Keeping My Day Job

In which I give voice to my dormant self: art historian, film theorist, English teacher.

Memories of Bowie

In 1987 I wrote a paper on the film Labyrinth for a graduate course. I don’t often read my old college papers, but with the death of David Bowie earlier this month, I felt the need to watch the film again, on my rusty old VHS player. And that piqued my curiosity to see what I had written nearly 30 years ago.

I was a new mother then, and my paper, which liberally quotes Lacan, Freud, Metz, and de Lauretis, focused on mirrors, mazes, and absent mothers. I will spare you the details, and not because I am humble, or because it might be crap, or simply belong to another time. Rather, the only copy I have is the original typed essay, complete with my professor’s hand-written comments and criticisms. I am too lazy to scan it to PDF, too proud to let you see my typos or those comments, and I don’t know if I could re-type it without pursuing where I know it falls short.

Because what surprised me, in re-reading that essay, is that David Bowie, man and image, signifier and signified, is almost nowhere to be found. Maybe I was too nervous or unsure how to weave his mutating gender formulations into my (or Lacan’s?) construct of mothers and mirrors, or to think about my own role as viewer and mother, my individual history with that image? That is a significant missed opportunity, and could sidetrack or subsume my 1987 argument. I sure wish I had the intellectual stamina to think that through now.

And yet.

Memory is my oubliette. As I mentioned on Twitter two weeks ago, David Bowie’s music helped form the soundtrack of my life, from vinyl to iTunes. Thinking about my Bowie encounters, I move back in time, not unlike his 2014 greatest hits album, Nothing Has Changed, which I forgot I owned until a couple of months ago, and have yet to really listen to in its entirety from end to beginning.

Before I forgot that I owned that album, I had already forgotten to make time to see the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago earlier in 2014. A friend and I talked and tweeted about it, but we never made it.

Earlier, I had forgotten that I went to a Bowie concert, way back in 1990.

IMG_0706 (2)

What I remembered about that show, when I recently found my old ticket stub, is taking the leap to pay $30 – the most I had ever paid to see a live concert. The concert itself? Not so much. (Thanks to the internet, though, now we have the playlist.)

A decade before that, just before I completed my B.A., my professor and friend, Teresa de Lauretis (whom I would later quote, quite intentionally, in my Labyrinth paper), took several of us to the first ever “Bowie Con” in Chicago. Con it was – no Bowie sighting, just a lot of fans and vendor booths. But I really don’t remember much beyond the cavernous setting and the feeling of having paid too much ($10).


I can’t make my way through this little maze of forgotten ephemera to find a beginning, or, rather, an end to this story. It’s the songs, not the experiences which I remember, and there is not – or is no longer – a first time for me. There always were albums, arguments, mixtapes, interpretations, singing loudly in the full car or the empty house. But at the end of Disc 3 of Nothing Has Changed, at the beginning of Bowie’s career, there are songs I don’t recognize, don’t remember, and I suspect I never knew.

So I will close this with the one Bowie experience I have never forgotten. Long ago, my daughter and I visited one of the Madame Tussauds London wax museums, and took advantage of the photo op. David Bowie the signifier may have been missing from my essay, but not from my life.

Bowie: Madame Tussuads



P.S. (and shameless plug): I’ve been absent from this blog for a very long time. Over the last couple of years, I have been devoting most of my energy to building a new business, Philanthrodata, and my writing has been focused on my professional interests. If you are interested in knowing more about prospect research and database management in the nonprofit sector, you might like to check out my other blog.

©2016 Sarah Bernstein

The Wife of Bath, A Burnable Book, and a Lion

Engraving. Hercules killing the Nemean Lion 1548, from The Labours of Hercules (1542-1548). Engraving. B. 106, Holl. 99 possibly i/ii.

I doubt it is a coincidence that both Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale (The Canterbury Tales, WW Norton, 2005 edition) and Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book (HarperCollins, 2014) turn on Aesop’s fable of “The Man and the Lion.” Here’s a version of the fable published in 1867:

A Man and a Lion traveled together through the forest. They soon began to boast of their respective superiority to each other in strength and prowess. As they were disputing, they passed a statue carved in stone, which represented “a Lion strangled by a Man.” The traveler pointed to it and said: “See there! How strong we are, and how we prevail over even the king of beasts.” The Lion replied: “This statue was made by one of you men. If we Lions knew how to erect statues, you would see the Man placed under the paw of the Lion.”

One story is good, till another is told.

Here’s what Chaucer’s Alisoun says:

Who peynted the leoun, tel me, who?
By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hir oratories,
They wolde han writen of men more wikkednessse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.
(WBP, 692-696)

And what Holsinger’s Seguina writes:

 Yet where is the woman’s sovereignty, her choice in the matter? The woman never writes her own story. She is rather like the lion in Aesop’s little fable, who sees a painting of a lion being strangled by a man. But who paints the lion? Tell me, who? (171)

Let’s just skip past the circularity of authorial intentionality suggested by Holsinger’s quotation of Chaucer in a letter Seguina writes to Chaucer and which precedes the writing of the Canterbury Tales. What is more interesting to me is that both stories are told by women (and, yes, I recognize that they were both written by men) and in both the lion fable precedes the story of a rape.

In “From Washington to Westeros, how rape plays out on TV,” in the April 4, 2014, Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg writes about a new trend in portraying rape seen in recent episodes of Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Americans and House of Cards (she also tosses in references to Downton Abbey and Scandal). Rosenberg writes, “The male leads are often complicit in the violence or are unacceptably oblivious to the female characters’ experiences,” Seguina, in A Burnable Book, expands on Aesop’s fable to make a similar point: “The power of the teller, you see, is inestimable. … In every human language, it seems, men have depicted the joys of ravishment, and never with consequence for the ravisher. Just one time I would like to hear a version with a righteous end…” (171).

