Friday, September 18, 2009


Consider the pant-suits of Hillary Clinton and the fluff- skirts of Sarah Palin. Think of the major-general and the monk. Clothes aren't just coverings, they're extensions of one's personality and politics. They tell you at first glance that this woman in the flannel shirt and faded jeans is an organic gardener and a single-payer advocate, or that this man in the tweedy coat and bow-tie is a professor of economics, Keynesian.

Clothes are moving works of art; their frames are inside, not out, and their museum is the world.

Fashion designers are artists in their own right, but there's another group of practitioners, the art-for-art's-sake type, that make not fashion statements but statements about fashion.

Their work is what you see in Dress Codes: Clothing as Metaphor, an exhibit running through October 4 at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y., 50 miles northeast of New York City. Coordinated by guest curator Barbara J. Bloemink, 36 contemporary artists use dress to comment on politics, religion, national tragedies, and, so to say, the social fabric.

Take, for example, the latest controversial article of clothing, the chador, that head-to-toe covering worn by conservative Muslim women. Mella Jaarsma's version of the garment in "The Follower" (2002) is a colorful pastiche of shoulder- patches from organizations in her native Indonesia — a symbol, one guesses, of unity in diversity. In a 2004 work, Iranian-born Farhad Moshiri puts a plain black chador in a clear plastic package like a 99¢-store tablecloth, stapling a cardboard strip at the top with the cartoon head of a shrouded woman, only her languid eyes exposed, and some conventional promotional slogans: "CHADOR — the protector of inner beauty, with sporty sophistication — exotic — Mysterious — Shocking — As seen on TV." Tradition meets mass-marketing.

"Vigilante" (2003) by the fittingly-named duo of Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz (calling themselves Guerra de la Paz) is a kind of military version of the chador — an eight-foot- tall stuffed camouflage suit enveloping head and face and dribbling down in four serpentine legs to the floor, intimidating and anonymous.

Not surprisingly, many of the pieces dwell on the exploitation of women by fashion. In "Thinner than You" (1990), Maureen Connor has created a gauzy black strapless evening gown in a size so surrealistically slender it could only fit a Giacometti sculpture. Most blatant is Kate Kretz's "Defense Mechanism Coat" (2001), a wool garment with red velvet collar and lining embroidered with a schematic of a body's arteries and veins, and the outside bristling with 150 pounds of rusty roofing nails. Perhaps a bit of anger there?

Two works in the show are particularly fascinating because of the stories behind them. According to the description on the wall, Zoë Sheehan Saldaña went to her Wal-Mart store in Hartford, Conn., on May 26, 2005, bought a Jordache sheer camp shirt colored "Lucky Lime" for $9.87, took it home, and made a look- alike version on her sewing machine. She transferred the labels and tags from the original, photographed her shirt, and brought it to the store, placing it on the same rack the original had come from. On the museum wall, framed, are the store-bought shirt and a print of her copy, enlarged to size. She performs this exercise frequently — "shop-dropping," she calls it — as a surreptitious protest against the "appalling labor conditions" of third-world clothing manufacture. What some unsuspecting buyer gets is a unique garment, lovingly hand-made in the USA.

Related in theme is the "Labels Project Sculpture" (2008) by Luca Pizzaroni. This is a "ready-made" — a collection of shirts, pants, and coats on a circular rack, at first glance a dull parody of mass-market clothing. Atop it, however, is a sign declaring "Clothing Browsing is Permitted," followed by a list of the 193 recognized nations of the world, most in black lettering, a few in red. Reading the explanation on the wall, you understand his "project": it's to acquire an article of clothing from every country, identified by the "MADE IN _____" tag sewn inside. Clothing browsing, I found from personal experience, becomes addictive; I must have spent half an hour at it. There's a Banana Republic sport shirt from Zimbabwe, an Eddie Bauer tee from Burma, a High Sierra woman's top from Brunei, a Van Heusen sport from Mongolia — on and on, 172 countries in all. Who knew? Missing from the rack are only 21, the red ones on the sign, including Iraq and Rwanda and excluding Palestine, which the artist notes is not a "recognized country." His purpose, he writes, is "to foster communication and broader cultural understanding by exposing and informing our instincts about brand." It's a work in progress; like every obsessive collector, he continues to search for the remaining items to complete his set.

It's ironic that the exhibit ends on October 4, St. Francis' Day. Back in the thirteenth century, Francis used clothing as metaphor himself, doffing his wealthy finery in the public square of Assisi and standing naked to vow his life to Lady Poverty.

That was a fashion statement if there ever was one.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


