Art, Artifice or Pageantry?

Donald Trump’s disdain for “fake news” is legendary as is his love of pageantry. At this very moment, with Covid-19 ravaging the country, Washington under martial law, and Visigoths planning a second takeover of the U.S. Capitol, The Donald is busy working out the details of his departure pageant – Air Force One, red carpet, honor guard, military flyover, 21-gun salute, and a final pass over the White House on his way to Mar a Lago.

Nero fiddled, Donald fidgets. 

We know about his creepy interest in Miss Teen USA, Miss Universe, and military pageants, but his affection for fake art is less well known. Trump Tower, Mar a Lago, and Bedminster are full of it. You’d think the son of a wealthy New York real estate investor, with an Ivy League diploma, who’d spent most of his adult life in Manhattan would have a nodding acquaintance with the real thing, but from the faux-gold chandeliers and fake Renoir in his Trump Tower apartment to the forged Time Magazine covers of himself at Bedminster, The Donald has shown us his love of fakery. 

Trump’s copy of Renoir’s Two Sisters

Ever since The Man Who Would Be King and his would-be Queen rode the Trump Tower escalator down to announce his run for the presidency, I’ve wondered why his interest in art was be limited to The Art of the Deal. How could he be so clueless? How is it a New Yorker with an Ivy education and huge family inheritance, have so little interest in art, music, dance, or theater?

The exception of note might be when, during the visit to France, early in his tenure, he goniffed a portrait of Benjamin Franklin and two figurines from the U.S. ambassador’s residence to take home. Alas, they were fakes too. Maybe it was the temptation to take something that wasn’t his or simply the fact that he could do it. I hope the permanent staff at the White House is locking everything down until he slithers off to Mar a Lago on Wednesday? 

But, back to the arts; this all came to mind when I reviewed the list of honorees to be celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors this year – Midori, Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Garth Brooks, and Dick Van Dyke. Odds are he despises Baez, barely knows Brooks is country, remembers Van Dyke from black and white TV, and hasn’t a clue who Allen or Midori are. 

In his four years in DC, he’s never attended the Kennedy Center event although it’s honored distinguished Americans, as diverse as Michael Tilson Thomas, Cher, Phillip Glass, Linda Ronstadt, Norman Lear, and Lin-Manuel Miranda during his term. Add to it that the Trumps hosted only three state dinners in four years and only one, the French President and his wife, included entertainment other than the Marine Corps Band.

Contrast that with memories of the Kennedy’s hosting Pablo Casals, the American Ballet Theater dancers and Metropolitan Opera stars at the White House, a tradition that was carried forward by LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the Bushes with jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, and Duke Ellington, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, opera diva Leontyne Price and country artists Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. Arts in the White House expanded greatly under the Obamas with a mix of entertainers ranging from Stevie Wonder to Misty Copeland, James Taylor, Al Green, Common, and that iconic preview of the Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

It’s easy to be critical of Donald Trump. He’s a case of arrested development. Whether that’s nature or nurture I can’t say, but his education, advantages and innate curiosity should have exposed him to the broadening experience that art provides.

“The function of art, Aristotle told us, is catharsis. You go to the theater, you listen to a symphony, you look at a painting, you watch a ballet. You laugh. You cry. You feel pity, fear. You see in others’ lives a reflection of your own. And, the catharsis comes: a cleansing, a clarity, a feeling of relief and understanding that you carry with you out of the theater or concert hall. Art, music, drama—here is a point worth recalling in a pandemic—are instruments of psychic and social health.” (Jason Farago, New York Times, Sunday, January 17, 2021)

This print, called The Republican Club, by Andy Thomas of Carthage, Missouri was recommended to Mr. Trump by Rep. Darrell Issa of California for its flattering portrayal of the president. Like other portraits of himself (purchased with Trump Foundation funds) it will hang prominently in the White House—until Wednesday, January 20, 2021 at 12:01pm.

