Monthly Archives: February 2009

On Rent: The High School edition.

I had a cold earlier this week, and decided it was the perfect time to watch a bootlegged copy of Milk that a friend had lent me. [Note: I am not condoning bootlegging.]  It’s an excellent film, most notably because of Sean Penn’s skills as an actor. He has a way of completely embodying a character; to the point where it’s easy to forget that it’s Sean Penn. The story is simultaneously uplifting and sad; whether or not my emotions were out of whack due to sickness, I’m not sure, but I found myself sobbing on my couch, and thinking about the film long afterwards.

When you live in a city and have gay friends, you might forget sometimes that gay rights are even an issue. I was shocked when Prop 8 passed, and even more shocked that any state would want to prohibit gay couples from adopting children. Really? We want to keep financially stable people who desire to raise a child in a loving home from doing so?

Most of the time, I can’t believe that a debate over gay rights still even exists. It feels like it should have been over and done with forever ago, like suffrage or segregation. To me, homophobia is no different from racism or sexism. If we have no tolerance for the latter two in modern governmental affairs, why should we tolerate the first?

And that’s the disheartening part of Milk. That 30 years have passed and, as a society, we’ve only progressed a few baby steps beyond, in terms of how we view gay people. And there’s proof of that in the New York Times today, in this article, about American high schools opting to stage watered-down versions (read: they’ve taken out that orgy song) of Rent (perhaps in attempt by it’s producers to keep the spirit alive, since it closed this year on Broadway), and the uproar it’s caused.

At least three of the planned high school productions, in California, Texas and West Virginia, have been canceled after administrators or parents raised objections about the show’s morality, its portrayals of homosexuality and theft, and its frank discussions of drug use and H.I.V., according to administrators, teachers and parents involved in those cases.

Theft and drug use may be moderately understandable reasons (one could note, however, that often-produced musicals like West Side Story and Guys and Dolls, are exactly devoid of immorality) and H.I.V. is not surprising, given the ridiculous persistence of abstinence-only education in this country.

But the remainder of the article seems to stress that homosexuality part.

Ron Martin, the theater teacher and director here at Corona del Mar High School, found out just how controversial “Rent” can be… He said his principal, Fal Asrani, had objected to the show because of its treatment of “prostitution and homosexuality.” “When I heard that, I stopped her and looked her in the eye and said, ‘First, there is no prostitution in ‘Rent,’ and second, homosexuality is not wrong,’ ” Mr. Martin said. “She made no comment.”

Asrani, of course, denies bringing up homosexuality. Susan Collins, a superintendant from West Virginia (who was unfamiliar with rent until “last year,” a fact I find amazing), is against Rent in high schools as well, though she takes the passive-aggressive approach.

Mr. Dillon said in an interview that when he told Ms. Collins there were two gay couples in the musical, “she got flustered and worked up and expressed concerns.”

Ms. Collins said she had no personal problem with the homosexuality in “Rent,” but she was concerned that families in her West Virginia school district would not find that content and other themes appealing.

Is it just me, or does “flustered and worked up” not sound like no personal problems with homosexuality?

The silver lining to this is that high schoolers are rebelling – they’re forming Facebook groups, and fighting to stage Rent, which could translate to a younger generation supporting gay rights – evidence that those baby steps from the Harvey Milk years are still transpiring.

On Nazi looting and bad temp jobs.

In this week’s Boston Phoenix, I write about a new novel by Brookline Native, Sara Houghteling. Here’s an excerpt:

During World War II, Nazi plunderers focused their greedy eyes on Paris and began looting the city’s artwork — operating according to Hitler’s plan to open a massive, self-aggrandizing museum in Germany. Savvy employees at the Louvre emptied the museum and stashed its paintings in dark basements of the Parisian suburbs. So, the Nazis turned to Jewish art collectors and gallery owners, and used the Jeu de Paume Museum (formerly Napoleon III’s tennis courts) as a depository for their booty.

