Friday, August 3, 2007

Cat on a Hot Tin Riff

Still could do more with Felix, but this image gives a better sense of his size and personality.
The fact of the sign having been raised to an official iconic state raises the interesting issue of the pressure of the owner of the building, a Chevrolet/Cadillac agency, to keep Felix health and happy.

It also happily causes me to think of the more shall we say political images, and of course we should say artistic images of Diego Rivera and Ben Shahn.

Felix was fine when he was simply a show-biz icon, picking up a little catnip on the side with some commercial work. But now that he has achieved more of an official status, some critics begin to wonder if this is being respectful to art.

This is where the fuss with the likes of Rivera and Shahn have their dots connected in my memory and I think of this lovely poem that appeared in The New Yorker nearly seventy-five years ago:

I Paint What I See

"What do you paint when you paint a wall?"

Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.

"Do you paint just anything there at all

"Will there be any doves or a tree in fall?

"Or a hunting scene like an English hall?"

"I paint what I see," said Rivera.

"What are the colors you use when you paint?"

Said John D's grandson Nelson.

"Do you use any red in the beard of a saint?

"Do you use any blue? Is it Prussian?"

"I paint what I paint," said Rivera.

"Whose is that head I see on my wall?"

Said John D.'s grandson Nelson.

"Is it anyone's head whom we know, at all?

"A Rensselaer, or a Saltonstall?

"Is it Franklin D.? Is it Mordaunt Hall?

"Or is it the head of a Russian?"

"I paint what I think," said Rivera.

"I paint what I paint, I paint what I see,

"I paint what I think," said Rivera,

"And the thing that is dearest in life to me

"In a bourgeois hall is Integrity;


"I'll take out a couple of people drinkin'

"And put in a picture of Abraham Lincoln,

"I could even give you McCormick's reaper

"And still not make my art much cheaper.

"But the head of Lenin has got to stay

"Or my friends will give me the bird today

"The bird, the bird, forever."

"It's not good taste in a man like me,"

Said John D.'s grandson Nelson,

"To question an artist's integrity

"Or mention a practical thing like a fee,

"But I know what I like to a large degree

"Though art I hate to hamper;

"For twenty-one thousand conservative bucks

"You painted a radical. I say shucks,

"I never could rent the offices.

"For this, as you know, is a public hall

"And people want doves or a tree in fall,

"And though your art I dislike to hamper,

"I owe a little to God and Gramper,

"And after all,

"It's my wall...."

"We'll see if it is," said Rivera.

All these things rattling around in my head converge in a pleasant surprise, the way they are supposed to when you have begun to read enough, take sides in some seemingly unwinnable battles, and look upon art as an explosive convergence within your heart.

The poet is E. B. White, who knew a thing or two about heart and art and spiders and style. The sentiments are like Felix; protected by tradition and admiration.

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