One of the best known artists to live and work in the Pioneer Valley was the late Leonard Baskin (1922-2000). However, personally I was never a fan. Here's a sculpture of an owl that is standing on the campus of Smith College in Northampton. Only Baskin could take a majestic bird like an owl and make it look squat, unbalanced and awkward. Owls also give the impression of wisdom, which is why they are often used as symbols of education, but Baskin manages to make his have an expression of blank stupidity.
I first became aware of Baskin's work back when I was living in Northampton in the late 1970's and renting space in this great big house whose owner (a professor at Smith) was on a long tour of Asia. It was as beautiful a home as I’ve ever lived in, but its otherwise elegant reading room was almost ruined by having one of Baskin’s hideous drawings hanging on the wall. I had never heard of Leonard Baskin before, and assumed he must be some acquaintance of the owners and that they must have hung the painting in order to humor a talentless friend. I couldn’t believe it when I later discovered that he was considered one of America’s foremost artists, and was even asked to make a contribution to the national monument to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington DC. Typically, his contribution is depressing.
Baskin is probably best known for his sculptures, but they are really just three-dimensional versions of his horrible drawings. Dark, ugly, hulking things, they are the kind of sculptures that frighten small children and cause dogs to bark. There are several to be seen on display in Northampton’s otherwise excellent Michelson’s Gallery, and it is a tribute to the management of that establishment that they continue to draw customers despite having Baskin sculptures on prominent display.
The main thing wrong about Baskin's work is that an artist can't be considered great who cannot make something beautiful. By beautiful I mean inspiring, as in uplifting. The proper role of an artist in society is to put before the public objects whose beauty inspires the viewer to appreciate and understand what is the best that is possible, to visualize and present the ideal.
That is why the artist has traditionally had such a revered position in society. In a world where the perfect and the best are rarities, the best artists presents us with their vision of the ideal. It is not the role of the artist to show us the world “as it really is." That is the role of the journalist. It is not the role of the artist to relieve their inner turmoil. That is the role of the psychiatrist. It is not the role of the artist to comment on the ills of society. That is the role of the sociologist, the politician and the propagandist.
The proper role of the artist is to ask one question, “What is the most beautiful and most inspiring art I can create expressing the greatness of mankind and it's highest ideals?" The value of an artist in a healthy society is determined by how well their art answers that question. Therefore it is a sad reflection on the state of our society that Leonard Baskin was considered a great artist.
By the standard of art as an expression of mankind's best and highest ideals, Baskin was practically an anti-artist. His repellent drawings with their terrified, screaming faces and deformed bodies, his grotesque, menacing sculptures and all around complete negativity makes it impossible to consider him a first rate, or even a third rate artist. He was one of many aberrations from a dark period in our cultural history, when we forgot what art is and what it should be, when we lost our way so badly that in our confusion we praised sick souls like Leonard Baskin. Our consolation is that his art will not endure. In better days we will remember to forget that we once praised him.
Every year since 1972 there's been a freak festival out west called the Rainbow Gathering. Last Saturday on the 4th of July they got their ultimate wish - a double rainbow! Dig this awesome video:
Yoker Done Good
Northampton internet innovator Paolo Mastrangelo, now a video editor in New York City, alerts me that the fast rising comedian T.J. Jagodowski has local roots:
I am unwed, but I live with my brother in Chicago. The rest of my family is back in Massachusetts—in Holyoke, Mass. So they'll come visit. They'll take the train down and see the shows in New York usually. My mom literally loads up a van of 40 to 50 people—they'll load up a bus. My dad will cook up a bunch of snacks and they'll drive in during the day, all go out to eat in Little Italy, see the show and then go home. So these people ranging in age from 19 to 82 get back home at 4 in the morning and then drive home from the Holyoke Mall parking lot. They rally."
Give it Away
Food Not Bombs passing out food on the Amherst Common.
Front porch music.