September 17, 2009

The most moving part of Barack Obama's speech to Congress and the country on health care last week was his tribute to Ted Kennedy. He quoted from a letter the ailing senator had written in May, to be delivered after his death. "What we face," Kennedy wrote, "is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."
Obama went on to say that "part of the American character" is "a recognition that we are all in this together; that when fate turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand," and that "sometimes government has to step in to deliver on that promise."
A major disappointment in Obama's approach to health care is that he has never framed the debate specifically in terms of moral principle and collective responsibility. He has used morality as a rhetorical device, as he did in this speech, but has never made a compelling philosophical argument that medical care is a basic human and civil right that demands a unified national commitment and the sacrifice of individual interest for the common good. Doing so would have changed the very nature of the debate, calling on legislators and the public to account for their various positions in ethical terms.
The fundamental moral question is: Is care for those who are sick part of the Constitution's pledge that "we the people of the United States" will "promote the general welfare," right along with ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, and securing the blessings of liberty? Common sense would surely say so. When the country is threatened by swine flu, doesn't the federal government have the obligation to muster all of its resources, financial and technical, to combat and prevent it? Virtually no one would argue otherwise. Are not infant mortality, whose rate in this country is among the highest of all developed nations, and the thousands of needless deaths for lack of care to the uninsured and denial of care by insurance companies just a slower, institution-caused pandemic?
Is making money off the sick morally wrong? Aren't doctors and hospitals care-givers rather than businesses? Shouldn't insurance companies be simply risk-sharers, not profit centers? Denial of coverage for a woman with breast cancer, Obama lamented in his speech, "is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America." And yet, he said, "insurance executives don't do this because they are bad people. They do it because it's profitable" — strangely implying that profit is a good in every case. A law compelling all insurance companies to return to their roots as non-profit collectives would be an important step towards health-care justice.
Is health care a privilege reserved only to American citizens? "There are also those who claim that our reform efforts will insure illegal immigrants," Obama stated. "This too is false — the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally." The "You lie!" blurt by Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina only called attention to a moral contradiction. Health care is a universal human need. Denying coverage to illegals is not only morally inconsistent, it undermines the nation's collective health. Doesn't the good health of every person living in this country enhance the good health of all? The president himself noted that emergency-room care, mandated as a social obligation to the uninsured and to the illegal, adds "a hidden and growing tax" of $1,000 per insured person per year. Would it not simply be better, both morally and practically, to provide equal care to all human beings living in this country without scrutinizing their papers?
In his 1933 inaugural address on the economic crisis, Franklin Roosevelt saw the solution in "our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline." The situation is similar with health care today.
"I am not the first president to take up this cause," Obama stated at the beginning of his speech, "but I am determined to be the last."
As long as the fundamental principles of social justice, rather than the details of policy, are not addressed, his solution will only be an interim one.
With audacity, I hope he won't be the last.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


September 10, 2009

Summer in the Northeast this year wasn't summer. June and July were the rainiest on record, and the coolest. The highs in July never once hit 90, a first for usually sweltering New York City. Crops in urban gardens were slow to grow, and the summer honey production from my beehives has been dismal; it rained so much that the bees had to stay inside just when the flowerings were at their peak. August turned typical, hot and insufferably humid, with almost-daily thunderstorms, but last week, the first one of September, was at long last perfect: dry and warm, with the pastel sunlight of approaching fall.
I try to go tent-camping in regional parks every summer, and here was my first real window of opportunity all season long. I chose the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, over 4,000 acres of woodland, meadow, and rocky promontories in northeast Westchester County, just 45 miles from the teeming Bronx.
It's a remarkable place. Once a farming and lumbering area, the land for the park was acquired by the county piecemeal from 1926 through 1938. In an act of astounding foresight, long-time local Republican boss William L. Ward persuaded the politicians to trump developers who'd planned to bulldoze the site for housing tracts. The various parcels were bought up for a final total of $400,000. Led by a group of ecologists long before that word was invented, the parks department began a carefully- considered restoration and reforestation project. In 1933, they found a fortuitous ally in the Civilian Conservation Corps, Franklin Roosevelt's youth-employment program. For five years, hundreds of gung-ho young workers cleared land, tore down abandoned houses and barns, and planted half a million native trees. They forged hiking trails on the old wagon roads, carved out picnic grounds, and constructed 24 three-sided camping shelters out of local stone, topped with sturdy lumber roofs. The foundations of the CCC base camp, which once housed 200, are still visible today.
The shelters are a camper's dream. They're not just protection — any old wooden lean-to will do that. They're your own miniature castle, complete with fireplace and chimney. They're a wonder in the afternoon thunderstorms that regularly sweep through the area in summer. You watch the drama of wind and rain and lightning-flash from your dry and cozy fortress, your private theater. None of the misery of the soggy tent here.
The hiking ranges from easy to challenging, made the better because each trail has a fascinating natural or historical objective. Near the park entrance is the old cemetery of the town of Pound Ridge, with grave markers dating from the mid-1700's. Further on are the stone walls of a once-bustling grist and cider mill and its water-race off the Cross River. Deep in the forest is the Bear Rock petroglyph, the clear image of a reclining bear etched by the Lenape or Delaware Indians possibly as early as 2500 B.C.
Surely the most intriguing to the imagination is the Leatherman's Cave, one of the many dwellings of a mysterious mute hermit who appeared in the locality in 1860 and walked a precise circuit of 300 miles around Connecticut and New York, round and round for almost 30 years, dressed in a hand-sewn leather coat and breeches and begging food at farmhouses. His route was so exacting that farmers' wives would mark his upcoming arrival on their calendars and have a nice hot meal waiting for him when he appeared. Legend has it that he was a French or French-Canadian leatherworker who was jilted by his employer's daughter and went mad, fleeing to New York to walk off his grief. Sounds like a legend, doesn't it?
The curious thing about this park is that during the week, even in summer, it is practically deserted. You'd think that of the tens of millions of people in the metropolis, there'd be more than enough to keep the place full. But there aren't, and that's fine enough for me.
Pound Ridge is hardly in a wilderness. Just outside the reservation is a nice shopping center with a big supermarket for stocking up your cooler. A few miles on either side are the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn., and the Katonah Museum in tony Katonah, N.Y., where Martha Stewart has a country home. Also nearby is Caramoor, an expansive Mediterranean-style estate from the 1930's that now hosts an impressive array of musical performances in its outdoor amphitheater from May through November.
With the chill of autumn closing in, a few days at Pound Ridge puts a beautiful seal on the summer.