The Knight in The Wife of Bath’s Tale is both complicit and oblivious: “He saugh a mayde walkinge him biforn, / Of whiche mayde anon, maugree hir heed,/By verray force he rafte hire maydenheed.” (887-89). But since the Tale is a story told by Alisoun, she controls the narrative and the voice, and while it is true that the rape victim does not speak, and in fact only appears in the three lines quoted, Alisoun gives the first spoken words not to the Knight, but to the Queen at his trial. And she gives the best spoken words again not to the Knight, but to the Hag. Seguina desires a story, specifically a rape story, told by a woman, and that would appear to be just what Alisoun delivers. As Mary Carruthers has pointed out, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale revolve around the medieval concepts of maistrye and sovereyntee, and a highly nuanced concept of authority acquired through experience, strategy and skill rather than through sheer physical power or the power of the status quo. The rape in The Wife of Bath’s Tale is a plot point used to drive a story about the nature and nuances of voice, power and authority. The rape in Seguina’s letter to Chaucer is a plot point used to illuminate the hierarchy of voice, power and authority in 14th C. Europe. And the rape stories in both, being spoken by women, establish how gendered the structures of voice, power and authority can be. Or as Rosenberg writes about Game of Thrones and House of Cards, “the women in these dramas are a testament to the idea that men may build the world, but the rest of us have to live in it.”

But let us not forget the moral of Aesop’s “The Man and the Lion”: a story is good until another is told. Neither Alisoun nor Sequina has the sole voice in their respective books, and neither of them tells the only story.

The Wife of Bath Ellesmere Manuscript Huntington Library

© 2014 Sarah Bernstein

On Art Books

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, 1654, The Hague

Like many, I recently read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (Little Brown and Company, 2013) which I got for Christmas, devoured in five days and thoroughly enjoyed, but this will not be a review. No, instead I would like to think about what stories like The Goldfinch, and Allison Abend’s A Nearly Perfect Copy (Knopf, 2013), which I also recently read, are saying about art – simulacrum, projection, possession, valuation and validation.

Carel Fabritius’ painting of the Goldfinch (1654) is part of the collection from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague currently touring the United States while the Mauritshuis is being remodeled. Along with its (until now) more famous compatriot, Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, the Goldfinch is currently on view at the Frick Collection in New York, just across the street from the Metropolitan Museum where it was part of a similar exhibition in Tartt’s novel. Until Tartt’s book came along, viewers  of Fabritius’ Goldfinch have had to be satisfied with appreciating the painting on its own artistic merits, or seeing it in the context of what little is known about the painting itself, of what they know about Fabritius and art production and commerce in Delft. But now that it has entered (or perhaps it is more accurate to say “re-entered”) popular culture through its role in Tartt’s novel, and by being featured on the book’s cover and frontispiece, for many of us the painting has gained all kinds of back-story: enhanced by our interpretations and memories of the story of Theo Decker; enhanced by the book’s reviews in the Washington Post, USA Today and the New York Times; enhanced by its place on several best-seller lists and under our Christmas trees; enhanced by being a gift from someone we love. This hasn’t escaped notice – on December 30th, CBS News reported on the convergence of the exhibition and the book’s publication and interviewed visitors to the Frick who came to see the painting because they had read (or were reading) the book. It is as if the story of Theo Decker and the story of the novel’s success fill the gaps created by Fabritius’ early death, the loss of most of his work, and the survival of this singular painting of an imprisoned bird. By providing meaning and context for viewing the painting, Donna Tartt and Theo Decker also sell tickets to the Frick, just as leveraging the painting propels Tartt’s narrative, frames Theo’s coming-of-age, and sells books. Meaning and context create desire, and desire fuels the quest for meaning and context.

The plotline of A Nearly Perfect Copy foregrounds forgery, as the title suggests. Art forgery is a crime because it interferes with the valuation of art. As any of us who have admired and desired a reproduction of an artwork (like the customers in the Frick’s gift shop or Theo’s mother in the Goldfinch) know implicitly, the crime is not in making copies, but in hijacking the commerce of art: ticket sales, auction prices, and the business of authentication. An art world which criminalizes forgery while permitting licensed copies sets the value of a painting in its originality and provenance – the unbroken line of wills and bills of sale, from artist’s hand to gallery wall, which establishes rarity, uniqueness and makes an object priceless. It takes an expert eye to identify original brushwork, historical pigments and papers; forgeries which duplicate these hallmarks of originality and historical accuracy don’t simply threaten the transactional nature of the art world, but the careers and authority of its experts.

You can buy a Goldfinch tote bag, puzzle, jewelry, sketch book or coffee mug ($12.95!) on the Frick’s website. You can buy these things today, without even going to the Frick to see the actual painting. The image has become souvenir – an object, a keepsake, to recall an experience – not because of the painting’s aura of originality (even if that were the case, the Frick never lets you get close enough to a painting to really examine brushwork, pigments or paper), but because of the place the painting is now taking in people’s lives, a place created by the experience of reading The Goldfinch or witnessing the cultural flurry around the novel. For many, the painting has meaning not because of its uniqueness, its unchallenged provenance or authority, but because it is the central image of a story they loved or want to identify with, a book they treasure and that popular culture has validated. And who is to say if this meaning, this current context, is more or less important, is more or less true, than its actual history?

© 2014 Sarah Bernstein

A Modest Rebuttal to Julian Fellowes

Romeo and Juliet (2013)

Julian Fellowes, the man who brought us Downton Abbey, has now adapted Romeo and Juliet, which opened last night in the United States. I haven’t seen it, and this essay will not be about his film. Rather, like many in the twitterverse, I have been struck by comments he made about the changes he has wrought with the text, and I just can’t leave them unremarked upon:

When people say we should have filmed the original, I don’t attack them for that point of view, but to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship and you need to understand the language and analyze it and so on.

I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.

(as quoted in

First, a few caveats: I am not a Shakespeare scholar, but I did take a Shakespeare class at my state university and I read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade; I have both the Zefferelli and Luhrmann versions on, yes, VHS; and, when I taught ninth grade English twenty-some years ago, both Romeo and Juliet and the five paragraph theme were on the curriculum. I suspect this essay will resemble the latter more than the former.

