Friday, December 19, 2014

Charging admission at the IMA

Posted By on Fri, Dec 19, 2014 at 1:30 PM

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Look at it this way, if you’re the Indianapolis Museum of Art: A lot of people really care about you.That’s probably the only way to think about the vociferous blowback that’s greeted the IMA’s announced plan to impose an admission fee of $18.

Up until now, the city’s art museum has been free for all but one year since it was founded in 1883. This constitutes a remarkable history, one that places the IMA in a special position relative to its hometown.

Indianapolis has never been a truly big city, but that’s not to say that it didn’t, at one time, have a large sense of itself. In the late 1800’s and through the Gilded Age, Indy was populated with a large class of entrepreneurs who created an impressive amount of wealth and, with it, sought to make their city a kind of provincial cultural capital, similar to those found in Europe.

Part of this process involved the creation of cultural institutions that would be free and open to everyone. In those days, learning about the arts was considered part of what went into becoming an upwardly mobile citizen. Looking at paintings by old masters, listening to music by classical composers, reading books by famous authors was part of a civilizing process that not only led to the self-improvement of individuals, but an enhanced community.

This, of course, became a rich subject for satire. The striving and pretensions of would-be sophisticates is still a target-rich environment.

But there was also something democratic and downright American about the idea that the arts and ideas could be for everyone, and that a cultural institution like a museum of art might be considered part of a city’s commonwealth — something, that is, to be shared equally by all citizens.

That, in fact, is a large part of what’s made city living worthwhile. If they were noisier, dirtier, and more crowded, cities also had magical amenities, like art museums, libraries and parks, where you could find yourself in ways unavailable anywhere else.

To some extent, it’s still this way. But there’s no denying the cache once associated with “the fine arts” has been vaporized by a century’s worth of mass communications, media and entertainment. I mean, now you can watch a movie on your phone!

Cultural institutions, rather than community landmarks, have become part of a larger leisure time marketplace. As such, they have been forced to reevaluate what they do — and for whom.

In deciding to charge admission, the IMA is following a script adopted by most other museums. Its leaders have doubtless run the numbers and calculated some kind of monetary benefit.

But in becoming more like their peers, they are also making themselves less distinctive and, in the process, less a part of what makes Indianapolis special. The IMA’s free admission policy defined art as part of the abundance of this city’s life, a treasure anyone might share.

Charging admission makes it just another consumer choice.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

What local GOP wants from Santa

Posted By on Thu, Dec 18, 2014 at 12:40 PM

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It appears Marion County’s Republican apparatus is hoping against hope that Santa has a mayoral candidate stashed in his bag when he comes down the chimney at party headquarters this Christmas.

Will somebody — anybody! — run against Joe Hogsett in next year’s election? You’d think the opportunity to govern America’s 12th largest city would appeal to some ambitious Republican. Win or lose, the chance to debate about how best to fight crime, grow the economy and strengthen neighborhoods would be political catnip for some GOP striver.

“We’ll be incredibly competitive in this race,” Marion County GOP Chairman Kyle Walker told the Indianapolis Star. But right now, the only thing that’s incredible about the county’s GOP is the number of qualified candidates that have preemptively taken themselves out of the running.

State Sen. Jim Merritt doesn’t want to do it. Neither does Ryan Vaughn. Murray Clark would rather not. And as for Councilman Ben Hunter, forget it. Republicans have fallen back on hoping that another Greg Ballard walks through the door. But that’s like hoping for Santa to not just stop by Christmas Eve, but move in on a permanent basis.

The trouble here is that voters hardly ever have a real chance to pick Indy’s mayor. This is done for us by the way local political parties go about their business. What happens is that one party or the other finds a strong candidate, somebody who’s smart, relatively good-looking and personable. Somebody, in other words, who looks like a Lilly corporate vice-president.

Party affiliation doesn’t matter. Whichever party is first with a candidate that fits the profile wins because the other party will decide it’s just not worth spending the money to have an actual race.

This is why Ballard was such a surprise. Republican bosses and the business tycoons downtown didn’t think anybody could beat Bart Peterson. They took Ballard for a sacrificial lamb. What they failed to see was a taxpayer’s revolt in the wake of property reassessments and an ill-timed Peterson income tax proposal aimed at, of all things, strengthening local policing.

