Post Preview: 

Below, you will find impressions of four museums/cultural sites. Then some general summative ideas about narratives in Philly’s museums. In truth, I’d skip to the Barnes Foundation (in other words, tl;dr until mostly to the end). But do look at the pictures.

The National Liberty Museum

 I leave the three floors and basement of this museum quite unsure of any emergent definition of liberty (aside from it requiring a “free” country in which to blossom). From the eight-minute conceptual video featuring an ex-Bulgarian who fled evil communism to be free, a band (Flame) made up of disabled individuals who try to bring acceptance on national tours, and a young woman who started a feed the homeless with fresh produce non-profit, a clear theme emerges: we have to be better. But the overall presentation is bizarre. The running strategy is very “hall of heroes,” whether the running heroes of 9/11 given names and faces from stairwell to stairwell or the “historic humans invested in liberty section,” featuring the usual suspects who showed courage in the fight for liberty (Gandhi, everyone involved with Anne Frank, MLK, and other famous freedom fighters, flanked by smaller displays for less well known acts of human courage generally tracking WWII and the late 20th century).

More bizarre, there’s a stained glass “liberty as the foundation for all world religions” section on the third flood, somehow mirrored by a display of Trans-artist glass sculptures (irresistibly titled “Transparent”) down in the basement exhibition space. And, in the center of it all, more glass sculptures as the “form” of liberty (being fragile yet strong yet beautiful), with Chihuly’s “Flame” running through the center of the building like a beacon. All I can say for sure is that, just down the street from Independence Hall, the story about liberty told here has little to do with the enlightenment mentality of 1802, except where it obviously does.

The Franklin Institute Museum

 “So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” – Benjamin Franklin

Somehow, in opposition to the Peales of the American Philosophical Society (which Franklin of course founded), even with all his huffiness and comic earnestness and anecdotal stories of sexual dalliances, Franklin, ripe for caricature, remains a somewhat ‘loveable’ American figure. It is bizarre. I attribute this to his being funny looking. You know, funny looking.

Because old Ben is so singular, his work folds into the narrative. It isn’t surprising. We sort of know/showcase his dirty secrets and moral failings right alongside his more civic achievements. He is more 3-D, more present, but only because he’s been distilled into our cultural knowledge as a kind of stereotype, easily caricatured. Following Kundera’s thesis in Immortality about fame, he has been boiled down to bifocals, the key and the kite, that hairdo, and a whimsical voice in American letters (the voice of Poor Richard, of the free press, etc.).

This museum is also clearly for children, full of interactive displays to pass along Franklin’s ‘virtues’ and inquisitive spirit. Lots of cartoon Ben’s speaking his famous lines made silly and thereby acceptable. Ben doesn’t take himself too seriously, this museum claims, so for that reason we should be accepting of his quirky worldview. I won’t say insidious, but more impressive to caricature someone who stands for a version of America that we can then swallow while playing around with his various devices and schemes for living.

Of interest: the guy in the “historic print shop” noted that being a printer was closest to Franklin’s heart (and the epitaph for his gravestone). He saw himself as a civically engaged printer, bringing news and idea to his world, the mouthpiece of progress. His ability to tell stories allows his story to continue to be told in a particularly folksy, palatable way.

Independence Hall

 In the least likely of places, we find the most interesting questions. I figured Independence Hall for a photo-op, “here’s where it all happened” viewing: an homage. But the quirky tour guide made it her business to make her short tour a challenge: was the American Revolution treason or something else? Over fifteen minutes, she made an argument for considering the Revolution as simply an outgrowth of reasonable people trying to follow the rule of law only to be denied from above. Revolution, in her argument, was thrust upon them by a lack of royal cooperation.

In the story of moving from colony to independent states, then from a confederation to a republic on the world stage, she framed the choices made as choices we, as Americans, must continually make. What is liberty? How should we, as keepers of these old, enlightenment documents, work to keep them relevant, to see their ideal fulfilled? How far are we willing to go to see that the vision adapts and evolves for a better republic? Seditious stuff, in our current political age, but compelling nonetheless, even if I’m (still) not sure what liberty means in Old Town Philly, for 1776 or 1802 or 2017. A sticking point, that.