Just like a painting, photograph, or sculpture is more than an image of what it represents, a work of literature is more than the story it tells. One might even argue that just like a recognizable image is not essential to the visual arts, narrative is not essential to the written arts – but language in some way always is. Romeo and Juliet is a story which has been re-told countless times, perhaps even Mr. Shakespeare himself was not the first (but as I said, I am not a Shakespeare scholar). In our time, filmed versions include both Zefferelli’s and Luhrmann’s, and who can forget West Side Story? Online, you can buy a graphic novelization or the 1956 Classics Illustrated comic book. Each time, writers, directors, producers, illustrators, financiers, and many others, have made “language choices,” and it doesn’t take a scholar to notice that while these all share the same story, they are each very different.

Mr. Fellowes’ remarks also made me think about the three books I read most recently: Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf 2013), Don Reardon’s Raven’s Gift (Pintail 2013), and Iris Murdoch’s Message to the Planet (Penguin 1991). With these books, I enjoyed the same sort of cultural voyeurism that compels me to watch Mr. Fellowes’ Downton Abbey. Yet these books go beyond the anachronistic speech of Downton Abbey by using language to both tell a story and to evoke a culture through words, sounds, and rhythms. That they also do things to narrative itself, by bending time and splitting our identification and focus, makes them even more interesting. The creole rhythm and syntax in Claire, the stark and desperate descriptions in Raven, or the educated British dialect and dialogue in Message all take the reader to a specific time, place and culture. Language is essential to literary experience – changing the language changes the experience even if it does not change the story.

This brings me to perhaps the most pernicious of the assumptions behind Mr. Fellowes’ statements. Not just that literature can somehow be reduced to story-telling, or that Shakespeare can be enjoyed without Shakespeare’s words, but that only certain educated/moneyed classes have the ability to understand art, and it is to them alone that understanding Shakespeare’s “language choices” belongs.

In our culture, who is not steeped in the rhymes and rhythms of poetic speech? From rap to country music to advertising jingles to the Poetry Foundation PSAs on public television, poetry surrounds us, and we are immersed within it. When I taught ninth grade English in the public schools, one of the things I liked most about teaching Shakespeare was the accessibility of the plays and their poetry. My students, most of whom were growing up in the inner city, easily fell into Romeo and Juliet’s iambic pentameter and laughed at Shakespeare’s ribald word play. By exploring Shakespeare’s “language choices,” they discovered literary motifs and techniques they already understood from their own cultural experience. Of course, they also had an easy entry into the story of gang rivalries and teenage love: it was one with which they easily identified, and which they also recognized in the stories told by the music and poetry they enjoyed. I expect their experience of Romeo and Juliet was very different from Mr. Fellowes’ but they were not locked out due to their lack of expensive Cambridge educations. Nor were the penny stinkers in Shakespeare’s day.

© 2013 Sarah Bernstein

The Tale of Mr Stripey and Early Girle


Sixtene hondred yeres ago
Wexen the erste domestic tomato
Whan Mesoamerican folk these vynes sowed.
Thilke wightes somtyme trowed
That to see the sedes eten
Would the seer divine power yeven.
What the Spanish trowe and thought,
Whan they to Europe the tomato brought,
Certes romaunce was feer fro minde.
Ywis, thilke lowely vine
Along the ground didde wende
And was moostely used as ornament.
Until the Brittish cooked the tomato in sauces
Manye thoughtte hit poisonous.
Brittish housbondrie wexeth the prolificacion
Of the tomato in stewes and in the gardin

But whatte of my hero and heroine,
With whose names my tale doth beginne?
As the heete of summer doth fade fro view
Muchel in the gardin grouwen a rede hewe,
As if by hewe alonne wynter be preventen.
Tweye sturdy vynes streineth toward heaven
Heavy with frut ful round reed and jaune;
And hire story will I telle anon.

Tweye yonge vyns, not yet a foote talle
Dide I plante in late Aprille
After the shours the earth purveye.
The erste were yclept Mr Stripey;
As Early Girle were the oother knowe.
Next to each other dide Ich they sowe.
Mr Stripey dide blyve growe talle
And reche far above the walle;
His vynes lyke armes – a lusty bacheler
Which reveleth in his verdour
The while the humble and coy Early Girle
Doth in his shadwe hir croppes unfurl.
Mr Stripey oft rechen to his tendre mate
But Early Girle ay turnen in freiht.
Hoote wolde he her love, fresshe as a flour,
But from his embrace above dide she coure.
The sonne shooneth, unwar of alle bilooghe,
So bothe vynes dide lightly thrive and growe.

Alle the sommer wolde y-passe
Bifore she ne fynde him nat daungerous;
Whatte caused the chaunge noon noot
But by August bothe vynes bore fruit.
And nowe wille Ich end my fayn tale,
And fille my plate with the fair vitaille.

© 2013 Sarah Bernstein

Wauwatosa’s Schmitt Family and Black Mountain College

I am going to break this time from the precedents I have established on this blog and just tell a story. Four years ago, while doing some volunteer research for the Wauwatosa Historical Society, I met Rupert Schmitt, Jr., on the internet and we became fast friends. Rupert is the grandson of Conrad Schmitt, founder of the Midwest’s most prominent stained glass studio in 1889. But that is not the story I would like to tell. Rather, the story is about Rupert, his siblings, and their place in an amazing chapter in American art history. Much of this comes from my conversations and emails with Rupert, and from Mary Emma Harris’ book, The Arts at Black Mountain College (MIT Press, 1987 & 2002)

In 1933, with $14,500 in pledges and buildings borrowed from the YMCA, a small group of educators and artists – among them Bauhaus refugees from the new Nazi Germany – came together near Asheville, North Carolina to found Black Mountain College. Josef Albers, having also fled Germany with his wife Anni, joined the faculty that first year, despite some resistance from the founders because Albers could not yet speak English. Meanwhile, in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, Betty, Elaine and Conrad Schmitt were taking their crayons out of their desks at St. Jude the Apostle School; their younger brother Rupert Jr. was speaking his first words.