Democrat Joe Hogsett is definitely this year’s mayoral model. But there’s another factor that may be inhibiting Republican appetites for the job — Republicans themselves.

The GOP holds super-majorities in both the Indiana House and Senate. These so-called lawmakers are a decidedly anti-urban lot. Cities, as far as they’re concerned, are on their own. The only favor they did Indy’s Republican mayor was to try and rig the City-County Council by eliminating at-large council seats, thereby attempting to consolidate mayoral power, while kicking any pretense of local control to the curb.

But any Republican with an eye on the mayor’s office can surely see that when it comes to most issues affecting cities, from the provision of necessary social services to infrastructure, they’re bound to be at odds with their own party. Sticks and coal, baby — who wants to preside over that?

Local Republicans can dream of sugar plum candidates all they want; they’ll leave the mayor’s job to Hogsett.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

America the bully-ful

Posted By on Mon, Dec 15, 2014 at 4:00 PM

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Nobody likes a bully.

At least that’s what we’re led to believe. If you google “bullying,” you find almost 12 million entries, more sites than anyone with a life has time to explore. Although I am sure there are some exceptions, I believe it’s safe to say that most of these entries are, in one way or another, against bullying.

Yet anyone who’s been watching the news for the past few weeks would be hard-pressed not to conclude that bullying is institutional America’s standard operating procedure.

I say this after having tried to digest the indigestible contents of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation practices, better — and more appropriately — known as the Torture Report.

This report documents the truly awful extent to which torture became our country’s modus operandi with captives suspected of being on the wrong side of the war on terror. This information, while rendered in greater detail than ever before, is not new. Anybody paying attention knows this country’s employed some horrific tactics in the name of making us safe.

What the report underscores is that these practices violated international treaties we had previously signed, as well as our own laws. War crimes, in other words, were committed. To some degree, this may still be going on.

Though gut-wrenching, the use of torture is justified by some, claiming it provides information that saves American lives. The report disputes this, showing that in case after case, crucial information in preventing plots or capturing terrorists was obtained by other means.

Sen. John McCain, himself the victim of torture during the Vietnam War, has said on numerous occasions that torture doesn’t produce useful intelligence.

So why did we do it? And why do some people insist on defending torture?

More than anything, I think we wanted to send a message. Torture became America’s way of telling the world, especially those parts of it we wanted to intimidate, that we could be their worst nightmare. This was bullying, pure and simple.

This institutionalized bullying has found expression here at home. We saw it last summer in the hyper-militarized police response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and to the gang tackling, chokehold killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island.

This is not to say that cops, by definition, are bullies. But cops are not immune to fear; they place themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. Too often, they are outgunned. The result is that, instead of feeling as if they are protecting and serving, they must feel as if they are in hostile territory. One thing leads to another.

Fear and power are a potent mix. One gives the other permission to express itself by doing damage. This is easily confused with strength, a quality most Americans like to think of as part of our national DNA.

But the cocktail of fear and power only seems like strength. Unfortunately, reaching for that brew is most tempting when whatever passes for control appears threatened, or lost. It’s built for bullies.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

It's a vulnerable life

Posted By on Sun, Dec 14, 2014 at 1:00 PM

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“Tis the season,” they say. And so, no matter whatever else is currently besetting the world — government sanctioned torture, police brutality, sexual violence — we are offered the soft landing of sentiment.

Thank heavens!

Without sentiment, which Merriam-Webster.com defines in part as, “refined feeling: delicate sensibility especially as expressed in a work of art…emotional idealism,” our so-called better angels would be missing in action. Instead of raising a glass to “auld lang syne,” we’d just be raising a glass — and then another, and another.

I remember one Christmas, many years ago, that was bluer than most. I felt beat, broke and more than a little strung out. I was far from home and out of luck. And then I saw Frank Capra’s movie masterpiece, It’s A Wonderful Life. That film’s been trotted out so often since then I suppose it’s lost some of its edge. But it was new to me at the time.

It’s the story of George Bailey, a modest guy, with a modest life in a modest town. George has a conscience; he looks out for other people and often puts their needs ahead of his own. He has a loving wife and kids and makes a solid living as head of a local savings and loan.

