Don’t Learn About Art THIS Way!


Heavy-handed enough to have done an ad for Conjecturism.

None too subtle was Theodore Shaw, the inventor of Conjecturism, a theory of art criticism that he invented, and continued to peddle via double-truck ads in newspaper supplements and various sectarian-intellectual journals of the 1940s-60s (Commonweal, Commentary, Partisan Review). Many people heard of Conjecturism the first time when someone at the National Lampoon (Sean Kelly? Henry Beard?) did a full-page parody of the ads. This would have been about 1973, by which time the train had left the station. “Don’t Learn About Art This Way!” The visual was an extremely heavy-handed cartoon in the charcoal-and-crayon style of the 1930s. That’s all I can tell you.


Crime and Punishment at the Art Students League

Our very own Mr. Ian Stuart Dowdy of the Art Students League likes to tell the tale of how he was responsible for the death of an old lady he was supposed to be taking care of. Old Mrs. Voorhees-Rohr was often bedridden with a prolapsed colon and needed round-the-clock care. As no nurse or home-care-giver was available on a live-in basis (this was during the War), and the live-in maid did not wish to do this sort of work, Mrs. V-R had her attorney look for a young man or woman who could move into the spare bedroom down the hall. A day or two later our own Ian Stuart Dowdy appeared and you can guess the rest.

A willowy, good-hearted young bit of artsy flotsam, Dowdy was very much an urban “type” of the era. Too snooty to be ribbon clerks at Bonwit Teller, young fellows of this breed very frequently found sinecures as caretakers of enfeebled old ladies and gentlemen or even the odd congenital idiot with a monied family who did not wish to shut him up in an institution.

house09The Voorhees-Rohr mansion on West End Avenue, one of the original houses in the neighborhood, was in a parlous state. Electricity had not been “laid on” until the mid-1920s, and that had been done so quickly and amateurishly, by the son of an Italian cobbler (who has now inherited his father’s shoe-repair shop on Amsterdam Avenue), that the fuses blew whenever you tried to run more than two appliances at once. Our Mr. Dowdy learned this the hard way. He was bathing old Mrs. Voorhees-Rohr’s feet in the new electric footbath her sister had given her for Christmas 1933 (but which she had never opened), and thought some music might be pleasant. So he started up a Lawrence Tibbett recording on the plug-in Victrola, forgetting first to switch off the big Atwater-Kent radio because its volume had been turned down. Immediately the house was in darkness.

“The gas! The gas!” shouted old Mrs. Voorhees-Rohr. It took a while for Ian Stuart Dowdy to figure out that she meant the gaslight sconces that hung on the walls and still functioned, most of them. Soon the room was bathed in that soft, ethereal glow that only gas can provide; and Mr. Dowdy headed for the stairwell to find the fusebox.

This was nearly a weekly routine at the Voorhees-Rohr residence, and helps to explain why old Mrs. Voorhees-Rohr had never had the gas lighting removed. There was the ever-present danger that gas would leak from an unlit, broken fixture; and indeed, one could detect a bit of gassy smell in some parts of the mansion; but Mrs. Voorhees-Rohr had finessed that problem by leaving a window open in every room of the house. Mr. Dowdy did not understand this, and shut all the windows one cool night in October. Livid and hysterical the way only the old and disabled can be, Mrs. Voorhees-Rohr screamed at the top of her lungs that Dowdy was trying to kill her. People in the neighboring houses heard this and sent the police over to remonstrate with the confused and by now very frightened young caregiver.

Nevertheless, when Mrs. Voorhees-Rohr met her extremely timely end, it was not because of a gas leak. Mr. Dowdy was forbearing and meticulous, and taught himself to disconnect all electrical devices that were not being used. A full month went by without blowing a fuse. Then one day when Mr. Dowdy was briefly out of the room, Mrs. Voorhees-Rohr herself turned on the radio while running both the electric footbath and the plug-in Victrola. Patient as Job, Ian Stuart Dowdy headed on down to the under-stairs to check the fuses. While he did so, Mrs. Voorhees-Rohr helpfully attempted to disconnect the footbath, the radio, and the Victrola. But her grasp of the plugs was uncertain. Just as Dowdy was screwing in a new fuse, she electrocuted herself.

“She should never have had electricity put in in the first place,” was the opinion of old Mr. Burnington, the sexton from Blessed Sacrament Church on West 71st St. He had an old carriage house on the other side of Amsterdam that would remain the last non-electric holdout in the neighborhood until he passed on in 1959.