The Schmitt children’s grandfather, Conrad, founded the Conrad Schmitt Studios in Milwaukee in 1889. At their height, the Schmitt Studios were second only to Tiffany in stained glass production and quality. Conrad’s son and heir to the business, Rupert, built a Tudor-revival home for his family in Wauwatosa in 1926, many of the floor-to-ceiling leaded glass windows adorned with stained glass from the Studios. Rupert Schmitt’s wife Elizabeth grew orange poppies during the war, and painted them; his daughters raised sprouts in the kitchen; his sons played with their dogs and hiked in the woods; and the entire family enjoyed Gilles Frozen Custard in the summer.

In his book, The Interview and other poems (iUniverse, 2008), youngest son Rupert Schmitt Jr. writes:

 … My sister Elaine spent her days
Father said, don’t draw movie stars
That is a waste of talent

I still have her drawings
My family playing bridge
Uncle Otto and my father Rupert
My mother Betty and Aunt Alma

There is a sketch of me
Curled up
Sleeping on the couch.

There is a drawing with colored red paint
Of my chickens and me
Although my sister got the coop
She could not draw the cluck.

Though sketching me curled forever on the couch
She left out my exhalation
And failed to catch my dreams.

Betty Schmitt (1923-2007) was the eldest of the Schmitt children and the first to enroll in Black Mountain. She came to study art with Albers in the mid-1940s, but left after a short time to study dance with Martha Graham in New York. Elaine Schmitt (1925-2004), who had already studied art at the Milwaukee State Teachers College for two years, followed Betty. In 1944, Elaine attended the Art Institute of Chicago’s summer school, but by 1945, Betty had persuaded their parents that Elaine belonged at Black Mountain studying with Albers, so she enrolled for the Summer Session, and remained for the Winter Session. Elaine studied drawing and design with Albers, and became known as the “Matière Mama.” In Albers’ matière studies students first handled objects to fully understand their qualities and textures, then drew only what they saw, with no reference to self-expression. According to the diary she kept during those years, Elaine drew a sketch of a pig’s stomach and Albers praised this piece enthusiastically, while adding “Now throw it out,” suggesting that it smelled. After the 1946 Summer Session, Elaine moved to New York, and later that year she married fellow Black Mountain alumnus John Urbain.

In 1946, Elaine’s Teachers College classmate, Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), joined her at Black Mountain. Ruth, the child of Japanese immigrant parents, was incarcerated at the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arizona when the Japanese American Student Relocation Council helped her obtain a relocation card in order to move to Milwaukee and study at the State Teachers College in 1943. Ruth attempted to obtain employment at the Schmitt Studios, but prejudice at the time prevented that. Similar prejudice prevented her from doing the student teaching her degree required, so she finished her studies at Black Mountain. Until her death just a few weeks ago, Ruth remained a practicing artist and sculptor in San Francisco, where the fountains she sculpted adorn many city parks.

Conrad (b. 1927) was the third of the Schmitt children to arrive at Black Mountain. Conrad had dropped out of Marquette High School at 17; worried about the draft as World War II raged on, he followed his sisters to Black Mountain. Once there, he helped build a stone wall and to plan a bridge over a stream and culvert (which he illustrated with an orange, lemon and apricot). Conrad dreamed of going to the Illinois Institute of Technology to study architecture with Ludwg Mies van der Rohe, but his father prevailed, and at 18, Conrad enrolled in Catholic University. Conrad Schmitt soon despaired of drawing renderings of gothic cathedrals at Catholic University, so he spent his time playing bridge in a local school and in a tavern but “Had a hard time getting graded for that.” Conrad dropped out of Catholic University after one semester. He moved to Greenwich Village and lived on MacDougal Street, as his brother Rupert writes:

Stayed in a cold water flat. In winter soot came in. The bathtub was in the kitchen, toilet in the hall…. Conrad twisted wires like Calder, drank wine and ate bread. He had his friend post letters from Washington D.C. This kept the story going. Dad sent money. Dad said, come home. ~ Email from Rupert Schmitt, September 30, 2009

Instead, Conrad returned to Black Mountain, and set up a glass studio. He had supervised stained glass installations at churches, learned stencil painting from the Schmitt Studios’ Augie Anderson, and worked with his brother Rupert on jobs in Wausau and Omaha. In his second time at Black Mountain, Conrad studied with Josef Albers, who thought he had much talent. He also studied with the mathematician Max Wilhelm Dehn, who fled Europe after Kristallnacht, taught briefly in Idaho, and came to Black Mountain in 1944. (A sketch of Dehn by Elaine Schmitt can be found on page 127 of Mary Emma Harris’ book.) After this second period at Black Mountain, Conrad attended the University of Chicago where he studied with Milton Friedman and ultimately received his MBA in Finance. Conrad went on to found insurance companies in Wisconsin and Minnesota, eight substance abuse and addiction treatment clinics, and several preventative medicine companies. In 2009, Conrad conferred with members of the Minnesota congressional delegation on the Affordable Care Act.

Betty Schmitt returned to Black Mountain in 1948 with her husband Warren “Pete” Jennerjahn (b. 1922), an art alumnus of the Milwaukee State Teachers College. In the summer of 1948, Josef Albers briefly took the helm of the democratic faculty/student-run school. Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Richard Lippold, Buckminster Fuller came to teach in the Summer Session, and Robert Rauschenberg first arrived as a student. That summer, Betty Schmitt Jennerjahn taught dance and worked and studied with Merce Cunningham, under whose direction she danced with Rauschenberg, while Pete, with funds remaining under the GI Bill, studied with Cunningham and John Cage, and worked as Albers’ assistant. Betty’s brother Rupert wrote the following poem, “Betty and Merce,” about a photograph taken during the 1948 Summer Session (which can be seen on page 157 of Harris’ book):

AKA Leapy
Given that name by Pete
For obvious reasons
And Eskimo
Because of her eyes

When I think of the Sistine chapel fresco,
The index finger of God
The index finger of Michelangelo
Almost touching,
I recall Betty’s black and white image.

