students would complete their degrees and go on to find careers in art. It was a discouragingly low number.
Previously, I had studied urban planning and architecture at the University of Virginia, and art school was difficult step for me. But my interest in photography had blossomed, and I saw myself becoming a fine art photographer down the road. At first, the diverse course offerings for obtaining a BFA were daunting — I hadn’t done any drawing or painting before — but I became increasingly appreciative of the interconnectedness of the different media, and as I became more confident in my abilities, I began to evaluate the students around me as well as the quality of the professors I was studying with.
It was a mixed bag. Many of the students seemed more enamored of the art lifestyle than the actual practice of art. And many of the professors, especially the entrenched tenured ones, seemed to be coasting as artists. There seemed a lack of ambitiousness all round. A large faculty art show in the college gallery confirmed my suspicions. The work was weak and directionless, and to me, it was insulting to those of us paying a ton of money to attend the school. So, a friend of mine and I engaged in a little guerrilla action, creating a flyer printed in black courier type that panned the faculty show and suggested that our tuition money was going to waste. We taped these flyers up everywhere on the campus — on walls, doors, in classrooms, restrooms, inside drawers and underneath desks. It caused quite a sensation.
I should say here, however, that some of my motivation was simply unearned hubris, and that some of my professors were excellent. Furthermore, not knowing what things are like at MICA in these days, this should not be construed as criticism of the present school. However, I was right about needing a more challenging environment, and as a result, began looking into exchange programs with other art schools. Above all, I wanted to explore color photography. It was 1976, and color was just becoming a viable medium outside of advertising and magazines, and seeing that Joel Meyerowitz, one of the pioneers of color photography was teaching at Cooper Union, I knew where I should go. I did my one semester exchange, hung around unofficially for another semester auditing classes, using my student ID good for a year, and eventually got in as a transfer student. The dean of the art school later told me they accepted four out of 450 applicants for transfer that year.
It had to be Cooper. My parents had pretty much given up on me and my educational wanderings, and had cut off my funding. Cooper, of course, was tuition free, making it possible for me to continue my dream even without parental support. A full telling of the story would describe in detail how life-changing the experience of attending Cooper was. How terrific the teachers were. How brilliant the students were. How it was understood without questioning that we were artists, and would go on to be artists in the real world, in New York City just outside the door, our campus and hometown. And that’s what happened for me. I was able to immediately begin an extended photography project upon graduation, and have been pursuing my dream for 30 years since.
Art School, protest, and (the end?) of Cooper Union
On Saturday I attended both Show Up, the annual end-of-year student show at Cooper Union, and Step Down, the renegade art show on the 7th floor of the Foundation Building just outside the office of Jamshed Bharucha, the college president. As those of you following the news already know, the president’s office has been occupied by students demanding that he and the chairman of the board of trustees resign. The sit-in was precipitated by the decision to begin charging tuition to close a budget gap brought on by financial mismanagement and the lack of imagination and leadership required to fix the problem. This alteration of Cooper’s central mission of providing free education to all, regardless of economic status, threatens to destroy the egalitarian meritocracy that has made this place a unique treasure.
Step Down is an openly polemical show full of anger and biting humor. The work was provided by students, alumni, and friends. I donated my book Time and Space on the Lower East Side with a letter to the students who are leading the effort to save Cooper Union. The letter explains that Time and Space would not have happened without Cooper, and that it reconnects, for me, the gap between the present and that time when I first arrived in New York City. The student protest at Cooper goes far beyond my modest flyer of 1976, but both actions, on different levels, are about the quality and the value of education.
The book is displayed on a table, and you can read my letter below. (Click on the letter for an easier to read view)
The art blog Hyperallergic wrote about Step Down:
…the exhibition Free Cooper Union put together, in only a week’s time, is probably one of the most significant and symbolic shows of the year. …this is an important exhibition, singular in capturing a raw provocation to authority. It’s an endeavor as worthwhile as it is rare.
As I was leaving the 7th floor, I pointed my camera out the window and made the photograph above across Cooper Square. Normally, when a university constructs a major new building it gets named for a prominent donor who helped make it possible. At Cooper the NAB, or New Academic Building, is a grand architectural statement bereft of a benefactor’s name. A large part of Cooper Union’s financial woes are connected to that fact. It was a complex real estate deal so they say, but, in a nutshell, the trustees chose to borrow the entire cost of construction, and now find they are unable to make the mortgage payments. As a result, they have shifted the debt to the students and abandoned the mission as expressed by Peter Cooper that education should be as “free as water and air.”
The ghost of Peter Cooper — © Brian Rose
Cooper Union students have taken over President Jamshed Bharucha’s office in the Foundation Building on Cooper Square. They are demanding his resignation in response to the decision made by the board of trustees to begin charging tuition at one of America’s last free colleges.
The president and the board of trustees have failed in their stewardship of this magnificent institution. May the ghost of Peter Cooper forever haunt their dreams.