Footnote: America’s investment in the arts is insignificant when compared with other developed countries. In 2000, Germany spent 1.79% of all final government expenditures on the arts, translating to $8 per person—more than 14 times greater than per capita U.S. spending. (

A Lesson in Freedom…

Following last week’s assault on the US Capitol, CNN released this video of sequestered Republicans refusing to accept or wear masks offered by Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. At the time, the room was occupied by close to 100 members hiding from the insurrectionists. Less than a week later, at least four people in that room, including a 75-year-old cancer survivor, tested positive for Covid-19.

In an Op-Ed last week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “Refusing to wear a mask is no more a “personal choice” than is drinking all evening and then stumbling into your car and heading down the road. In a time of plague, shunning a face mask is like driving drunk, putting everyone in your path in danger.”

Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, the blond woman snickering at the Speaker’s offer, believes mask mandates are an infringement on her personal freedom. I want to introduce her to a friend of mine who could teach her a lesson about freedom.

This is, D (name withheld for privacy reasons), a friend of mine who is married to a Navy pilot colleague. D was born, raised, and educated in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), East Germany. In the 1970s she was an orthodontist–part of the professional class–in that totalitarian state, but she dreamed of freiheit/freedom.

She’d likely teach Rep. Greene how it feels when the government owns your freedom and it’s dangerous to express your opinion and you can’t travel freely. She’d probably ask Ms. Greene about images she’s seen of immigrants and their children in cages on the Texas border, about why CBP incarcerates people whose only crime was seeking freedom from dangerous and repressive governments in Central America. She’d probably point out that’s the kind of thing authoritarian governments do.

But her own story is like something out of a Len Deighton or John LeCarre’ spy thriller. The Berlin Wall was nearly 12 feet high and approximately 27 miles long, with 302 guard towers and 55,000 anti-personnel explosive devices (landmines) buried in the “Death Strip.” She was hemmed in by the Wall and needed a creative plan to escape – to cross over to freedom.

It began with scuba lessons in Berlin and plans to vacation at Hungarian and Black Sea resorts. For two years she did just that, but in year three she arrived in Hungary with her scuba gear in a duffle, but instead of heading to a dive resort she traveled up the Danube River to a spot across from Austria.

The geography is complicated. Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia converge near Bratislava. Hungary and Slovakia were satellite states of the USSR but Austria was beyond its reach. Her plan was to swim to Austria and freedom in the West. It was the culmination of her three year plan. She didn’t hesitate but waded into the river, swimming beneath its surface, calculating the distance and strength of the current until she reached the other side. If everything went right, she would be in Austria. If not she would be in serious trouble.

Yes, it was Austria. She had made it to freedom, but it meant leaving her family behind. She would not be allowed to visit East Germany and family members could not cross over to West Berlin until the Wall came down in 1989.

After her escape to the West, D built a successful orthodontic practice in West Berlin. Her fairy tale (although she wouldn’t describe it as such) took another positive turn when a French friend of mine brought her to my apartment. He met her while she was on vacation in Spain and wanted me to meet her. Another guest that night was my Navy pilot pal and when my French friend returned to Spain, he and D started a relationship that’s turned into a 35-year marriage.

So…with all due respect Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, you don’t know squat about freedom. You enjoy all the freedoms guaranteed by the US Constitution. Stop snickering, grow up, put a mask on (not this one) and do your job. My friend D is appalled by your behavior. She knows the price of freedom. I hope you don’t have to find it out in the same painful way.

Then and Now…

In the waning days of World War II, France was deeply divided. Invaded in 1940, it quickly capitulated and for four years was humiliated by the German occupation and puppet government in Vichy. 

Local Resistance cells were established throughout the country to aid the Allies and Free French Forces of General Charles de Gaulle’s government in exile, but the majority of French citizens kept their heads down, went carefully about their business, and submitted to the humiliating occupation. 

As the war dragged on the Resistance gained strength, but toward the end it splintered. Factions fought internally and jockeyed for dominance. Today we see them as heroic freedom fighters, but they were deeply divided. And, there was a lot of score-settling against those thought to be collaborators.