Regardless, most people believed that Ian Stuart Dowdy was somewhat to blame for Mrs. Voorhees-Rohr’s death. Neighbors rejoiced when it was reported in the Herald-Tribune that the dowager had left her caregiver absolutely nothing in her will.

It was 1950 before the Voorhees-Rohr heirs were able to evict Mr. Dowdy from the mansion with the help of a $10,000 bribe. By this time they were so sick of the old house that they decided to have it torn down and replaced with one of those ugly brick apartment buildings that were just coming into vogue. Mr. Dowdy meanwhile embellished his tale through many retellings, so that today he himself half-believes that he killed the old lady, and that it was a clear case of justifiable euthanasia.


A Common House Pet Becomes a Harbor Seal

Puijila_BWPuijila darwini resembles a common house pet, and could easily be mistaken for an otter or large stoat. However, it is actually the ancestor of the walrus, sea lion, harbor seal, and other popular members of the pinniped family. What happened was that it swam in freshwater lakes and streams and somehow got washed out to sea.


Vladimir Putin and the World of Art

The world was in quite a pickle in 1944, the year Vladimir Putin was born. The Germans were being chased out of the Baltic Countries (soon to become slave satrapies of the USSR) and the historic Hanseatic Port of Riga was now a huge concentration camp, where eleven million prisoners of all nationalities were forced to build Liberty Ships until they dropped dead from hunger.

putinLittle Vladimir knew nothing of this. His father was a leading apparatchiknik in the Bottle City of Kandor, beyond the Urals. Vlad lived a sheltered life. So sheltered that when he was fourteen and sent to prep school, the other boys laughed at him when the instructor asked for High Points of the Great Patriotic War and Vladimir Putin suggested the Battle of Mukden.

Vladimir didn’t mind. He consoled himself with his Paint-by-Numbers set (a legacy from his wealthy aunt) and dreamt of the day when the finest trollops and art galleries down Nevsky Prospekt would vie for his favors.

How Vladimir loved coming home for the long holidays! The soft incandescent light burning in the hallways, showing the way to the Fabergé-tiled washroom with the gold-plated faucets; for this had once been the dacha of Grand Duke Nicholas.

Philly-pretzel“Would you like soft pretzel for little breakfast, Vladimir Ivanovichki?” his mother whistled down the hall, using the diminutive of the familiar patronymic. “Soft pretzel good, come all way from Philadelphiosk!”


Soft Pretzels in the Quaker City

How did soft pretzels conquer the Quaker City? It all began about 1850, when an order of nuns decided to bake and sell soft pretzels in order to raise money for a school softball team. In those days pretzels cost only one cent, or three pretzels for a nickel. Soon someone noticed that it all looked like a scam, as softball hadn’t been invented yet. “This is true,” said Mother Superior Annabelle Drexel, OSX, “there is no softball. In truth, we are raising money for our field hockey and cricket teams.” Such a scandal resulted from this admission that the order of nuns had to move themselves and their school out to the farmlands of Radnor, where they built a pretzel factory that lasts to this day.


Art for the Masses

A glorious thing with fiction, art, poetry, and protest from the irreverent radical magazine that shocked American manners and morals. Begun in Greenwich Village in 1911 and ended by the Post Office in 1917, The Masses’ circulation was never large. But the magazine was big in importance and excitement, had a splendid sense of humor, and rang bells worth hearing today. In these pages you will find brilliant artists and cartoonists, some of the best journalists in our history, shrewd and caustic propagandists, and gifted poets and writers of fiction. The 9×12 format beautifully displays the contributions of Sherwood Bloo, Stuart Gosdick, Jack Dumm, Emma Gefiltefish, Louis Sugarman, George Blowhard, Floyd Cowbell, Art Jung, Boardman Swissfam, Upton Dinosaur, Amy Armadildo, Carl Rutabaga, John Rural, and a million others.

[jwplayer player=”1″ mediaid=”43″]C’mon Get Happy, 1929, with Joe Frisco


Series of Poems You Ought to Know

The Conundrum of the Workshops
By Rudyard Kipling

WHEN the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

baphomet01Wherefore he called to his wife and fled to fashion his work anew— 5
The first of his race who cared a fig for the first, most dread review;
And he left his lore to the use of his sons—and that was a glorious gain
When the Devil chuckled: “Is it Art?” in the ear of the branded Cain.

They builded a tower to shiver the sky and wrench the stars apart,
Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks: “It’s striking, but is it Art?” 10
The stone was dropped by the quarry-side, and the idle derrick swung,
While each man talked of the aims of art, and each in an alien tongue.