Addendum to Liberty and History: The Barnes Foundation

The fascination with and subsequent fading of the self—in representations of the human form—from realism to something other (in the impressionism and modernism period), from nudes to portraits to yet more endless nudes, is on full display at the Barnes. So much Renoir, Cézanne, with a mix of Picasso and Van Gogh, the odd Miro standing out amidst the plethora of French faces and landscapes. There are portraits of the human, but outnumbered by blank faces or impressionist erasures of form, moving toward squares and non-human humans, grotesques, lines in place of the human form. In this space, crammed room after room, in neat, bordered frames, the Barnes displays the rise and fall of the self in the early 20th century, plain as day, there on the wall. The fixation of female nudes does little to rectify this trend.

The self, here, defined: unraveling from inception, becoming parts and hints and disappearing into newfangled representation that, in capturing somehow more, nevertheless effaces.

Takeaways from Museum City/Revolution Center

Clearly, one of these things doesn’t belong with the others (the Barnes Foundation), except it does. My friend Emily told me today that a little kept secret here is that old man Barnes donated his collection to the city under the agreement that it remain outside the city bounds, as art should be for more than those in the center of things. Following his death, the city of Philly moved his collection to their impressive museum blvd, an overwhelming space of culture, as a gem alongside the city’s own museum of art. Fuck the agreement, says Philly. We will do what we want with what has been given us. We will reframe the narrative in a new space, a space that is if nothing else a celebration of America’s “greatness” as an artistic capital. We will reshuffle the story a bit, presenting this overwhelming collection right next door to several more such overwhelming collections.

The takeaway: shock and awe. An overwhelming amount of power in one place (again following Bennett’s argument about museums and power). Look on these works, ye peon, and feel small but also part of some narrative of progress and power and wonder that is somehow liberty.

Except that here, as opposed to the rational, enlightenment, revolutionary museums of history and progress, I saw effacement, the face disappearing into color and line, the imagined subject disappearing into the canvas. The stable self of enlightenment, the one who can contain liberty, instead comes to display a strange beauty and fragility.

A Lesson

We as humans are understandably a bit obsessed with ourselves and making sense of ourselves, even if the outcome doesn’t return reasonable results. Likewise, liberty is an elusive concept, especially in neoliberal capitalism. In Philly, I found the construction of American vision and art that questions stability (albeit non-American art). But, because of the choices of viewing I made, I found little to recommend action now, or how to be in our current world. Except for that tour guide at Independence Hall, asking us to connect our now to their then, Philly is good at telling a story of independence long ago, but short on offering contemporary answers.

Except in the streets themselves, teeming with multiracial life and culture. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong places: perhaps the city itself offers a kind of answer, but alas, time and attention will not allow a complete exploration of its dynamics. All I can say is, it is dynamic. And there is something there which offers me a bit of hope (even if the faces on the street, as in the Barnes, fade into a surrealist, impressionist blur as an unaccountable life happens all around me, I another face in their crowd).

Advertisements
Peale Quote

“I have long contemplated that by industry such a variety of interesting subjects of Nature might be collected in one view as would enlighten the minds of my countrymen, and, demonstrate the importance of diffusing a knowledge of the wonderful and various beauties of Nature, more powerful to humanize the mind, promote harmony, and aid virtue, than any other school yet imagined.” — Charles Wilson Peale to Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 12, 1802

It seems quite obvious, but worth stating outright: museums tell stories, framing history in narratives meant to convey a way of seeing the world that we as visitors cannot help connecting to our own world. This is especially true in places where formative narratives are told—in this case, formative narratives of the American Revolution and the American experiment—that common sense would make seem applicable today.

Spending a few agenda free days in Philly, I wandered innocently into the Museum of the American Philosophical Society after an aimless turn through Independence Park. It seemed a safe first step for touristy downtown Philly. And: I walked right into Enlightenment politics meets shady business practices. The whole civic progress model was on full display. Charles Wilson Peale IS the thinker-tinker in the American tradition (described by Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man).