All this is described and documented in two recent books about the period – Lynne Olson’s non-fiction thriller Madame Fourcade’s Secret War and Harriet Welty Rochefort’s novel Final Transgression. Olson chronicles the story of the woman who led France’s largest Resistance cell, and Rochefort’s novel recounts the ordeal of a woman caught between her own personal drama and the war’s tensions and factions.

It may seem a stretch, but the current divide in America has similarities. Most Americans are keeping their heads down, going about their business, hoping to escape the scourge of coronavirus while others are engaged in political warfare. 

Some, on the far right, feeding off the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump, have chosen a violent frontal attack on elected officials and institutions while the Black Lives Matter movement copes with the deaths of more than a dozen unarmed black Americans at the hands of white policemen.

America is under attack. The Capitol Building was breached. Five people died. Law enforcement was overwhelmed. Statues smashed. Windows broken. Doors splintered. Offices ransacked. Items stolen.

Vigilantes roamed the halls and chambers with zip ties, a noose, knives, clubs and small arms looking for the Vice-President, Speaker of the House, Senators and Representatives and staff.

In Harriet Rochefort’s novel Final Transgression, an innocent woman is executed because she was in the wrong place with the wrong people. Last week, an unarmed black man was shot by a Columbus Ohio policeman while holding his cellphone up to show he was unarmed. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A hair trigger mistake – like Breonna Taylor.

America is in the throes of mob violence, egged on by a Mob boss and his family, following a failed run for president. And it’s not over. 75 million people voted for him and more than half of them believe his lie that the election was stolen. So much of what makes a nation like ours work is based on good faith and good intentions. The rule of law and the social contract depend on them.

In 1940, jack-booted Germans marched down the Champs-Elysée, and ordinary French citizens wept at the sight. There are no jack-boots on Pennsylvania Avenue yet despite Trump’s sacking of the Pentagon leadership. So far, the miliitary is staying in its own apolitical lane. 

Next Wednesday, at high noon there will be a transfer of power in Washington. President-Elect Joe Biden has said he is not afraid to take the oath of office outside on the inaugural platform. Four-star General Barry McCaffery thinks the ceremony should be moved inside the Capitol to as a precaution. Donald Trump will be nowhere near the action, and that’s good, but his goons will be there. I agree with General McCaffery. We should minimize the risk.

Donald Trump is toast after Wednesday’s Capitol carnage. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Amazon have silenced his voice. His banks have pulled the plug. His donors are fleeing. Corporations have announced they will not support his acolytes and defenders, and the PGA has canceled next year’s PGA Championship at Bedminster. Today the House of Representatives will vote on an Article of Impeachment.

At his Save America Rally prior to the American Carnage experience at the Capitol, Donald Trump Jr. told his father’s enemies, “We’re coming for you. And it will be fun.” Little did he realize those same words might be applied to his family’s criminal enterprise and become the FBI, Justice Department, and the US Congress’s refrain in 2021.

Trump had visions of a jackbooted parade with tanks and missiles driving down Pennsylvania Avenue last year. The Resistance helped defeat the Germans. Hitler died in the Berlin bunker. What will Donald Trump’s fate be?

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

Sometimes good fortune feels like destiny. Stars align and something magical occurs. In the spring of 2001, before 9/11 and 20 years before Covid-19, Marilynn and I rode our bikes from Bordeaux through the Dordogne in southwestern France. No itinerary, just three weeks alone rolling through the countryside. 

We had grown up together, married other people, and were back together after a 40-year break. I had traveled a lot in those 40 years. She had done some but wanted to do more. I asked if she would be willing to try it on a bicycle. She was game and we were off on the first of our ten self-supported bike trips.

We had no set itinerary, just a general plan. Look at the map, work out a tentative destination and go. On that trip we put the bikes together in the parking lot at the Bordeaux airport and rode north toward Margaux and the vineyards of the Medoc. The day was unseasonably hot and traffic leaving the airport was intense. M hates hot weather and dense traffic. Not a promising start but we were finally on the road. 

After an hour of heat ripples and diesel fumes our water bottles were dry and we needed something cool to drink. Unfortunately, between 2 and 6pm French business is out of business. Nothing was open, but we eventually found a bar (closed) where the patron sold us four bottles of Perrier. I poured two over M’s head to cool her off and we drank the other two before resuming the ride north.