Sign the no confidence letter here.
New York Times article from this morning.
West Street (West Side Highway) and West 10th Street, Greenwich Village — © Brian Rose
Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn — © Brian Rose
Two random photographs walking around town. A few thoughts about movies and photographs.
There are three movies up for Best Picture in the Academy Awards this weekend that have created a swirl of controversy about truth and the telling of stories based on real events. Lincoln by Steven Spielberg will likely walk away with a ton of awards, especially for the masterful performances of Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones. For me, I was most impressed with the staging, the pre-electric gloom of the interiors, and the overall fidelity to detail in costuming and decor. The movie felt authentic.
Throughout the first 2/3 of the movie I was enthralled and believed that Spielberg had finally reined in the populist pandering that infects pretty much everything he touches. But the final scenes leading to the passing of the 13th amendment featuring buffoonish characters cajoling votes out of fencing sitting congressmen, the comically raucous debate in the House of Representatives, and the overtly telegraphed dramatization of the final vote left me deflated, though I still clung to the earlier positive glow. Since seeing the movie, I found out why these last scenes, the voting segment in particular, rang false. The depiction of this well-documented event was manipulated for dramatic purposes.
And then there’s the kerfuffle over “Lincoln,” which had three historical advisers but still managed to make some historical bloopers. Joe Courtney, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, recently wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that “Lincoln” falsely showed two of Connecticut’s House members voting “Nay” against the 13th Amendment for the abolition of slavery.
“They were trying to be meticulously accurate even down to recording the ticking of Abraham Lincoln’s actual pocket watch,” Courtney told me. “So why get a climactic scene so off base?”
The screenwriter Tony Kushner defends the changes this way:
…it is completely acceptable to “manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth. History doesn’t always organize itself according to the rules of drama. It’s ridiculous. It’s like saying that Lincoln didn’t have green socks, he had blue socks.”
The problem is, this easy willingness to distort the facts betrays the thinking that went into the whole enterprise. Small details matter. Maybe not the socks, but the actual votes of congressmen, yes. As Mies van der Rohe, the creator of sublime modernist buildings once noted, “The devil is in the details.”
The other two movies in the discussion are Zero Dark Thirty, which tells the story of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, and Argo, the story of the escape of six American diplomats from revolutionary Iran in 1980. Both movies make the pretense of portraying actual events exactly as shown on the screen. In Zero Dark Thirty CIA agents use torture to obtain critical information–it did not happen–and the diplomats in Argo make a wild skin-of-the-teeth getaway in the Tehran airport–it did not happen.
The argument in all three cases is that artistic license allows for embellishment, dramatic manipulation, and even making things out of whole cloth. As Manholo Dargis and A. O. Scott write at the conclusion of their tortured article in the Times:
Given some of the stories that politicians themselves have peddled to the public, including the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, such concern is understandable. It can often seem as if everyone is making stuff up all the time and in such a climate of suspicion and well-earned skepticism — punctuated by “gotcha” moments of scandal and embarrassment — movies are hardly immune.
But invention remains one of the prerogatives of art and it is, after all, the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities. It is unfair to blame filmmakers if we sometimes confuse the real world with its representations. The truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not. It’s journalists and politicians who owe us the truth.
Sorry guys, but this is not how everyone operates as an artist. What I do as a photographer, for instance, is not a “counterfeit reality.” It may not be reality itself–certainly not–but it is a reflection of reality, one that I take great care in preserving even as I make the critical decisions about where to stand, what to show or not, or how to sequence images. The fact that politicians are routinely lying about things like WMD, that teachers are claiming that creationism shares the same legitimacy as science, that right wingers pretend that President Obama is a Kenyan, that paranoid leftists blame the World Trade Center destruction on a U.S. government conspiracy, is exactly the point. We are a society playing fast and loose with the facts, and artists are as culpable as anyone else.
There are lines that need to be drawn and redrawn, despite constantly shifting ground. It is one thing to interpret historic events, to fill in the blanks between things that are known, to speculate on what might have happened when the facts are sketchy. It is another to willfully ignore the tangible, the provable, to fail to see the infrastructure of history and respect the body of knowledge that supports society. It was said that the Bush administration “fixed the facts around the policy” with regard to the war in Iraq. Artists do the same all the time without, of course, the life or death ramifications. Spielberg and Kushner had a climactic scene to their movie, the vote on the 13th amendment. They determined what dramatic sequence of events worked best “artistically,” and then fixed the facts around the policy.
I know it’s just movies, but I take this stuff seriously.
East 3rd Street — © Brian Rose
Inauguration day (and Martin Luther King day) 2013. Just a scary reminder of what could have been had things turned out differently four years ago. The poster above, of course, is Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate, now sliding, it would seem, into general dissipation in the mid-winter gloom of Alaska.
I posted a similar picture last year taken with my digital camera. This is a scan of a 4×5 negative.
No to SOPA! Protect artists’ rights, not corporate interests.