Art/science/technology/politics meld into the worldview of the Enlightenment gentleman, making the world his sandbox. In our contemporary moment of divisive politics, it was a quirky innocence on display at the Peale collection. The old ideas of developing the citizenry through the elucidation of their minds—via an interaction with distilled Nature—brought to you by the gregarious American individual of post-revolutionary times, the thinker-tinker defined as: the adventurer/inventor/artist/historian, remaking the world around him in his own image.

I especially enjoyed reading documents. The language and script, the inflated prose style, the belief in purposeful progress, all without a hint of irony. Irony, of course, seeps through, as a backwash of unstated absence. For Peale, the nod to his “former slave” doing portraiture. The intentions for the well-heeled country gentleman, otherwise considered a public nuisance (see the image below of the “Pedestrian Hobby-Horse” for details). The eventual dispersal of his carefully planned civic monuments and artifacts (impermanence the rule of the day).

Pedestrian Hobby Horse

Or for Robert Morris, whose statue in a random square bears a plaque naming him freedom fighter, founding father, and financier of the Revolution. Funded with money from various ventures, though notably from the slave trade itself. Later, Morris goes bankrupt from overly greedy land speculation and spends three years in debtors’ prison. Such was America, where even a “hero” of the revolution was not too big to fail.

I pen these words sitting in a Public House, a very un-Irish Irish Pub, listening to the bartender and customers compare Amazon Prime Day to the Sears catalogue of old. It is strange to consider how much consumer capitalism has moved us away from the very Enlightenment ideas that were the foundation for its inception and propagation (on display at the various museums right down the road).

Regardless of irony, I enjoyed Peale’s ideology-laden space. From Mastodon skeletons to silly inventions to realist images of nature and people to the very failure of his specific vision for “enlightening” a public. There’s comfort, in other words, in those old Enlightenment ideas, in the (false) notion of an engaged citizenry, propelled by wonders and knowledge to better themselves and the world around them. A Naïve Hopefulness very much absent in Amazon Prime World.

Because, the obvious takeaway of the Peale exhibit involves consigning the mentality of 1802 to a past no longer connected to our present. The easy “build wonders and they will become enlightened” mentality of 1802 seems terrifyingly naïve to 2017, where the facts themselves have been abandoned for comforting, tribal narratives often at odds with any “reality.”

I won’t go so far as to claim this means the American project failed. From a more academic context, I’ll instead end on a reflection on presentations of narratives that Tony Bennett describes as “the exhibitionary complex”:

“The institutions comprising ‘the exhibitionary complex’…were involved in the transfer of objects and bodies from the enclosed and private domains in which they had previously been displayed (but to a restricted public) into progressively more open and public arenas where, through the representations to which they were subjected, they formed vehicles for inscribing and broadcasting the messages of power…throughout society.”

For Bennett, museums serve as mouthpieces of state power (or benefactor power), serving the civic purpose of containing history in specific narratives. This works, in part, because presentation has power. People come to Philly to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin commemorations: in short, to soak in the Enlightenment platitudes of American “heritage” and American exceptionalism. It would be hard to imagine crowds here flocking to any anti-American museum. However, I wonder what message we are prompted to walk away considering, a question I’ll attempt to answer in my next post (and after visiting more museums in homage to America at its (Enlightenment) founding).

 

IMG_4290 2

This journey 95% complete, as we drove through the entirety of Tennessee yesterday I couldn’t help but think big thoughts concerning what it has all been about. The expansiveness of the Tennessee highway is partially to blame for these thoughts, as the descent out of mountains’ luscious green-ness lends itself to looking into fluffy clouds and feeling awed. Sublime.

For me, the fundamentals of travel emerge from a winnowing down of generalizations. We travel to places, especially on a road trip, to see what’s happening there. Destination travel. For some, that translates into a deep connection to place, but I find that sterile. In my own travels, the real focus is on the people-within-the-place: what do they do there, I ask myself? How do they make use of their time?

