Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Things I Feel Strongly About - Income Inequality

It's been estimated that, had it kept pace with inflation since it's inception, the minimum wage in the U.S. would be $16 per hour. It has not.There are several ironies regarding this. If employees were paid this rate companies profits would not have suffered. Factoring in inflation, the costs of raw materials and labor would have remained stable. The percentage of profit companies earned would not have been diminished. Also, our battered economy would be in better shape. If lower income people made a wage that would afford them a decent standard of living they would feel freer to both spend and save. A below standard wage keeps these people in a state of grinding poverty. Every penny is spent just to maintain a roof over their head and food on the table. In many cases not even these necessities can be covered.

Vast amounts of cash in this country, controlled and owned by the wealthiest corporations and individuals, sit on the sidelines. These dollars do not circulate, they lay dormant. It is akin to a farmer storing year after year of seed in his barn while his fields lie barren. There is a line from the musical "Hello Dolly", "Money is like manure, it must be spread around encouraging young things to grow."

Perhaps taxing the wealthy is one option. The increased revenue could be used for public works projects putting people to work building bridges and roads. We would be able to develop and revitalize mass transit, which is sorely lacking in the U.S., cutting down on our use of fossil fuels. We would have the ability to research renewable and enviormentally friendly sources of power.

The far right often states that 50% of taxes are already paid by the top 20% of earners. These top earners control 85% of this country's wealth. This means that they are actually underpaying their fair share.

Some are concerned about the solvency of our Social Security system. Pensions are quickly disappearing. Without Social Security many seniors would have to work until they are physically unable to do so. First our retirement age should be raised. Age 65 is no longer what it was when the program was started. Second, the cap on earnings taxed should not be raised but eliminated entirely. Why should people, even those at poverty level, have to pay 6 3/4% of their income into a program while the wealthy, in many cases, pay 1% or even less. If the cap were eliminated and the rate lowered for all to 4 1/2% there would actually be more money coming into the program than there is at present. Another irony is that those high earners, who are more able to put away funds for their old age, get more out of the Social Security system than those that earn less, even though they pay a smaller percentage of their income into it.

In the founding papers of our country are words ensuring that all citizens have a right to "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." My request to government officials sworn to uphold those words and ideals.....GET CRACKIN! 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ode to Spring 2014

There is a special shade of green that appears in spring. Lighter, seeming somehow fresher than it's darker summer hue. It is as if it lives in that moment when you first wake up in the morning and shake off the fuzziness of sleep. Perhaps this moment happens with your first sip of coffee or as the prickle of the spray from the shower touches your skin. Even as the first leaves to appear darken, preparing to do their service providing welcome shade from the hot summer days to come, this special green prevails on the new growth as the plants stretch their limbs after their long winter dormancy.

I associate summer with spotted orange lilies and Queen Anne's lace, the beige of beach sand and the blues, grays and greens of water. Spring colors are brighter. The varied and brilliant hues of tulips, butter yellow daffodils, the blossom laden branches of fruit bearing trees and the fresh color of new leaves. Their visit is not long lasting only a few short weeks. As we watch them transition we look forward to their appearance next year, signaling the end of the dark, cold days of winter and foretelling the long sunlit days of summer.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Afternoon Delight - Part Two - Macy's Annual Flower Show

I walked past the 19th century facades and jewelry showroom windows that line Wabash Avenue. Chicago's iconic El trains rumbled by on the tracks overhead. The small green heads of tulips peaked above the earth in the beds which edge the sidewalks hinting at the colorful blooms to come.

Entering the State Street Macy's is a history lesson in small victories. Marshall Field's was a name virtually synonymous with Chicago. When Macy's bought Marshall Field it was requested that, due to it's long association with the city, the Marshall Field name be, at least in part, retained. One suggestion was that for the Chicago area they could call it Marshall Field by Macy's. Macy's was unyielding. Their attitude was, we bought the store, it will be called Macy's, end of discussion. This caused bad blood among old line Chicagoans, some of which persists to this day.

The State Street store building is landmarked. It's exterior cannot be altered in any way. Hence, the bronze plaques on each corner bearing the name Marshall Field and Company remain unmolested.  The massive clocks, made famous by Norman Rockwell in an often reproduced Saturday Evening Post cover still keep passersby appraised of the time of day as they have for decades. Inside, the elevator doors retain the molded metal image of sheaves of hay, a Marshall Field trademark. Likewise the Walnut Room, the in store restaurant where during the holidays as many as 4 generations of one family can be seen at the same table sharing a meal, a cherished Christmas season tradition for some, remains unchanged in appearance. The towering Christmas tree in it's center has however become less interesting than it's predecessor's were during the Field's days.

So too has the annual Spring Flower Show changed. In years past, during Marshall Field's tenure, the tops of the fixtures on the first floor were filled with fresh flowers. The scent as one entered was wonderful and heady, demanding that the shopper deeply breath in their strong perfume. Today the show is confined to an exhibition space on the uppermost floor. This years theme was "The Secret Garden", a vague description which allowed designers a great deal of leeway when it came to the displays. A maypole was set among topiaries shaped as animals and chessmen. A floral portrait of Salvador Dali resting on a base created from shards of pottery dishes, with a pair of blue manikin legs upturned, feet in the air, left me scratching my head. So too did the upright piano surrounded by blooms. The centerpiece of the exhibition, though lovely and impressive, made even less sense. A tall white manikin wearing a gown fashioned from dried leaves spray painted bright red kept watch over the various displays. The gown's bustle and train were created using a number of various type of dried flowers, also painted red. It was a beautiful piece of workmanship which seemed, however, to have little to do with a "Secret Garden". I left the exhibition seriously underwhelmed.