But when George is wrongfully accused of bank fraud, every choice he has ever made suddenly seems wrong-headed or naïve. He feels like a sap. It takes an angel to show George that the essential decency with which he’s lived his life has actually added up to something truly wonderful.

Capra made the film in 1946. It picked up where previous Capra films, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe left off. In all these movies, Capra seemed intent on creating a distinctly American mythology, one that gave form and expression to what it was that made this society like no other. That’s why these films still work: though their language and imagery may at first seem dated, they are actually timeless.

One thing that these movies never fail to show is just how vulnerable the American idea of trust and fair play can be. When you trust other people and try to do the decent thing, you leave yourself open to being cheated or taken advantage of. You can look like a sap. Nobody likes that.

So there are always big men, smart men, rich men, who are ready to take over. They say they have a better idea. They claim to be tougher, more realistic. Freedom to them means getting what they want, when they want it.

The scary thing is that these guys make a certain kind of sense. They see the world as a cold and unforgiving place — because that’s the world they’ve made.

These are the guys that tell us that torture is necessary, that cops who kill unarmed civilians have no other choice, that rape victims must have been asking for it.

The world, to them, is a dangerous place. Anybody who disagrees is a sap. Or just sentimental.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Hoosier Way

Posted By on Tue, Nov 25, 2014 at 10:17 AM

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Indiana hates you.

Let’s face it, if you’re not one of those “high income earners” Indiana lusts for, this state has one word for you: Scram.

For this we have our governor, Mike Pence to thank.

That’s Mike Pence, the presidential hopeful. Pence, you may recall, soft-shoed it during his gubernatorial campaign two years ago. At that time, he was all about doing things “the Hoosier way.”

Well, we’re finding out what that means. If you’re hungry, sick, or too young to defend yourself, it means find another state.

The most recent installment of this long good-bye came from the state’s Family and Social Services Administration, euphemistically known in some quarters as the welfare department. After the Great Recession hit, the FSSA began waiving the federal requirement that single people work 20 hours a week, or attend job training, in order to receive food stamps.

But this is not the Hoosier Way. Starting in 2015, it looks as though as many as 65,000 Hoosiers will lose their food stamps. As Gov. Pence put it: "I'm someone that believes there's nothing more ennobling to a person than a job…And to make sure that able-bodied adults without dependants at home know that here in the state of Indiana, we want to partner with them in their success."

According to the Hoosier Way, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Like all the way to a neighboring state, where they might find some health care. You see, expanding Medicaid coverage to an additional 300,000 Hoosiers isn’t the Hoosier Way, either.

Gov. Pence refuses to expand Medicaid, as called for by the Affordable Care Act. This not only means that Indiana hospitals will lose out on an estimated $1 billion in federal funds, it also means that many of the most vulnerable Hoosiers, like those with mental illnesses, won’t receive adequate care. According to a report by the American Mental Health Counselors Association, Indiana, of all the states, has the most mentally ill residents (62 percent) who would have been eligible for Medicaid under the ACA expansion.

There’s more (or less, actually). Indiana is one of 16 states with little or no state-funded pre-school for low-income children. This dubious distinction enabled us to qualify for $80 million dollars in federal aid. Did we take it?

Perish the thought! Not the Hoosier Way.

Gov. Pence and his fellow Republicans never tire of bragging about Indiana’s economy. This, in spite of the fact they have failed to keep their campaign promises to better the low per capita rate of Hoosier pay. What a vexing reality check for the rightwing fantasy of free market prosperity. If the Hoosier Way is so great, why are so many Hoosiers barely getting by?

It doesn’t add up.

But addition isn’t Gov. Pence’s thing. He’s into subtraction. Imagine how our per capita income will jump — if we can just get rid of some poor people. That’s the Hoosier Way: Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Shaving with a brush

Posted By on Tue, Nov 18, 2014 at 1:20 PM

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I was having dinner at the Jazz Kitchen with one of my dearest pals. This was about a year ago; we had just sat down at our favorite table and ordered our usual drinks when, without so much as a drumroll, my friend produced a cardboard box. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t small. If we’d been in Chicago, instead of Indianapolis, I would have guessed it held something like a 16-inch softball, what some people sometimes refer to as “a kitten ball.”

But that is not what was in the box.

“Look,” said my pal apologetically, “I didn’t wrap this up because it’s not a present. I don’t want you to feel obligated in any way.”