Her arm horizontal
Merce Cunningham’s arm
For the light.
Focussed, intent,
On tip toes

Josef and Anni Albers resigned from Black Mountain in the spring of 1949, but not before securing Buckminster Fuller to lead the 1949 Summer Session. The Jennerjahns returned to teach silkscreen (Pete) and dance (Betty). During the summer session, Betty and Pete also performed in several of Charles Olson’s Verse & Theatre productions, and that fall the Jennerjahns created the Light-Sound-Movement Workshop. The Workshop interjected improvised theater, dance and music with projected images and text, and vast elaborate sets which often involved the audience as active – and costumed – participants, and Pete led his students to create their own percussion instruments. The Light-Sound-Movement Workshop did not continue in its established form once the Jennerjahns left Black Mountain in 1951, but the seeds had been planted; in the summer of 1952 John Cage staged his “Theater Piece #1” in the dining hall, which is now generally recognized as the first “Happening.”

After spending a year in France, the Jennerjahns moved to New York where Pete taught art at Hunter College and Cooper Union for a few years until they moved to Long Island. There, Pete taught at Adelphi University while Betty taught art at The Waldorf School of Garden City. The Jennerjahns continued to work in many media; Pete played the saxophone and clarinet and learned to play the flute in 1965. Later he and their son Hans composed music for flute and guitar. Several years ago, the Jennerjahns participated in an exhibition of Black Mountain artists at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The Jennerjahns moved to Sedona, Arizona, where Betty died in 2007. Betty’s watercolor, Still Life (Basket of Fruit), is in the collection of Harvard University Art Museums – a gift of Josef Albers – and is reproduced on page 83 of Mary Emma Harris’ book.

In 1997 Betty wrote:

My creative life has gone through many stages; art student, dancer, maker of wall hangings, painter. The last stages of my paintings were landscapes and then waterfalls, both east and west. But last year I wanted to move away from references to the natural world, but I didn’t know how to do it in a way that was valid for me….I find, after a time, a feeling of comfort and familiarity. I am working in the way I did when I would toss a piece of lace across some velvet in a way that spoke to me. Or I am carried back to doing a color study with Albers at Black Mountain College, or in Switzerland with Herr Wagner painting a yellow and blue exercise. But perhaps most amazing to me is to be back to doing the crayon drawings I loved at St. Jude’s School.

After Black Mountain, Elaine and John Urbain moved to Paris for a year in 1950, so Elaine could study at the Academie Julien. The Urbains became well known for their many stained glass mural commissions for clients such as Anheuser-Busch, Niemann-Marcus and the University of Louisville. John eventually became the Artistic Director at Philip Morris. One of the Urbains’ most renowned commissions is a stained glass panel illustrating 16th Century essayist Michel de Montaigne’s “On being a citizen of the world.” This piece, commissioned by the Container Corporation of America in 1950, is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution (1984.124.294).

Portrait of Lucy Swift, c. 1945, Elaine Schmitt Urbain, Collection of the Asheville Art Museum

However, Elaine became even better known for the socially and politically conscious portraits she drew in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. She was actively involved in the anti-war movement in the 1960s, as a member of the War Resisters League and the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In 1963, she travelled to Rome as a delegate of the Women’s International Peace Pilgrimage to speak to the Pope. In the 1980s she lived in Mallorca, ran a gallery there (funded by her brother Conrad) and became known as “the Artist of the People.” The Urbains ultimately divorced, and Elaine died in Milford, Connecticut, in 2004; John died in April, 2009. The Asheville Art Museum is home to a number of Elaine’s works, donated by John and their son, Michael.

The social conscience Elaine displayed as an adult had its roots in her youth, as her brother Rupert writes in his poem, “My sister Elaine Pied Piper of the Urban League”

I remember
Elaine led us,
To our backyard.
Seven black kids
One white boy.

The black kids
Stepped carefully from Lannon stone to Lannon stone
As if avoiding

I was also afraid.

In the photograph
We are sitting
In a semi circle
Around a campfire
Toasting marshmallows
In Wauwatosa
A middle class suburb
Of Milwaukee

Rupert Schmitt Jr. (b.1932), whose poetry, family archives, emails, phone calls and memories inform this essay, attended Black Mountain in 1950, after graduating from Wauwatosa High School (now Wauwatosa East). Rupert Jr. studied writing at Black Mountain, after which he earned his BS and MS, attending several state schools. For many years Rupert earned his living as a consulting biologist, a technical writer, and a faculty member of a community college. He is currently an artist in residence at the Curley School Center for the Arts in Ajo, Arizona, where he wrote The Interview, a novel, The Mad Professor (iUniverse, 2011), and is working on his memoirs. He maintains a blog “Holed up in Ajo,” and has displayed his wood carvings in the Day of the Dead Show in Ajo. Both The Interview and The Mad Professor are available through Amazon, or directly from Rupert.

In the summer of 2007, works by both Jennerjahns and both Urbains were exhibited in a group show called “Up From New York” at Maine’s Damariscotta’s Gallery 170. In 2011, Pete Jennerjahn exhibited at Yvette Torres Fine Art in Rockland, Maine, which continues to display his work and the work of dozens of Black Mountain alumni on their website. Black Mountain College closed its doors permanently in 1957, several years after the last of the Schmitt children attended; its history lives on at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in Asheville, North Carolina, and with the Black Mountain College Project, chaired and directed by Mary Emma Harris.