We arrived in Margaux late that afternoon only to discover there were no rooms near our price range. The woman at the Syndicat suggested an auberge “about 10km” up the road. 10km is a long way when the sun is setting and your ass is dragging, but we pressed on. It was full too.

Out of pity, the owner of the auberge called back to Margaux and got us a room at one of the pricey chateaux – way over budget.

When we walked in, after retracing the 10km, the woman at reception looked at us as if we were vermin – tired, sunburned, sweaty, and bedraggled – but she grudgingly give us a key to the room. The good news is that we travel light and know how to do it. After showering we dug into our paniers and retrieved our formal attire – always the same – upscale black T-shirts, black jeans, and loafers. When we returned for dinner she nearly fell over; at first failing to recognize us and then treating us like royalty. 

That night we ate on the chateau’s terrace overlooking the vineyard and split a bottle of Margaux’s finest. A memorable day to be sure.


After Day One things got better. The region is phenomenal – scenic, uncrowded, and quintessentially French. We drank the wine of the region, ate foie gras in Perigord, visited the caves at Lascaux, and rode part of the Tour de France course. But, the best and most lasting memory of the trip was a detour that triggered my remark about good fortune, destiny and unplanned magic.

About ten days into the trip, we saw a sign tacked to a fence advertising a B&B. The detour took us off the beaten track and meant climbing a hill then waiting for a shepherd and his flock to clear the road, but eventually we found it in the middle of nowhere–no other houses or village close by. I don’t know how they made it profitable, but Ian and Anne Arnold, two Brit expats, were exceptional hosts we bonded with immediately over a glass of wine and the two big Gibson guitars leaning against the wall.

Ian had driven a big rig (lorry) until his back gave out, and Anne had been a bookkeeper somewhere in the Midlands. They cashed in their life savings and bought this house on the edge of Parc Naturel Regional des Causses. (Think of the sweetest fromage bleu in France). They built a second apartment and small swimming pool on the property and began their life as innkeepers an hour’s ride from Rocamadour, one of the most picturesque villages in France.

That night Ian and I played guitars and drank a couple bottles of local wine along with Anne’s delicious dinner. But the Arnold’s lasting gift was introducing us to the music of Eva Cassidy.

If you don’t recognize the name, Eva Cassidy was an American folk/blues singer who died of melanoma at age 33 and became a huge hit in the UK posthumously. For ten years following her death she topped the charts in UK record sales. She’s, without doubt, my favorite female singer.

Before M gets up, I often listen to her. Last week, I paid special attention to Who Knows Where the Time Goes, the Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention) song. Its words have special meaning at this time of life.

M and I lost track of Ian and Anne a few years ago. We exchanged a letter or two, but the address we had no longer works. When I tried to find them recently I learned that they sold the B&B in 2005. Life is like that. It was one night in rural France 20 years ago. Unplanned but magical. Good fortune feels like destiny.

Who knows where the time goes?

Art in the Pandemic Era…

If art, music, dance, or theater were an important part of your world earlier, the pandemic has turned it upside down. With the ability to travel, attend events and visit museums limited, we have been left casting about for alternatives. Art is meant to be experiential—best when it’s a one-on-one experience with the original. 

A picture can’t begin to deliver the feeling of standing next to Michelangelo’s statue of David at the Accademia in Florence. In its presence the stone pulses with energy, muscles ripple, veins throb and eyelids almost blink.

But, in the Covid-19 era we have to make do with facsimiles – photographs, recordings, videos, and webinars mixed with our own personal memories. At a remove – second best – but still satisfying. 

Recently, two of my favorite artists, Tony Foster and Donald Judd, were subjects of webinars—the art galleries of the pandemic. Tony is an English watercolorist whom I have known for almost 30 years, and Donald Judd, is the eccentric monumental minimalist (my label) who took over a Texas town and turned it into an art destination. I’ve been a fan of both for years and this month both were celebrated in online webinars.