This notion—“what do people do?”—has been a mantra of our adventures in the American South. In tiny boros gassing up or eating, in bigger cities with family or distant friends, in vistas visible from the highway, the question conjured a kind of imaginary contemplation of the lives we could not access along the road. With family, I could ask and learn. For the rest of the country, I only had my assumptions and inferences, punctuated by conversations with strangers at bars to fill in some of the mysterious gaps.

Even traveling abroad, my experience nearly always hinges on a conversation or interaction, though in that case more literary than interpersonal. Walking the streets of Prague, for instance, the overlay of Kafka, Kundera, Hrabal creates a mapping of space through the perspective of another. I’m less interested in experiencing place in any raw sense, in other words, than I am in experiencing people’s experience of space or place, especially if I value their insight. I want comparative experience more than I want the thrill of a strange newness.

Probably why I have a PhD instead of writing fiction. I’m less interested in my voice than in immersing myself in the conversation of voices, cacophony-style, and tracking the strange rhythms. Plus fiction takes a different kind of courage, I think, than active observation, but that is neither here nor there.

Back to “what do people do,” the underlying idea is, of course, “what do I do?” How do I spend my days and what’s the best way to do so? Over this trip, I tried to morph this question into something slightly different, but I think useful: “what will I do?” At this end of this adventure, returning to life with a slightly enhanced (one would hope) perspective, how will I turn contemplations into actions?

But action is beyond the scope of this travel blog. Instead, I’ll end with a short list of things people do with their three score and ten:

Work; Sleep; Eat; Fuck; Worry about working or sleeping or eating or fucking; try to find someone to fuck or to eat with; try to find work; try to fall asleep; worry about not eating; worry about not fucking; television, regardless of content; exercise, for pleasure or for suffering; fall into the same traps others have fallen into, as we seem incapable as a species of learning from the mistakes of others (hence evolution); daydreaming about things never done; being angry about things we cannot control; making up love stories about strangers, involving us or involving other strangers; judging other people; repeating things, as ritual or routine or imitation; passing time looking into the distance; in some form of spiritual practice; perhaps, at peace.

As Madeline reminds us for the final reflection, “and we are elephants with lights, it’s a wonder we don’t collide.”

As befits the final bender of a pilgrimage, we sought out some holy dives for an evening of revelry and observation. For, what says more about a place than its best dives? If in any way sacramental, the goal here was to inhabit the night before the long journey home, to toast it with strangers, and to leave it behind for the light of morning.

For this Sunday observance, we hit three establishments, two of which were dives (at least by the standards of here). We found them by wandering around looking for promising sites and, later in the night, with the help of a quick search. I’ll follow the path we took.

Thirsty Monk

I only mention this place because we walked in, stood at the bar for a minute (ignored by the bartender, pouring his perfect draft pour the entire time), and left. The place has a douchy vibe, a little too nice and for an older clientele who want to feel a bit wild without leaving a comfortable environment. Boring.

Jack of the Wood

This self-styled “Celtic style pub” felt comfortable, if expensive. Fulfilling the anecdote that, in place of restaurants or cuisine the British and Irish have exported the Pub, this place fit the bill. Traditional music, normal looking people. A nice start, but only that.

Yacht Club

Basically next door to Jack of the Wood, the Yacht Club on a Sunday evening is crowded with characters, all bunched together on the narrow patio to smoke and drink and talk. You can spot this place as dive from down the street. The mix of black, leather, and multicolored (and faded) hair draws the eye.

Into this holy site we rolled (after confirming that we didn’t need to be members to drink, a practice which seems somewhat standard here: the reversal of privilege, perhaps, or a tracking system for patrons? Regardless, they had a yellow legal pad for members and guests to sign in). In classic dive couture, the theme of Tiki was enhanced by an Easter Island head placed on an altar behind the bar, the look sealed by fake coconuts worn like a bra. Classy.

Here, we drank and talked a bit, but mostly drank. Sunday night dive bar patrons are generally regulars, interested in talking but already part of large groups. The character we talked to was St. Michael, a self-defined “old hippie” who ordered a boilermaker and was a fount of stories:

About his nickname: used to own a bus with “St. Michael’s Home for Wayward Women” on the side, so the name stuck.