Then he asked me if I shaved with an electric razor or a blade.

“Blade,” I said. “Always.”

A great look of relief crossed my pal’s furrowed brow. “Good,” he said.

I opened the box.

Inside was a handmade German silvertip shaving brush and a container of coconut oil shaving cream that, according to its container, was prepared at George Trumper’s “celebrated establishment” in London.

I probably started shaving at about the same time I started high school. Like most boys and men, I generally covered my face with the puffy white stuff that blurted from an aerosol bomb. From time to time I experimented with gels and tubes. I’ve even tried a beard — but once you reach that point in your working life where you are older than your boss, looking like a cross between John the Baptist and Tom Waits loses its cache.

Shaving never really amounted to anything but a daily chore, punctuated by an occasional minor bloodletting, as far as I was concerned.

This, my pal assured me, would change once I availed my self of this old school shaving kit.

He was right.

Shaving the old fashioned way, brushing on a layer of silky cream, turns out to be an unexpectedly sensuous pleasure. If shaving like this takes a little longer, who cares? It feels good. Why, I wonder, would anyone who shaves want to do it any other way?

I am reminded of a conversation I once had with the agricultural historian Eleanor Arnold. Eleanor collected the oral histories of Indiana farm women. For the most part, these were accounts of relentlessly hard work, much of it involving the preparation of food.

So when frozen meals, like the TV Dinner, appeared on the scene, they were greeted as a kind of liberation. These products freed women’s time in ways they had hardly dared to imagine. They could sit a spell on the front porch and socialize with their neighbors, for a change.

Of course, this also opened the floodgates to processed food, diminished nutrition, obesity and a host of other unintended consequences — all in the name of convenience.

But what goes around, comes around. Several generations later, people are rediscovering the virtues of locally grown, fresh foods. More and more of us are learning to cook. Slow food is in.

It’s a little like shaving with a brush.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Liberal Arts: better than you think

Posted By on Thu, Nov 13, 2014 at 2:38 PM

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Liberal. Arts.

Are there any more misunderstood words in the English language?

The first has been reduced to a catch-all for the sort of good intentions used as pavers in hell. The second runs a gamut that, depending on whose self is being served, includes everything from the Prince of Denmark’s soul-searching to piercing.

Together, when applied to a college education, they’re an easy punchline. Robyn Urback of Toronto’s National Post dished up the snark like this: “Many young men and women headed back to the postsecondary classroom this month equipped with texts on cultural relativism and stars in their eyes…Those stars will turn to dollar signs not long after graduation day, when the realization sets in that that medieval feminist studies degree they spent the last four years earning is not as marketable as they had anticipated.”

The notion that an education in the liberal arts has become an unaffordable, unemployable luxury constitutes what passes for conventional wisdom these days. But a new study, “Making It Work: The Education and Employment of Recent Arts Graduates”, sponsored by the Center For Post Secondary Research at IU (snaap.indiana.edu), begs to differ.

Called SNAAP (for Strategic National Arts Alumni Project), the study surveyed 92,000 former students, from 150 institutions, who had graduated over the past three years. Indiana alums hailed from Butler, DePauw, IU, IUPUI. Purdue and St. Mary’s College. They held degrees in such disciplines as Studio Arts, Theatre, Design, Media Arts and Music.

Contrary to popular expectation, 64 percent of recent grads reported finding work relevant to their education. This turns out to be a higher percentage than Accounting or Biology majors, according to National Science Foundation stats.

But that’s not all. Over half the respondents said their educations provided them with critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as an ability to improve their performance based on feedback, that was paying off in the workplace.

These grads also scored high levels of community engagement, volunteerism and social tolerance.

This is not to say there aren’t plenty of potholes to contend with. Most grads are dealing with debt loads that are out of whack with their pay scales. Many also complain that their educations did not sufficiently address the entrepreneurial skills necessary to make a go of it outside of academe.

Still, the SNAAP study indicates a liberal arts education is neither as airy-fairy, nor as soul-crushing in outcome as some would have us believe.

Working in the fields of the arts and culture (as opposed to and to be emphatically distinguished from the sausage-maker of celebrity) has never been a royal road, though all-too-many high-level administrators and tenured faculty can sometimes give that impression. That this may lead to a kind of buyer’s remorse for some grads is understandable.

