Culture Vulture: INVENTING DAVID GEFFEN

August 13, 2021

I worked as an arts journalist for 25 years, and my job required me to spend a lot of time interviewing famous and emerging artists. A curious aspect of the profession is that while I remember vividly almost every encounter with a celebrity even decades later, I’m pretty sure that most of them never thought twice about me after our meeting. Case in point: in 1991 I had the opportunity to spend a fun couple of hours interviewing Madonna for The Advocate at the time when her documentary film Truth or Dare was just coming out. It was a ballsy interview – The Advocate called it “The X-Rated Interview” – and it earned her some juicy attention in the press. But that was one moment in a long career of receiving juicy attention in the press, whereas doing that interview changed my life. In the pre-internet days, my agent was able to sell the piece to the L.A. Times Syndicate, which resulted in its being reprinted in 11 languages in 19 countries around the world. I made a small fortune for one afternoon’s work, and it enabled me to spend a couple of years diving deep into personal-growth workshops and retreats.

I’m thinking about this after watching Susan Lacy’s Netflix documentary Inventing David Geffen. In 1985 I spent a week in Los Angeles as a 30-year-old reporter observing Geffen for a New York Times Magazine profile. I arrived thinking I would be lucky to get an hour here and an hour there to interview him. But he swept me up and took me along on a series of adventures, giving me tremendous access to his life and his business – from watching the rough cut of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (which his movie company produced) in his home screening room to attending the Los Angeles opening of Cats (which he co-produced on Broadway) to flying Elaine May to Seattle on the president of Warner Bros’ private jet so she could help Herb Gardner with the out-of-town tryout of his Broadway-bound play I’m Not Rappaport. I spent hours sitting with Geffen in his deskless office, watching him as he opened his mail directly over the wastebasket and yakked with artists and dealmakers on the phone. We talked about everything, and he shared many entertaining and provocative anecdotes he labeled “not for this story,” including details about his sexuality, years before he came out publicly as a gay man in 1992. He intended to dazzle me, and he succeeded. I wrote what I still consider one of my best celebrity profiles about him. But on the plane home from that week in Los Angeles, I had an emotional meltdown. I perceived in Geffen an incredibly clear, sharply defined personality – he’d been through lots of therapy (in the documentary he says he saw his psychiatrist every day for three years) and had done a lot of work on himself – while by contrast I felt fuzzy around the edges, like a blurry figure in a photograph. When the piece came out, he called to thank me – “You’re a peach,” he said – while appreciating the sly way I referred to his sexuality without outing him. And then…I’m sure he never thought about me again, while the experience sent me into therapy to see if I could gain a fraction of the clarity I witnessed in David Geffen.


In this week’s New Yorker

August 8, 2021

The most important story in the issue comes from Jane Mayer, The New Yorker‘s intrepid Washington reporter. As with her 2016 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Mayer collects all the receipts to tell a crucial story for right this minute: “The Big Money Behind the Big Lie.”

“Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money organizations, sustained by undisclosed donors, have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and, according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote,” Mayer writes.

One of the movement’s leaders is the Heritage Foundation, the prominent conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. It has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (alec)—a corporate-funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislators—on ways to impose new voting restrictions. Among those deep in the fight is Leonard Leo, a chairman of the Federalist Society, the legal organization known for its decades-long campaign to fill the courts with conservative judges. In February, 2020, the Judicial Education Project, a group tied to Leo, quietly rebranded itself as the Honest Elections Project, which subsequently filed briefs at the Supreme Court, and in numerous states, opposing mail-in ballots and other reforms that have made it easier for people to vote.

Another newcomer to the cause is the Election Integrity Project California. And a group called FreedomWorks, which once concentrated on opposing government regulation, is now demanding expanded government regulation of voters, with a project called the National Election Protection Initiative.

These disparate nonprofits have one thing in common: they have all received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules—a tactic once relegated to the far right. With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years. Public records show that, since 2012, the foundation has spent some eighteen million dollars supporting eleven conservative groups involved in election issues.

It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy. But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries. In 1903, Lynde Bradley, a high-school dropout in Milwaukee, founded what would become the Allen-Bradley company. He was soon joined by his brother Harry, and they got rich by selling electronic instruments such as rheostats. Harry, a John Birch Society founding member, started a small family foundation that initially devoted much of its giving to needy employees and to civic causes in Milwaukee. In 1985, after the brothers’ death, their heirs sold the company to the defense contractor Rockwell International, for $1.65 billion, generating an enormous windfall for the foundation. The Bradley Foundation remains small in comparison with such liberal behemoths as the Ford Foundation, but it has become singularly preoccupied with wielding national political influence.

Mayer’s article builds a case for these people as the real “enemies of the people.” She focuses at length on Cleta Mitchell, a fiercely partisan Republican election lawyer; J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky, “who are members of what [has been] termed the Voter Fraud Brain Trust; John Eastman, co-director of The Public Interest Legal Foundation, a group funded by the Bradley Foundation; and Tyler Bowyer, CEO of Turning Point, “which has received small grants from the Bradley Foundation, is headquartered in Arizona, and it has played a significant role in the radicalization of the state, in part by amplifying fear and anger about voter fraud.”

Every accusation of substantial voter fraud has been solidly debunked.

“What explains, then, the hardening conviction among Republicans that the 2020 race was stolen?” Mayer asks.