About women: specifically, the ones who would come knocking on the door of the bus at night, claiming to be wayward. The implication was that they didn’t come to seek salvation, however, but more illicit waywardness.

About Louisiana: he was locked up for threatening an attorney in Louisiana and, when Katrina hit, he and the others in his jail were left locked in their cells, water up to their necks, abandoned by their captors.

Overall, the Yacht Club was nice, if hectic. Too in the middle of things downtown, though an attractive respite from sun and normality for all that.

The Lazy Diamond

Down a few blocks and around a few corners, we found The Lazy Diamond (with the help of the internet). At first, it seemed the grail. Charming, more Tiki but with an old organ behind the bar. Outside seating for what finally became a pleasant evening (less than 90 degrees). But then, as the senselessness of the bar’s name begins to haunt you as you drink, you figure out that it is just the pastiche of a dive, artificially constructed to seem dive-like. Dive simulacra. And we were in the thick of it.

We stayed a few hours talking to Mr. Gorgeous, who apparently earned the nickname from the ladies. At 50, Mr. G sat at our table and was still there, drinking vodka juice drinks, when we left. He rambled on about Asheville, about owning dogs, and about the women he chases. A tile guy, he discussed jobs and clients. An Asheville guy, he discussed floating and the outdoors and bars. Companionable company, for a look beneath the simulation.

The patrons, however, were what we used to call dc (for desperately cool). It may have been their youth relative to my own, but I felt surrounded by hot topic posers trying to force an interesting life into being. I can’t blame them, as I certainly get it, but from the outside looking in I just felt sad.

Notable things:

  1. Joey nearly picked a fight with a guy by repeating something the guy had said within earshot, causing the guy to say “are you mocking me?” He then proceeded to try and taunt us while backing away. I think even he knew he looked ridiculous. But what can a young buck do but buck?
  2. I watched a girl hit on a guy who wasn’t terribly interested. Her friends egged this on, as in-group romance clearly fulfills some survival strategy. All find and good. But before she left with him, a friend forced her to drink a mixed drink. Chug it. It felt like she was being prepared for the awful experience to come. Awful indeed.
  3. I was happy to leave this unfulfilling place, this wannabe holy site.

 

And those are some dives of Asheville. I don’t know if I feel any more saved, but I don’t regret the experience…just the hangover.

I lived in Athens, GA from 2006-2008 and haven’t been back in ages. As a pilgrimage site, Athens rests on the meridian I would define as reconstructing self after hurricane Katrina. As a place, it retains residue of the phase shift I went through back when.

I traveled the long road back to Athens in search of the holy grail: a turkey and mango chutney sandwich at Big City Bread. But alas, it seems the seasonal menu lists not the sandwich of years past pleasures. So, while I skirted the edges of this shine to sandwich, I did not enter the temple. Did not taste this sweet nectar. Could not afford to chance such a confrontation.

Instead, I visited The Max (formerly Max Canada) in search of memories of grad school long ago. I recounted stories of being punched in the face by a girl, of CarnEvil hijinks, and, above all, of friendships made long ago. While most have faded with time and distance, some have remained, of which a few remain sacred. My going away party took place at this bar, summoning images of bittersweet times past. Every Friday I visited this bar with friends, making our ways in the world. So this view, which makes no sense really, retains meaning.

IMG_4255.JPG

Beyond The Max, Joey and I wandered the streets, peregrine on full force, reviewing changes to place. New construction next to the same old bars and restaurants. The block containing The Max also contains the 40 Watt Club (and is basically an oasis in the desert of the world). Unchanged for the most part, similar characters as always, I fit there better than nearly anywhere.

The rest of Athens was memories and reminiscence (and good food). Wandering all night, through downtown and into various bars, it all came back. How strange to live in such a place for two years, time seemingly out of time. A cul-de-sac of life, an experiential by-way. The physical place may be there, but besides a few drinks at a few bars, memory serves.

Athens for me is formative, a post-Katrina, post-New Orleans experience of living out a strange difference. The town of Madeline Adams, I mostly remember it through her music. Through the parts of self formed in its groovy atmosphere of cool, even if I never really was. Redefining what life is, portrait of the grad student as a young man style. Feels like ages ago.