It does not, however, make the liberal arts irrelevant. The critical thinking they enable is what used to be meant by a higher education. If our universities are no longer the place for this, what are they for? That, to paraphrase a sulky prince, is the question.

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Friday, November 7, 2014

In rich we trust: Those 2014 midterms

Posted By on Fri, Nov 7, 2014 at 9:55 AM

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In case you missed it: Republicans cleaned up in this year’s midterm elections. They won a majority in the U.S. Senate, giving them control of both houses of Congress (three out of four, if you count the Supreme Court).

They also blew through a mess of governor’s races. Minnesota is now the only one of the Great Lakes states with a Dem in its statehouse.

An electoral map of the United States looks like the Joker’s grin: a great red gash, with a couple of blue dimples on either coast. The GOP now has the widest margin of control in both chambers since 1929. That was just before the Great Depression.

As usual, everybody’s blaming Obama for what’s happened. Never mind that the stock market’s breaking records, unemployment’s down and the cost of a gallon of gas is less than three dollars.

In another week, Republicans will probably be asking us to thank them.

Political pundits are saying voters (those that showed up — turnout hit record lows in some places, including Indiana) were angry. Or scared. Or wanting change (again).

Whatever. One thing seems clear: Americans seem to trust the rich more than whatever is left of our government. In state after state, people voted for candidates who want to lower corporate taxes, get rid of regulations, and reduce government services.

When it comes to healthcare, they might as well have voted for insurance companies. The environment? Best to let the energy firms decide how much pollution is too much. And when it comes to education, leave that to the CEOs — they’re the ones hiring.

The twitchy thing in all this is that in five states people voted either to raise or recommend an increase for the minimum wage. Then they voted for candidates who have done everything they can to either outsource jobs, or support policies favoring lower pay.This tendency to believe that the rich know what’s best for the rest of us isn’t new. We’ve been headed in this direction in a kind of forced march ever since the Supreme Court ruled that money equals free speech and that corporations have the same rights as individuals.

But it goes back even farther than that, to the so-called “public-private partnerships” that have slapped corporate logos on an array of formerly public assets, from state university departments to parklands.

Forget Occupy Wall Street, and the widening gap between the rich and everybody else. According to the latest election results, we think that gap is a good thing. How else can Americans tell winners from losers?

If Indiana has a “been there, done that” attitude about the latest Republican onslaught, it’s because our state’s made an electoral habit of being run by the rich, for the rich — I mean job creators — for some time. This state isn’t just Red, it’s “super” Red. You see how that’s worked out.

As the man said as he fell from a window on the 13th floor: “So far, so good.”

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Election Day

Posted By on Sun, Nov 2, 2014 at 4:00 AM

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You’ve seen the ads, heard the accusations, been importuned for cash. Ready to vote?

Off year elections are notorious for their lack of notoriety. Registered voters tend to stay away from the polls in droves. Apparently, it takes a presidential campaign’s national sizzle to rouse our attention.

This is a shame. Our form of governance is nothing so much as an almost mind-numbing set of wheels-within-wheels. The more libertarian among us believe that mind-numbing thing is at least partly deliberate, a scheme to make we the governed foggy and inert.

They may have a point. But true or not, the fact remains that our government, with its clockwork mechanism of local, state and national dimensions, requires our serious and ongoing attention.

Like voting in midterm elections.

I mean, when you stop to think about it, it’s not as if voting for president, sexy as that may seem, actually does that much. Take, for example, our present situation. President Obama is in the midst of his second term, after winning two elections by convincing margins.

Obama promised hope and change, two things that apparently scared the one percent who control the lion’s share of wealth and power in this country. They quickly reminded the new president that what they had (wealth and power) trumped what he had promised (hope and change).

At which point the new president began telling we the governed that whatever it was we hoped for or wanted changed was…up to us.

Ouch.

Hence the importance of all those little, decidedly unsexy votes we are asked to cast. Like for Secretary of State, State Treasurer, and Auditor (Auditor?). Not to mention State Representatives, County Commissioners, Township Trustees, Sheriffs, School Board members and, yes, even Surveyors.

You may think these office-holders are relatively unimportant. You probably don’t know what most of them look like, let alone what they stand for, or whether or not they are actually qualified to hold the offices they seek. These folks aren’t celebrities, that’s for sure.