© 2013 Sarah Bernstein

Living on the Edge

As has so often been true in our nation of explorers and immigrants, the border is once again in the news. These days, some people consider the border to be something which needs a secure, impenetrable and insurmountable fence. To some it is a place people die trying to cross while others profit. To some it is insufficient to hold back the tide of drugs and drug money flowing in one direction or the other. And there are those for whom it demarcates who is legal and who is not. But even as we argue about laws and regulations, these laws and regulations are themselves another kind of border, using words to build the fences which define who is in and who is out.

In 14th Century France, the word bordure, a precursor to our word border, referred to the “edge of a sword” (OED). As its French precursor implies, borders have a martial history, as wars redraw the borders and redefine the power structures which both enforce and defend them. Borders are drawn and redrawn as resources and topographies are reassessed, reallocated and redefined. The border is essential to establish relationships of power and difference, and by drawing the border, a nation/society/culture establishes a strict definition of difference from its outsiders.

In Borderlands/La Frontera (Aunt Lute Books, 1987), the late poet Gloria Anzaldúa wrote extensively about the history of what is now the US/Mexican border. Anzaldúa described centuries of conquests, power transfers and the drawing and re-drawing of borders. And throughout the shifting borders and power relationships, pictographic documents known now as codices documented the movement of tribes, and shifting land ownership and family power relationships.  Before the Americans, and before the Spanish, “the Aztec ruler, Itzcoatl, destroyed all the painted documents (books called codices) and rewrote a mythology that validated the wars of conquest and thus continued the shift from a tribe based on clans to one based on classes” (Anzaldúa 32). In a 2009 essay, “The Chicano Codex: Writing against Historical and Pedagogical Colonization” (College English 71. 6 , Jul 2009: 564-583), Damián Baca writes that following the Spanish conquest, these new rulers also destroyed the existing codices, but soon began commissioning new ones with both pictographs and written text, which they found preferable to use to mediate land disputes (Baca 571). In a 2010 essay, “Imagining a Multiplicity of Visual Rhetorical Traditions: Comics Lessons from Rhetoric Histories” (ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 5.3, Dept of English, University of Florida), Franny Howes wrties that the codices were “mnemonics for a larger performance: the images acted as shorthand” (Howes, par. 29). The codices, a hybrid art form of images, language, and performance, have a long history as the perfect document to describe the border.

Into the new world of the post-NAFTA US/Mexican border, came the Codex Espangliensis (Moving Parts Press, limited edition, 1998; City Lights Books, trade edition, 2000), a collaborative work by Enrique Chagoya, Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Felicia Rice. Just as codices had throughout the history of the borderland, the Codex Espangliensis suggests a new topography for the new border relations of NAFTA – a new pictography, a new historical syntax, and a new language for the borderland.

There are sixteen panels in the Codex Espangliensis, wherein we find images of Superman, Mickey Mouse, Che Guevera, paintings by Dali and Picasso, Don Catarino, sixteenth century Western etchings and pre-conquest codex pictographs. Up against these images, some contained in frames, while others are not, are the writings of Gómez-Peña, many adapted from his 1996 book, The New World Border (City Lights).

At the very beginning of the Codex (or is it at the end? The Codex, which is accordion folded like Mesoamerican codices had been, can be “read” from left to right or from right to left), Superman hovers between what might be a Western engraving and what might be a Mesoamerican pictograph of Aztec warriors. Words at the top and bottom of the panel ask in Spanish and English what the difference is between “fee-trade art” and a “free art agreement.” In the mythology of Superman, he is an immigrant, not a natural-born US citizen. He also has a dual identity: Clark Kent is a journalist, a scribe and observer. Here our immigrant commercial superhero/scribe, in a culturally hybridized suit (there is a “Day of the Dead”-type skull on his leotard where his “S” would usually be), flies over the frames and borders of the other two images, and over the fold of the panel. We are left to ponder the relationships of art, language and commerce; the commercial, political and artistic roles of the images and words on the page; and the relations of power inscribed into both the art of commerce and the commerce of art.

A few panels later (or is it before?), on panel 6/10, 1920’s cartoon characters Mickey Mouse and Don Catarino, two more successful commercial art products (Mickey in the US, and Don Catarino in Mexico), share the page with cartoon-y reproductions of two famous and influential Spanish paintings, Pablo Picasso’s 1907 Desmoselles D’Avignon and Salvadore Dali’s 1931 Persistence of Memory, both now immigrant paintings, painted in Spain but currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A pictograph of what appears to be a Mesoamerican scribe shares the space with the cartoons and the paintings. The text is Gómez-Peña’s account of the Five Worlds:

 First World – A tiny and ever shrinking conceptual archipelago from which 80% of the resources of our planet are administered and controlled.

Second World – aka ‘Geopolitical Limbo.’ Greenland, the Antarctic continents, the oceans, the mineral world and the dismembered Socialist Block.

Third World – The ex-underdeveloped countries and the communities of color within the ex-First World.

Fourth World – The conceptual place where the indigenous and deterritorialized peoples meet. It occupies portions of all the previous worlds.

Fifth World – Virtual space, mass media, the U.S. suburbs, the art schools, the malls, Disneyland, the White House and La Chingada.

Dali’s clocks, Picasso’s women, Mickey Mouse, Don Catarino, and the Mesoamerican scribe, or at least their images, have all been de-territorialized by being severed from their historical and geographic context and separated from their authors, authority and provenance. Each of the images, by its contiguity to the other images and the text passages, serves to destabilize the others, as it is itself destabilized by them in turn. Thus, their re-contextualization on panel 6/10 creates a collage or hybrid of the Fourth World. Like Superman, with his original dual identity, and his hybridized borderland identity on panel 1/15, the images on panel 6/10, read together, seen together, create a constantly changing topography of definitions and identities, as each reader brings their own knowledge, context, and what Dave Hickey might call connoisseurship  to understand the images and words.