“Michael Podhorzer, a senior adviser to the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which invested deeply in expanding Democratic turnout in 2020, suggests that the two parties now have irreconcilable beliefs about whose votes are legitimate. “What blue-state people don’t understand about why the Big Lie works,” he said, is that it doesn’t actually require proof of fraud. “What animates it is the belief that Biden won because votes were cast by some people in this country who others think are not ‘real’ Americans.” This anti-democratic belief has been bolstered by a constellation of established institutions on the right: “white evangelical churches, legislators, media companies, nonprofits, and even now paramilitary groups.” Podhorzer noted, “Trump won white America by eight points. He won non-urban areas by over twenty points. He is the democratically elected President of white America. It’s almost like he represents a nation within a nation.”

Mayer explains a somewhat arcane point of constitutional law that clearly drives this movement for voter suppression: “for conservative state legislators to reëngineer the way the Electoral College has worked for more than a hundred years, in essence by invoking the Independent Legislature Doctrine. The Constitution gives states the authority to choose their Presidential electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Since the late nineteenth century, states have delegated that authority to the popular vote. But, arguably, the Constitution permits state legislatures to take this authority back. Legislators could argue that an election had been compromised by irregularities or fraud, forcing them to intervene.”

I hope my summary encourages you to read the whole story or at the very least listen to Jane Mayer interviewed about the story by Terry Gross for “Fresh Air.”

Some other excellent stuff in the magazine this week:

  • it feels a little weird to refer to David Sedaris’s writing as “sweet,” but “Happy-Go-Lucky,” his remembrance of the last chapter in the life of his father, who died recently, is remarkably affectionate and, we could say, forgiving;
  • “Manufacturing Nature,” Eric Klinenberg’s article about Kate Orff, a landscape architect who has made a tremendous impact on New York’s aquatic ecosystem, including using oyster reefs to mitigate storm surges; and
  • “On an Epic Scale,” a profile of epochal painter Kerry James Marshall (see his “Past Times,” below) by the great chronicler of artists, Calvin Tomkins.


Culture Vulture: Deana Lawson and Wu Tsang at the Guggenheim

August 4, 2021

Sunday afternoon expedition to the Guggenheim to check out both the Deana Lawson show (Jenna Wortham’s profile in the New York Times Magazine had whetted my appetite) and the Wu Tsang film installation Anthem, featuring the ethereally gorgeous music and visage of Beverly Glenn-Copeland. The latter dominates the rotunda as soon as you walk in and accompanies you throughout your visit.

The Deana Lawson show on the top floor displays her winning submissions to the 2020 Hugo Boss Prize.

Lawson’s best-known work centers on intimate portraits of black people in deceptively casual environments which, upon closer examination, are scrupulously staged to evoke richness and simplicity, personality and mystery. This show has a different conceptual agenda, which the museum website describes this way: “The aesthetics and intergenerational connectivity of the Black diaspora guide Lawson’s choice of subject matter. Each of her works takes its place in an overarching project, cohering into what she terms ‘an ever-expanding mythological extended family.’ Close examination of her compositions reveals the presence of portals, adornments, and devotional objects that evoke the proximity of an unseen realm.” What that means practically is that her images — some of which are photographs taken by her, others are found images that she has altered in various ways — will often juxtapose a large image with a smaller inset, which can be as mundane as a 4×6 printed snapshot stuck into the side of the frame or as sophisticated as a hologram embedded in the … it’s funny, I keep wanting to call them canvases, even though none of them are paintings.

In addition to the snapshot — a picture of a woman at home, contrasted with the image of a galaxy — note the mirrored frame, which not only reflects the viewer but bounces a rectangle of light onto the floor, literally reaching out to enclose the spectator. And when you pull back, you notice in the corner a crystal working its quiet invisible magic on this corner of the room. A different kind of portal.

The coolest piece is a free-standing hologram called Torus, which shifts shape and color depending where you’re standing.

Satisfied art hounds repaired to a Fifth Avenue bench to compare notes.


Quote of the day: MISSION

August 2, 2021

MISSION

The word “mission” comes from the Latin for “send.” In English, historically, a mission is Christian, and means sending the Holy Spirit out into the world to spread the Word of God: a mission involves saving souls. In the seventeenth century, when “mission” first conveyed something secular, it meant diplomacy: emissaries undertake missions. Scientific and military missions—and the expression “mission accomplished”—date to about the First World War. In 1962, J.F.K. called going to the moon an “untried mission.” “Mission statements” date to the Vietnam War, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff began drafting ever-changing objectives for a war known for its purposelessness. (The TV show “Mission: Impossible” débuted in 1966.) After 1973, and at the urging of the management guru Peter Drucker, businesses started writing mission statements as part of the process of “strategic planning,” another expression Drucker borrowed from the military. Before long, as higher education was becoming corporatized, mission statements crept into university life. “We are on the verge of mission madness,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 1979. A decade later, a management journal announced, “Developing a mission statement is an important first step in the strategic planning process.” But by the nineteen-nineties corporate mission statements had moved from the realm of strategic planning to public relations. That’s a big part of why they’re bullshit. One study from 2002 reported that most managers don’t believe their own companies’ mission statements. Research surveys suggest a rule of thumb: the more ethically dubious the business, the more grandiose and sanctimonious its mission statement.

–Jill Lepore in The New Yorker

photographed by Kayana Szymczak for the New York Times

Culture Vulture: Alice Neel at the Metropolitan Museum

August 1, 2021

Alice Neel is a name I’ve long been familiar with but, like most people, I suspect, I had no specific file on her painting until the Metropolitan Museum mounted its spectacular show of her work, “People Come First.” We finally got around to seeing it a week before it closed. I love the amazing cross-section of New Yorkers she painted, with a big focus on bohemian life, working people, queer artists, and casually explicit sexuality. Others have written more eloquently and more knowledgeably about the work in this exhibition. I’m just going to share a few of the pictures that called out to me.

Waiting in line to get into the Alice Neel exhibition, everyone got to spend time contemplating this enigmatic canvas:


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