And that’s my hazy view of Athens, which is really another view of self. But I’ll end with Madeline herself, as a voice of place more suited to storytelling. This is also my favorite love song, I think, though I wonder if Madeline herself would feel the same way.

Today, Joey and I traveled 600 miles and change. From Arkansas, through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, to arrive in Athens, GA. Site #1 on the pilgrimage, in a general sense, as I lived here for two years once, a long time ago, in what seems a different life.

First, a quick reflection on Pilgrimage. At 5:30 AM, Joey started the day reciting from Chaucer’s General Prologue from the Canterbury Tales. In Middle English (as befits those who teaching World Literature):

Pilgrimage. Heading to the sites that contain some meaning in their bones and stones. A communal effort, in some ways, but also a personal journey. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims, we peregrine wandered the highways, taking in the world along the way. Though I’ll decide along the way what is sacred and what profane.

Three Brief Impressions

#1: The Flaming Container Truck, Traffic Snake

Somewhere along I-20, between Birmingham and Atlanta, brake lights flared. To the left, heading the other way, an 18 wheeler engulfed in flames, various authorities buzzing around it, watching it burn. A shock, but only a glance out the window, a momentary glimpse of something profane.

And then the traffic, which snaked, snaked, snaked back for miles. Past several exits, probably three miles of traffic at least, sitting, confused about the obstruction. So many other 18 wheelers, probably learning via radio about the fate of their melted kin.

A takeaway: travel is dangerous business, comprised of luck, skill, and openness. Had that flaming truck been heading the other way, we would have been derailed a day, easily. Travel these days hinges on schedules, pre-plans, arrangements, which ignores the perversity of the world’s capricious nature in granting such wishes. And yet we cling to the schedule, the plotted plans. But one flaming truck can reroute everything.

#2 Talladega Burger King/Ice Cream Shop Combo

How can one not stop to take in the ambiance of the Talladega BK? Imagine: children shoed and unshod endlessly circling through the plastic play area (circa 20 years ago, based on construction); various young toughs with various facial hair displays strutting about like kings; a broken touch-screen on a soda dispenser periodically spewing bursts of sugary drink onto the floor; a puddly floor in soda multicolor; an older white lady trying halfheartedly to clean under the direction of an older black lady; a new facade on an old building; the feast itself, paltry as anywhere, Joey briefly donning a BK crown while chowing down; the lady from the ice cream shop shivering at the register, nearly blue from the freezer, who I told to “stay warm” on a 97 degree day.

Imagine, in short, a monad of America (or at least this American South), one place reflecting the essential of the whole within itself, little truths hiding in ketchup packets and in the sameness of the menu. That comforting sameness, individuated by Talladega as context.

#3 Clouds

Blue skies and big fluffy clouds, making the sky seem even larger, more enveloping, constantly drawing the eye from the monotony of the road.

Sitting, shorn of beard, I feel oddly light-faced and fancy-free. Light as in bright and somehow the opposite of fluffy. While I don’t recognize myself in the mirror, exactly, that seems like a necessary first step–shedding–of becoming peregrine.

What’s the purpose of this journey? A simple vacation, of course, as well as visiting family and getting out on the road. But, beneath this more obvious layer, this journey is a ritual mark of passing. Passage.

I’ve spent the last few years writing a dissertation, stressed and harried, working towards a goal. Now that the goal is achieved, the troubling nag in the back of my mind persists. Sure, there is future work to do, the next goal, but a time of cleanse between seems wise and necessary. A time to see things differently, so see things without the dissertation clouding my view.

Ideally, I’ll return from this liminal passing ready for the next phase. But I’m excited for the passage itself, tripping down the road in search of mystery and adventure, of nothing at all specific. Eyes opened.

Beyond packing and practicalities, it made sense to mark the passing by temporarily shedding the beard. Symbolic of so much, culturally, though for me specifically it simply represents 14 years, from college through the wandering and higher degrees to this point. It can return and will, but without the drag of years, at the endpoint of the current adventure. Both quest and liminal journey.

I’m ready for the first step.