The borderland of the Codex Espangliensis is a transient and transitional place, echoing the words of Gloria Anzaldúa: “The US/Mexican border es una herida abierta (“open wound”) … A borderland is a vague and undetermined space created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition” (3). The border, and the stories of borders in the codices, defines the space of that which is other to power. Just as the physical border is protected by the border patrol, the cultural border is protected by the construction of multi-faceted, ever-changing, hybridized identities of otherness. The borderland is the home of those who are defined not by what they are, but by what they are not. As Gómez-Peña said last year, in his “Philosophical Tantrum,” “My community is not confined by ideological, national or ethnic boundaries, mine is a community of difference, and therefore fragmented, ever changing and temporary, always temporary.”

Much of the Codex is recycled, re-contextualized and hybridized: performances, poems, essays, Mesoamerican pictographs, high art, comic books and popular culture. It is a book which can be entered at any point, and be read in any direction. Both structurally and thematically, the Codex Espangliensis is a history without linearity, a history without a narrative arc, a history which is always fully present. It is also a history of contradictions, multiple identities, languages and voices, moving borders and boundaries and therefore without a single, omnipotent source of authority (it is perhaps not coincidental that the Codex is a collaborative work). And, like its predecessors, the Codex is a history composed through art, literature and performance; as Gómez-Peña says in his “Philosophical Tantrum:” “When you don’t have access to power, poetry replaces science and performance art becomes politics.”

On panel 6/10, we are directed to send our responses to our “nearest Gringostroika representative.” In The New World Border, Gómez-Peña includes a “Glossary of Borderismos (1992-ongoing),” which defines Gringostroika as “a continental grassroots movement that advocates for the complete economic and cultural reform of U.S. anarcho-capitalism” (The New World Border 242). In Gómez-Peña’s paradigm, just as Gringostroika seeks to replace NAFTA with a Free Art Agreement, the New World Order is replaced with the New World Border, “a great trans- and intercontinental border zone, a place in which no centers remain. It’s all margins, meaning there are no ‘others,’ or better said, the only true ‘others’ are those who resist fusion, meztizaje, and cross-cultural dialogue” (The New World Border 7). The work of the Codex then also becomes the embracing of “otherness,” and a non-monolithic, de-centralized self-construction of hybridized identities.

Borders and treaties establish the power relationship of Self and Other in war, politics and commerce. Art and literature often depend on the similar relationship of subject and object (seeing and seen, reader and text). So…. does my reading of the Codex Espangliensis destabilize and fragment me; does it re-contextualize me; does it take me to the borderland? Or, am I simply reading the Codex in a Fifth World effort to consume it and the Gringostroika? To my chagrin, I imagine it is the latter. Why else would I be so thrilled that Enrique Chagoya continues to produce codices, several of which he brought to Milwaukee this year, and that Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Felicia Rice are collaborating on a new project, Documented/Undocumented?

© 2013 Sarah Bernstein

Leaving Me Breathless

I went to see John Carpenter’s Halloween when it came out in 1978 for one reason – the four minute tracking shot at the beginning (see it here).I didn’t stay to see the rest of the movie; I was a film student and went just for the tracking shot which I read somewhere was influenced by the tracking shot which opens Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). I don’t remember what I thought of the Halloween tracking shot then, but I did watch the rest of the movie years later on TV. Halloween uses the opening shot (actually two shots edited together seamlessly to appear as one long take) to establish the initial crime and criminal, while also explicitly implicating the audience. We may be “seeing” through the eyes of the murderer, but are we really just watching, and not also spying and perhaps killing?

This is actually very different from the opening shot of Touch of Evil, which is a little shorter at 3 ½ minutes; you can watch it on YouTube. Touch of Evil uses wide screen and depth of field, the camera moves in and out, up and down; it centers its gaze first on the bomb, as if from the point of view of the bomber, but then pulls away so that we can watch him. It follows the car for a while, until the honeymooning couple enters the screen and takes its attention. Various plot-significant characters pass through the image as the camera follows the couple, then the car again, to the border check-point. True to its time, the shot ends with a kiss, and a cut to the exploding car.

In Halloween, the tracking shot joins our gaze to that of the killer; in Touch of Evil, our point of view is not through a character’s eyes, but in both movies, the tracking shot reveals to us the truth of the crime. Both movies rely on the framing of image and narrative through the long take – they show us what to pay attention to. Both movies position us and move us, the viewers, through space, time and point of view. But while Halloween seems to inscribe us in a specific point of view – that of Michael Myers – at least initially, Touch of Evil clearly inscribes us as movie goers, on the other side of the screen. Watching Touch of Evil, we are on the outside looking in – we have a point of view no character but ourselves can possess. Or, to put it another way, we can only identify with the camera’s gaze.

Michael Chabon’s most recent book, Telegraph Avenue (Harper: 2012), has a twelve page interlude in the middle of the book (239-250): Section III – “A Bird of Wide Experience.” But this is not just any twelve page chapter; it is a twelve page sentence. Yes, there are innumerable words, numbers, commas, quotation marks, and parentheses, but there is only one period, at the end, where convention tells us it would be closing out a complete thought. This run on sentence brought the long takes and tracking shots of my film-school days to mind, in the way that the opening chapter of Cooper’s Pioneers conjures up the painterly grandeur of Hudson River School landscapes.

For twelve breathless pages, the parrot, Fifty-Eight, swoops and glides past all the major characters of the book, as words describe, philosophize and digress about these characters’ pasts, presents and futures. A little bit of narrative moves forward; a little bit of back-story is revealed; and a whole lot of ambience is suggested. Like the camera in Touch of Evil, the bird in Telegraph Avenue glides past the key characters, connecting them and us spatially through its flight. But unlike the camera in Touch of Evil, or Michael Myers in Halloween, we do not “identify” with the bird, we do not see through its eyes. For as Fifty-Eight flies, we read about things the bird does not witness and could not understand, interpret or explain.