As I left the store I gazed up at the venerable Tiffany designed mosaic dome which graces the interior of the landmark building. One of Chicago's hidden civic treasures it reassured me that, no matter who owns what, some things remain the same.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Afternoon Delight - Part one - The Art Institute

I had just worked a long, grueling stretch of days. With a day off and being caught up with chores and errands I decided I had earned some "me time". The Art Institute had just installed three new exhibits. Two I was interested in, the third not so much. Also the historic Macy's, nee Marshall Field, store on State Street, just a few blocks from the museum, was hosting it's annual spring flower show. I donned a new sweater I had not had the opportunity to wear yet. I had bought it on impulse. It had been marked down repeatedly and a special, generous employee discount had been added making it remarkably affordable. I made a present of one to my partner as well, albeit in a different color. It was the perfect weight for the cool, early spring day.

The late morning bus traffic seemed exceptionally heavy. One of the few remaining seats was a bench running sideways to the one which runs along the rear of the bus. The back bench is raised slightly above the level of the other seats to accommodate the buses engine, an integral part of the vehicle. On this day it was populated by a line of exceptionally tall people exacerbating my somewhat Lilliputian dimensions as I perched on my seat near them. We whizzed by lakefront parkland. My mind wandered as I thought of the bike rides I hoped to enjoy there in the coming months as the weather warmed. Our country's economic woes were evidenced by the number of large empty storefronts along Chicago's renown Michigan Avenue. Once hailed as one of the nations premier shopping destinations it's high end stores are now clogged with tourists from surrounding states visiting every one of the venues yet ultimately purchasing nothing.

I got off the bus and peered across the street at my "safe zone", my Xanadu, the classical facade of the Chicago Art Institute, one of the world's greatest repositories of art, historic furnishings and historical and artistic artifacts. I have spent many hours over the course of my life in Chicago exploring the corridors , galleries and hidden corners of this artistic treasure trove. I have my favorite spots which I visit and revisit, each time I seem to regain a portion of my soul, each time I experience something different and new.

I did not have a great interest in seeing the current exhibition, a retrospect of the contemporary, abstract artist Christopher Wool. As I moved through the galleries looking at the large scale paintings I found his work, like that of a number of his contemporaries, callus and cynical. Many pieces were black and white, some mere squiggles of paint on a bare white background resembling a building side tagged by vandals. Some graffiti does rise to the level of art, this did not. One canvas had the word FOOL  stenciled on it. The curators called it a melancholy self portrait. It seemed to me to be a comment on those who would spend grotesque amounts of money on these works. Many of the paintings are untitled. Perhaps Mr. Wool was laughing too hard as he attempted to pull his name over our eyes to come up with one.

Next on my agenda was a visit to a Renoir, a permanent piece of the museum's massive collection of Impressionist artworks. During a recent conservation project they discovered, upon removing the frame, remnants of bright red pigment that had been completely shielded from light. Further research revealed that the background of the portrait had been much more vivid than the muted shade which appears today. Apparently Renoir had used a pigment that was unstable and faded easily, not uncommon with red tones. A digital recreation of the portrait as it looked when it was new reveals a crisper image of the subject compared to the works present day state. The back of the painting is visible providing a rare view of the work's history. During previous conservation work in 1939 the canvas was mounted on a hardboard panel. After this work the original stretcher was reused but, somehow, reinstalled upside down. There is a paper label on the back identifying the work and artist. The canvas merchant's stamp is also visible on the stretcher. One can imagine Renoir visiting the merchant, selecting the right size canvas for the work. X ray images reveal the changes Renoir made as his work on the painting progressed.

This exhibit shares a gallery with 2 Degas', including one of my favorites by the artist "The Milliner's Shop", also in the museums permanent collection. The character of the figure in the painting has always been questioned. She appears to be holing pins in her mouth, suggesting that she is a shopgirl, yet the richness of her costume, her kid gloves and fur color, seem to belie this humble profession.   X rays reveal that originally the figure was unmistakably a customer before Degas gave her the more ambiguous nature seen in the finished work.

Across from the Oriental collection is a warren of galleries which are devoted to works on paper. These are rotated due to the fragile nature of the artworks displayed. Sometimes the exhibitions are from the Institutes's permanent collection, some are borrowed, some are still in private hands but promised to the museum. A collector recently donated hundreds of works on paper, one of the largest bequests in the Institutes's history. A portion of these new acquisitions were on view. The collection of works was astonishing. The exhibition opened with a water color by Mondrian of the Amsterdam skyline. It is always interesting to see his more realistic work which preceded the abstract geometric style he adopted later and is primarily known for. There are drawings by Picasso and Matisse. A chalk portrait by Modigliani features his trademark representation of the sitter with an elongated face. Further on one encounters a whimsical Tischbein watercolor depicting 3 beavers building a dam entitled "Three Beavers Building A Dam".

The unclothed human form is in abundance in this exhibition. There is a Romney illustration of a scene from the first act of "Twelfth Night". It indicates, judging from the well muscled forms of the nude men depicted, that gym rats and protein supplements existed as far back as the work's date of 1776. One wall consists of nudes by Klimt, Renoir and Degas. There is a spellbinding male nude by Cezanne which depicts the innocent beauty of youth in a strangely sad, haunting manner.

Landscapes by John Constable and Gainsborough share one wall. Gainsborough's work, a humble pencil sketch, shows the remarkable attention to detail evidenced in his more well known portraits. The viewer can imagine the water rippling and the leaves of the trees rustling in the breeze.

Chalk haystacks by Monet add to the appreciation of the Haystack series housed in the Institutes's Impressionist galleries.

I left the museum enroute to Macy's where I hoped to "stop and smell the roses".