They fought and they talked in the north and the south, they talked and they fought in the west,
Till the waters rose on the jabbering land, and the poor Red Clay had rest—
Had rest till the dank blank-canvas dawn when the dove was preened to start, 15
And the Devil bubbled below the keel: “It’s human, but is it Art?”

The tale is old as the Eden Tree—as new as the new-cut tooth—
For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows he is master of Art and Truth;
And each man hears as the twilight nears, to the beat of his dying heart,
The Devil drum on the darkened pane: “You did it, but was it Art?” 20

We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree to the shape of a surplice-peg,
We have learned to bottle our parents twain in the yolk of an addled egg,
We know that the tail must wag the dog, as the horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: “It’s clever, but is it Art?”

When the flicker of London’s sun falls faint on the club-room’s green and gold, 25
The sons of Adam sit them down and scratch with their pens in the mold—
They scratch with their pens in the mold of their graves, and the ink and the anguish start
When the Devil mutters behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it art?”

Now, if we could win to the Eden Tree where the four great rivers flow,
And the wreath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it long ago, 30
And if we could come when the sentry slept, and softly scurry through,
By the favor of God we might know as much—as our father Adam knew.


Low Man on Totem Pole

Results aren’t in yet, but it appears that Gravlax Hoonersby, Jr. has been unanimously voted Low Man on the Totem Pole.

I am not astounded by the ostensible recipient; I always knew Hoonersby had it in him. What amazes me is that the Totem Pole Society of Greater Lankenau created the award in the first place.

lowmantotempoleYou know how it is with awards. They are usually given out at some public gathering or ceremony, with the photographer from the Daily Yokel Gazette in attendance. A middle-aged man in a well-cut suit (or an elderly lady in a very ill-cut but expensive suit) is seen handing a trophy or plaque or large cardboard citation to someone, and that’s the lead photo on tomorrow’s newspaper.

Sometimes it’s a cop who’s getting the award, sometimes it’s one of the Boy Sprouts. Once, when I was covering the financial beat for the Winnetka Star-Mucilage, I saw a lady in full Scottish regalia receiving a scroll.

It was quite impressive. She had a tartan sash, and kilt, and plaid overseas cap. The works. A sporran too, I think, not that she needed one.

My guess was she was dressed that way because she had to go to a fancy-dress party right afterwards. She probably worked the award into her act, said she was playing the headmistress at awards day at a Scottish boarding school.

scottish-costume-awardI wonder how well that went over in Winnetka. There are lots of Scots in the North Shore area, but they’re not really your boarding-school types. Schoolteachers and electricians mainly, the kind of folks who think they’re lucky if their kid gets into New Trier West.

And as for that big certificate she received, I’ll bet she gave it away to some guy dressed as Syngman Rhee, and now this Rhee fellow, who is actually a CPA named Angus McGlamorhoochie, has the award for being Top Scottish Lady or whatever the thing says.

I missed the Midwestern love of plaques and trophies when the syndicate hired me and sent me east to Philadelphia. In the City of Brotherly Love they are very stingy with their awards. In fact, the only award I ever saw anybody ever get (apart from the annual newspapermen’s shindig, where everyone gets a prize) was for soft pretzels.

Pretzels in the Quaker City are quite unlike anything you’ve had anywhere else. Imagine some kneaded bread dough that’s been rolled into a figure-eight the length of a baby’s arm,  broiled a few minutes on both sides, misted with water and sprinkled with rock salt.

Actually that’s pretty difficult to imagine.

Pretzel_boys-1But what you end up with are  these soft, damp, salted ropes of dough, sold out of brown paper bags on every street corner in Center City. Everyone buys them. Not just one—they used to be a nickel, now they’re usually a dime—but three or four at a time! They come conjoined, like egg cartons. The salesman just breaks off a rack of four or five and you hand him your fifty-cent piece.

Speaking of Ben Franklin, they didn’t have soft pretzels in his day. In those days Philadelphia was famous for things like pepper-pot soup. And I think oatmeal. That’s why there’s an old Quaker on the Quaker Oats box!

Bet you didn’t know that!

Next week: All About Philadelphia and Soft Pretzels!


Video tests

C’mon Get Happy, 1929, with Joe Frisco

Our friend David Sheean of Galena, Illinois writes that he is looking for information on and friends of the late Joe Frisco.


If These Old Bones Could Talk!


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