This twelve-page sentence, with its plethora of commas, has a palpable rhythm – dare I call it jazzy or poetic? (Telegraph Avenue is, after all, the story of a record store just across the bay from the city of Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg.) The twelve-page sentence must be read all in one long take – for there is no period or new paragraph to allow the reader to take a break. The long take makes me aware of myself as a reader, holding a book and turning the pages. I become as conscious of the language and the book itself as I am of the narrative – the poetry of the words, the rhythm of the commas, the breathlessness of a twelve-page complete thought, but also the touch of the paper as I turn those twelve pages, and the weight of the book. As the run-on sentence continues, I increasingly identify with the physicality of reading, while never leaving the narrative. Chabon’s twelve-page long take is a particularly bookish way to position me as a reader, similar to the filmic way tracking shots position viewers.

© 2013 Sarah Bernstein

The Ides of June

Biholde! Thre dayes agoon –
Twas the Ides of June!
The dayes nou are longe, warme is the sonne,
And muchel flours in my gardin blosmen!
Myn yen loven the colours, my nose the smell,
But myn herte listeth best the tales hir tell.

Enterlacen with my New Dawn Rose
Is the clematis my dochter chose
The erste summer we dwelt at this hous;
Thilke clematis lavender is.
Sithe she were yong, onli a girle,
She and ich wolde plaunt flours,
Everich yere on Mooder’s Daye;
Eek dide we plaunt a memorie.


The red rose which to my Mock Orange recheth
My fader fifti years ago planteth.
My fader did shape his garden as might a scoler;
He rede and lere muche aboute horticulture.
Thilke rose he chose to plaunte on the lane,
Yet for this entencioun, can I nat explain,
The chois of slik a straunge forme,
For the branches pricken, and rechen asonder,
Past thilke rose noon wighte desireth to wander.
But sith I removed hit to my gardin,
Plaunted waye in the bak,blissful haveth hit ben.
And blissful have I also ben, seinge my fader,
Ai thilke rose blosmeth in shades of madere.
A ful fetis flour in proper governaunce,
My patrimoyne oueth now avaunce.


From my fader have ich the Rose gentil,
And from my mooder, the humble dayeseye.
She yeven hit me fele yeres agoon,
When in my garden noght were wexen.
The dayeseye findeth spaces bar
And maketh hir home there.
Muchel blosmen standen on this sely flour
And hir covenable and freshe snou-wite colour.
Al through the yerd do ich my mooder finde,
In the humble dayeseye, she abideth in minde.


The Meadow Rue hath no memorie to be told,
But on the Ides of June hit is a delit to biholde.
Hit be a sely native flour, hit hath no care,
Hit plaunteth hit-selfe everywhere.
Maugree hire name, hit hath no regret:
Hire fetherlich blooms runneth riot
Amidst the roses’propre gentillesse.
And yet, somtyme ich liste hit alderbest.

Ich wil my gardin florisheth al the yere
As it doth in June, beaute so faire;
And with my kinrede and these blosmen,
Knotted and to memorie drawen.
But other-while the sighte of Ides of June
Is but a glimsinge, and nat an affiaunce.

© 2013 Sarah Bernstein

Some Questions about Discourse, Business and the Movies

It’s been over three years since the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case, equating corporate speech with individual speech and with campaign financing, effectively decreeing corporations to be people and the exchange of money to be discourse. Let’s look at this not as a pivot or turning point, but as one interjection in an ongoing conversation. Is it a coincidence that our income tax system, by treating some corporate profits as individual income, has long conflated the identity of a “small business” with that of the small business owner? Is it a coincidence that our manufacturing economy is being increasingly supplanted by a service economy? Is it a coincidence that recent Hollywood films are also endlessly talking about business, commerce and the essence of corporate identity?

Josh Leguern, a conservative pundit, embraced The Dark Knight Rises, focusing on the downfall of Bane’s French Revolution-style populist uprising, as being ultimately a free market message, and a more powerful one for being conveyed in an entertainment package rather than a conservative polemic.[i]  But, is he forgetting that, in Hollywood, art also means business? That, in Hollywood, speech has always been for sale? Finally, has he missed Hollywood’s role in our new corporate discourse: the equation of individuals and corporations, and the equation of money, speech, and commerce?

From the human drones of Iron Man 3 to the meat markets of Magic Mike and Django Unchained, in the worlds of recent Hollywood narratives bodies have become commodities. At the same time, in these films, commerce and industry are represented as the business of individual entrepreneurs rather than corporate boards (Tony Stark and Aldrich Killian; Dallas and Magic Mike; King Schulz, Calvin Candie, and Django).  In these movies, business is an expression of individual identity, another instance of speech. We see individuals – bodies – defined by commerce, bodies which are not simply merchants and consumers, but also the product up for sale.

The stories in each of these three films turn on the representation of the body, and in these cases that body is almost always male. Tony Stark’s armor is broken and he spends more of Iron Man 3 not wearing it than wearing it; the human drones are broken bodies which are regenerated, but with an explosive flaw; and the Wag the Dog-style terrorist is really a tiny, earthy British actor. The camera follows Magic Mike both as he dances and as he tries to create his own business (and, just in case that is not enough, it repeats the process, albeit a little less sympathetically, with Dallas). And, the body is central to the narrative and imagery of Django Unchained – from the first time we see Django, chained and on his way to the slave market, to the dandy outfit he selects after his freedom is secured, to the many beating scenes, to Django’s triumphant victory over the slave owners.  If, in fact, we agree that the very process of selling a ticket for nearly any Hollywood movie turns bodies into commodities, what happens when the narrative discourse itself becomes an economy of the body – when the body becomes both currency and commodity, both signifier and signified? If businesses are people and commerce is speech, what are we saying?

And what about me, a woman paying to sit in the dark and gaze at all these pretty male bodies? That’s something to consider for another day… or maybe not.  Because these are, after all, traditional Hollywood films, following traditional narrative trajectories. In all of them, the guy gets the girl in the end. And, in all of them, at the end, he realizes that he wants the girl most of all.

© 2013 Sarah Bernstein

[i] See Josh Leguern (Diary) on Red State,, August 6, 2012.

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