But that doesn’t mean, given a certain alignment of circumstances, they won’t be capable of making your life a little better — or a little worse — somewhere down the line.

Just look around. We’re in Indiana, a state that ranks near the bottom of most rankings that measure quality of life. Our schools are nothing to brag about. Our air and water quality is poor. We don’t do much for our senior citizens, and heaven help you if you need extended health care.

You’d think we’d take more of an interest in who gets elected around here. You’d think we’d start making a few more demands.

Instead, we seem to be content to let the local political machines do the work, pick the candidates, and keep things pretty much they way they’ve always been. There’s nothing these folks like better than a quiet day at the polls. I suspect they find it kind of a relief: There’s nothing they have to worry about for another couple of years.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Jack Bruce, no surrender

Posted By on Fri, Oct 31, 2014 at 12:40 PM

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Unless you’ve been reading the obituaries lately, the chances are you’ve never heard of Jack Bruce. Jack died last week in England at the age of 71.

Jack was a musician, played bass and sang with a band called Cream in the late 1960’s. His bandmates in that trio were Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton. Clapton, of course, became very famous; he played guitar, the glamour instrument of that era.

Cream was a phenomenon. They lasted just a couple of years and four albums, but their influence was profound, affecting even the Beatles. Cream was known for the inspired, improvisatory quality of its playing, but its songs were tremendous as well.

Jack wrote most of those with a poet named Pete Brown. There were hits like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” that still make it into some radio rotations, but there were an amazing number of minor masterworks that were even better: “As You Said,” “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” “We’re Going Wrong,” to name just a few.

These songs were supremely literate, urgent and gorgeously sung by Jack, whose voice was knowing, sly and never less than completely committed. You can make a strong case that he was the most gifted musician in a generation that became known for the pioneering quality of its players.

That would be the generation that came to prominence during the 1960’s. Like so many of his British peers, Jack was inspired by American blues artists. He once noted that those original blues tracks were perfect; they were impossible to improve upon, but allowed artists like himself room to appropriate and reinvent them in ways that made sense in a different context.

It’s that insistence on reinvention that made ‘60s music so dynamic — from Dylan’s making folksongs electric to Hendrix’s psychedelicized blues. Jack Bruce did as much as anyone to make it new.

That’s why, for me, Jack was such a quintessential artist. When Cream broke up, he became not a star, but a musician’s musician, playing with everyone from Lou Reed to Carla Bley and Larry Coryell. He teamed up with the avant-garde auteur Kip Hanrahan to make a couple of moody Latin-inspired records, “Desire Develops and Edge” and “Vertical’s Currency.” He even sang words by Samuel Beckett.

People have tried to sum the meaning of the ‘60s in many ways, most of them not very satisfactory. Did that time make the world a more peaceful place? Have our politics gotten better? How’s that social justice thing going?

By refusing to be pinned down or corporately categorized, Jack Bruce reminded us of that the ‘60s was ultimately more personal than political, a cultural moment in which an extraordinary opening was made for creative acts of reinvention. Jack didn’t just theorize about this. He lived it.

I saw him play at the Vogue once, in 1988 or ’89. It was a rainy night, there were maybe 50 people there. He played as if his life depended on it, practically burned the place down.

I hear him loud and clear.

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

When is Indy going to get this right?

Posted By on Sun, Oct 26, 2014 at 4:00 AM

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Okay, I’ll give the winning design for the plaza at the City-County Building two cheers. Turning what is currently a brutalist concrete no man’s land into a place where people actually want to spend some quality time will be a good thing.

But I’m withholding that final cheer for one all too telling reason: the short shrift the design gives to public art.

When, I wonder is Indy going to get this right?

Yes, there is an area set aside for what the plan calls an “art installation” on the Great Lawn. But it appears to be about the same size (a little smaller, actually) as something nearby labeled “Bench/Air Intake.”

Initial press reports have chirped about how people there will play Frisbee and foosball, splash amongst fountains in the summer and ice skate in the winter.

All that’s well and good, and doubtless something of a relief to Mayor Ballard, not to mention Brian Payne, the president of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF), the philanthropic muscle that funded the design competition, which was won by a Baltimore firm called Design Collective.

We’d much rather have people talking about fun and games than, well, art.