Tony was interviewed by Duncan Robinson the former director of both the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and the Yale Center for British Art, and a few days later David Zwirner hosted a webinar honoring Donald Judd, who died in 1994, and whose retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art with simultaneous exhibits at Zwirner’s three New York galleries is the biggest art event of this very difficult year. 

Before I started this essay, I asked Tony if I could use online reproductions of his work and he enthusiastically agreed. He told me he’d “be pleased to be next to Donald Judd.”

Tony is not, as you may have guessed, your average watercolorist. The Cornwall native is as much explorer and environmentalist as he is painter. His studio is “the world’s wild places” where for over 40 years he has set about creating Journeys – paintings of mountains and canyons, rainforests and deserts, the Arctic and tropics–no small achievement for a watercolor artist. 

This is Tony on one of his Journeys – scrolled paper in the tube, a portable chair and easel, a paintbox the size of an Altoid tin, and a handful of very expensive sable brushes – always the same whether he’s painting the South American rainforest, Everest at the 18,000’ level, the jungles of Borneo, the waterfalls of Guyana, or descending into the Grand Canyon.

I met Tony through a friend who had traveled with him on some of his Journeys. Then, in 1998, they invited me to join them on an 18-day raft trip down the Colorado where Tony planned to paint a suite of Grand Canyon paintings.

It was a remarkable trip and watching Tony work as we descended through that majestic canyon gave me an enhanced appreciation for how he delivers his creative and environmental vision. These are not sketchbook size works; the largest are up to 7′ long, and all include written diary notes, small artifacts, and maps of the areas explored. Tony sees these wild places as endangered remnants of earth’s history and feels compelled to memorialize, highlight, and preserve them.

His work is also unusual in that some early admirers recognized that the paintings in each Journey were part of a collective vision, and hoped individual paintings would not be sold piecemeal. As a result, a fund was created and a 14,000 square foot museum/gallery, named The Foster, was built in Palo Alto, California, to house, rotate, and display the work as a whole. In non-Covid times, The Foster is open to the public. Check out the website at for regular hours.

It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast in visual art than Tony’s detailed small scale watercolors and Donald Judd’s large sculptural work. I admire both–their range, variety, and differences in aesthetic–but they are polar opposites in scale.

In the 1950s, Donald Judd was an successful artist/art critic based in New York City but by 1971 he became disenchanted with the New York art scene and needed more space. Earlier, he had fallen in love with West Texas, so in 1973 he purchased two large army hangers in the town of Marfa, followed in 1979 by the purchase of Fort D.A. Russell, a decommissioned Army base. Judd was an artist with a “monumental” vision.

The story of Donald Judd and Marfa is fascinating and well-documented in a coffee-table book created by the Chinati Foundation, the non-profit he created to “present and preserve a select number of permanent installations inextricably linked to the surrounding landscape.”

In 1986, he began inviting artists he admired to integrate their works into Chinati (named for the nearby mountains). When you own an Army base there’s room for almost anything, and Donald Judd gave each of eleven artist friends a barracks building to create and integrate their artistic visions. Among the famous artists in this group are Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg, and Carl Andre.

M and I visited Marfa on a tour of West Texas in 2018. Fifty years after Judd moved to Marfa, it’s become a well-established art destination, e.g. one day at lunch we spotted Anthony Bourdain in the restaurant, and later that year the Marfa installment of Parts Unknown was one of the last he did before his suicide. We spent three days in Marfa including a day long private tour of Chinati led by Sterry Butcher, a local who writes a monthly column for Texas Monthly. Great trip.

My favorite example of Judd’s eccentric vision is this hangar, filled with 100 milled aluminum “boxes,” each of which is different though they share identical dimensions. Judd redesigned the hangar, added floor to ceiling windows so the only light admitted would be natural light allowing the boxes to change color as the sun moves across the West Texas prairie.

An enormous amount has been written about both of these artists, but I was taken as much by the idea of how we experience art during the pandemic as by the art itself. I feel the same about music, film, dance, and theater, so I plan to write about those experiences in upcoming posts. They are art at a remove, but they are not unsatisfying…just different. Watch this space.