Rose Valland, a Louvre employee assigned to oversee the Jeu de Paume under the Nazis, kept a secret list of the paintings the Nazis had stolen, where they came from, and where in Germany they were being shipped. After the war, Valland worked to recover the lost artwork and, in the process, became a real-life heroine.

Houghteling is an excellent storyteller, and Pictures excellently weaves fact with fiction – the tragedy of Nazi art-looting, the heartbreak that often comes with early adulthood romances, the struggle for parental acceptance, and the complexities of the art-dealing world.

Houghteling has been a writer and a teacher for about a decade now, and had the time and room of one’s own, as they say, to write Pictures, her debut novel, by virtue of a Fulbright Scholarship, which she used to travel to Paris to research and write this novel. As I mentioned, though, she’s a Brookline native and a Harvard grad, and she freelanced a bit for the Phoenix back in the early naughts. Here’s a funny little piece of hers I stumbled across, detailing the various odd jobs she’s had to take in the process of pursuing her writing dream. Her method of excelling at a telemarketing job, in order to raise funds to travel to Prague for a writer’s workshop, is particulary hilarious:

Mostly I called Southern area codes, so I adopted the slow, syrupy drawl of my college roommate from Arkansas. My success rate crept upward. I changed my name to fit the customer’s business. For florist shops, I was Rose or Lilac. Ophelia dialed the bookstore crone, Prometheana called the fire station, and Mary Catherine rang up churches. Ginger and Candy, my porn-star alter egos and most successful saleswomen, phoned gas stations and hardware stores. These names inspired comments such as “You must be thirsty, Candy. Like a drink of me?” Or “I’m a very dirty man, Miss Ginger. I’d like it if you were dirty for me.”

Read the rest of this piece (and marvel at the Phoenix‘s old web design) here.

On Shepard Fairey

(Image from photos I took of Shepard Fairey’s visit to the Boston Phoenix offices)

In this week’s New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl comments on the storm of recent Shepard Fairey news, with some interesting points-of-view.

Fairey’s fight with the AP over whether the Obama photo he used for his famous “Hope” poster is downright stolen or covered by fair use laws, Schjeldahl says, is a “predictable legal snarl”:

“The general issue is an old story of our litigious republic. Appropriative artists, including David Salle, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince, have been sued at intervals since Campbell’s soup went after Warhol, in 1962 (but then thought better of it). As an art maven, I’m for granting artists blanket liberty to play with any existing image…. and I’m bored by the kerfuffle’s rote recurrence, with its all but scripted lines for plaintiff and defendant alike.”

Fairey cites Warhol as one of his primary artistic influences – no surprise there – and it’s interesting that nearly 50 years after audiences struggled to consider images of soup cans as art, we’re still having trouble with the concept of blatant, purposely apparent borrowdness as a medium.

“Fairey’s stylistic borrowings from Russian Revolutionary, Soviet, and W.P.A. propaganda are often remarked upon,” Schjeldahl writes. “But borrowedness itself—studied anachronism—is his mode of seduction.”

Schjeldahl only makes a brief-yet-poignant mention of Fairey’s arrest, implying that the incident is only worth a few words – can you hear that, commenters? – because the pro- versus anti-graffiti/street art argument has probably been around longer than Fairey himself. Street artsists exhibit their work in galleries often, and many have been arrested. Fairey just did it on a grander scale (at the ICA), and at a moment when the public (in Boston and elsewhere) happened to have all eyes on him.

“Boston’s I.C.A. has condoned a citywide smattering of street art by Fairey, as an extension of the show. That makes sense. So does the decision of the Boston police to arrest him for it, on his way to the show’s opening.”

Perhaps, much like Warhol did for pop artists, Fairey – as America’s best-known street artist at the moment (besides Banksy, whose anonymity lends him a separate and unique set of issues) – is creating a whole new set of inevitables for street artists making a foray into the museum and gallery world. Or maybe it’s just history repeating itself.