That’s because our public conversations about art haven’t gone so well. It wasn’t that long ago that the CICF tried to have a sculpture by Fred Wilson installed on the City-County Plaza. The piece, entitled “E Pluribus Unum,” borrowed the image of a freed slave from the Circle Monument. This raised the hackles of some folks in the African-American community who felt that any reference to slavery was demeaning. There were public protests and, eventually, the CICF was forced to scrap the project as intended. (Editor's note: A portion of the money destined for "E Pluribus Unum" is funding the installation on the Cultural Trail of a new steel sculpture — Bernard Williams' "Talking Wall" — that "will reflect the proud and distinct history of the African American community in Central Indiana," according to the Arts Council of Indianapolis.)

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In Chicago, Millennium Park provides people with plenty of green space, gardens, a splash pool and an ice rink. But big, ambitious and monumentally popular public art is at the heart of the park’s design. People come from around the world to have their pictures taken in front of Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” better known as “the Bean.” And when they’re not doing that, they’re cooling their heels in the water spouting from the faces depicted by Jaume Plensa’s towering Crown Fountain.

These works of art have become part of Chicago’s iconography. People love visiting them time and time again.

Will we be able to say the same thing about the City-County plaza?

Although the winning plan is a marked improvement over the nullity we have now, I can’t help feeling an opportunity’s been missed. Sometimes great ambition is actually the most sensible way forward. Commissioning proven artists to create truly memorable public work, as was done in Chicago, doesn’t come cheap, but the rewards can be lasting. High impact public art doesn’t merely decorate a place, it becomes part of that place’s DNA.

We should be demanding more for the City-County plaza. We should be able to have a grownup talk about public art.

Frisbee is nice, but that’s kidstuff.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pity the mayor

Posted By on Tue, Oct 21, 2014 at 12:00 PM

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Pity Mike Rawlings, the mayor of Dallas. He not only has to deal with corporate cowboys and cops, now there’s Ebola to contend with. After a second nurse from a Dallas hospital was diagnosed with the virus, Rawlings confided that he got the news via phone at one in the morning.

As if he could do something about it.

There are politicians who claim being a big city mayor is great because it’s a job where you can really make an impact. The ideological issues that have ground our national government to a steaming standstill take a backseat to problem solving. It’s not so much about grandstanding as getting things done.

In Indianapolis, this has been Mayor Greg Ballard’s M.O. The unheralded ex-Marine who managed to unseat a Democratic incumbent that most Republicans assumed could not be beaten deserves credit for keeping the city’s trajectory headed in a positive direction.

Critics will quickly point out that while Ballard initially ran as a law and order candidate, he has been ineffective at curbing violent crime.

But if he did nothing else, the man would deserve enormous credit for having navigated the city through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression — and managing to preside over an extraordinary downtown building boom in the process.

Yet there seems to be some doubt about whether Ballard still wants the job. His testy relationship with the City Council suggests he might be fed up.

Not only that, the Star’s reigning conservative and opinion editor, Tim Swarens, recently wrote a column comparing Ballard to an aging Willie Mays by way of saying it’s time for Ballard to call it quits, rather than run for a third term.

What, one wonders, must Joe Hogsett, the Democrats’ great hope, make of this? Hogsett, part of Evan Bayh’s technocratic inner circle, finally made a reputation for himself as a prosecutor just as the city’s homicide rate was going through the roof. After first claiming he wasn’t interested in being mayor, he changed his mind, much to the relief of his fellow Dems who, up until then, were unable to field a clearly compelling candidate.

What’s weird is that should Ballard take Swarens’ advice, Republicans are in a similar pickle. No one on their side seems an obvious choice to lead the city.

Indeed, the benches of both parties appear to be embarrassingly thin, made up primarily of dues-paying hacks and operatives, none of whom have much to say when it comes to articulating a vision for Indianapolis’ future.

What accounts for this bipartisan lack of ambition?

Perhaps it’s due to the wet blanket stored beneath the dome of the Statehouse on west Washington St. Indiana’s legislature is dominated by anti-urban Republicans from rural and suburban districts who lazily persist in thinking that Indianapolis prospers at their expense. They haven’t done Ballard any favors. And if Hogsett gets a shot, he’ll be greeted with a heaping plate of humble pie.

There’s nothing the next mayor, whoever it is, will be able to do about that.

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