Yet Another Moral Alphabet of Vice and Folly

Illustrations and text by Stan Washburn


An Art Dealer’s genius lay in convincing the well-to-do with no taste of their own that the gaudy work he sold for such absurd prices was culturally exciting, and a shrewd investment into the bargain. His buyers’ coteries, also without taste but eager to be in fashion, hastened to the gallery to brandish their checkbooks and bask in the dealer’s flatteries. And so he prospered.

            Moral: The innocent venture downtown at their peril.

A Barista was unsettled by the seemingly feminine gender of his job title. He took to referring himself as a baristo, but was so much laughed at that he took to liquor, and became a bartender instead.

            Moral: Always play to your strong suit.

A Cashier had started out in the old days when people paid cash for purchases. He’d loved handling the bills and coins large and small, shuffling them in and out all day long. But now no one used cash. They inserted cards to pay, and when they went for self-checkout he had nothing to do at all. Until one day a lady his age timidly offered actual money. His delight charmed her, and she him. They were soon wed, and hurried away together into happy retirement.

            Moral: Some people just luck out.

A Doomsayer was so full of gloomy pronouncements that his friends got bored with it and told him to talk about something cheerful for heaven’s sake. Startled, he said something appreciative of butterflies—which set his head off in a whole new direction, and abruptly, wonderfully, he began to notice life’s many beauties.

            Moral: Always notice the butterflies.

An Eccentric began to wonder where his various oddities came from. He consulted a psychiatrist who told him he was clearly batty and put him down for two sessions a week. But the shrink’s fees were so outrageous that the eccentric decided that being a little odd beats getting robbed, and cancelled the whole business.

            Moral: It’s good to keep one’s sense of proportion.

A Fraudster created a website to send out emails soliciting contributions to non-existent charities. The kind-hearted would respond; the money disappeared, of course. But the fraudster, while crafty at fraud, was no tekkie, and a bored police clerk took three minutes to trace his site back to his home address. Officers met him at the door and hauled him away. 

            Moral: Always hire a tekkie.

 A Gangster was approaching his favorite bar as two robbers burst out, their hands full of money. He whipped out his pistol and shot them both dead. Then he gathered up the money and took it back into the bar. Scratching his head, the bartender asked how a gangster could object to robbers. “Because this is my favorite bar,” replied the gangster, a little puzzled by the question.

            Moral: We all make exceptions.

A Heroine rescued a group of children trapped in a burning schoolhouse. Great acclimation followed, with multitudinous expressions of thanks and adoration. This was very gratifying for a while, but the heroine, quiet and inward by nature, began to feel oppressed by it. At length she quit her job and fled far enough that she could be unknown and start again.

            Moral: Sometimes a pat on the back is plenty.

An Ignoramus lucked out on the lottery, and was suddenly very wealthy. Everyone who knew him flocked around, eager to inveigle him into bankrolling this or that cunning venture that would surely lead to riches. But the ignoramus, seeing no point in these schemes, sent them away. He was up to the eyeballs in money already—didn’t they get that?

            Moral: Those around you will have their own trains of thought.

A Jailor started up suddenly in bed. He’d dreamt that he was laid off because there were no prisoners in his jail. But now awake he thought of all the cops busily hauling the perps in, and the judges busily ruling to keep them there, and lawyers bustling on all sides. A whole lively industry, in other words, surrounded him. No reason to worry: there would always be prisoners. Relieved, he sank back in bed, and was soon asleep.

            Moral: Even silly nightmares can be scary.

A Kibitzer, watching a poker game, made the mistake of bursting into laughter over a player’s hand. She threw down her cards, jumped up and punched him on the nose. The whole table sprang up, clapping and whooping. Stepping over the kibitzer writhing on the floor they hustled the lady off to the bar, where she was admired by all, and drinks were on the house.

            Moral: Some community expressions are livelier than others.

A Lickspittle was so adroit at truckling, fawning, and toadying that the powerful loved having him around, and regularly promoted him until he found himself as powerful as they were. Whereupon he pushed them out and took over. Soon he was himself surrounded with lickspittles. He loved having them around, and regularly promoted them, not noticing that they were becoming as powerful as he was. It could not end happily.

            Moral: Pay attention to patterns.

A Mailman–a small, eager fellow–was fascinated by the high-toned journals that passed through his hands–so much so that he would often take one home to read that night, and deliver the following day. Or in some knotty cases, in two or three days. This discommoded the high-toned professor on his route, who nevertheless couldn’t bring himself to complain about it. He would see the little mailman trotting up to his house, and fold his hands in resignation.

            Moral: Some inconveniences should be kindly borne.

A Neanderthal, sensitive to the intellectual deficiencies of his community, proposed a university–Neanderthal U–to set the future on a brighter path. But others in his cave pointed out that if in fact everyone was as dim as they seemed to be, there really wasn’t much point in a university, was there? Besides, the day was so absorbed in the unrelenting struggle to fend off starvation that nobody would have much time for studies, would they? And so the proposal died.

            Moral: Visionaries don’t always put their finger on it.

An Octogenarian suffered many of the afflictions common to the elderly, but refused to be downcast on that account. The comforting thing about old age, she smiled, is that you know it’s not a permanent condition.

            Moral: Sometimes it’s peaceful to be realistic.

A Patient, having rejected all sensible medical advice, came to his deathbed a good deal sooner than necessary. “But at least,” he wheezed, “I never let them boss me around.” His nurse tiptoed out to the corridor to laugh. She repeated what he’d said to other nurses. They split their sides in mirth. Soon the whole hospital was rocking as the fellow breathed his last. 

            Moral: Even those who can’t inspire can still amuse.

A Quartermaster, bored with running his base just like every other, turned to unorthodox choices just for the hell of it. He bunked the sexes together, for starters, and promoted exotic menus in the canteen. Everyone loved it. The high command would reverse it all as soon as they found out what was going on, but in the meantime troops who encountered the quartermaster around the place wished they could rush over and give him happy hugs and enormous kisses. It happened twenty times a day, and set everyone to smiling.

            Moral: You may think you understand the military.

A Rake, turning gray and a little pot-bellied, found himself less and less successful in his efforts to seduce women. He was still witty, still knew how to lay a spicy compliment, could still afford glamorous restaurants and expensive champaign. But there was no getting around the fact that he was turning gray and a little pot-bellied.

            Moral: Don’t wait.

A Safecracker grew discontented with the undignified nature of his work, and resolved to find some more elevated mode of life. He enrolled in college, majoring in philosophy. But he found upon graduation that he couldn’t make philosophy pay, and soon he was back to safecracking simply to cover his bills.

            Moral: The world is as it is.

A Tekkie got so bored with her tasks that one day she fell asleep in front of her screen. This was viewed on the network by numerous colleagues. The unexpected sight oddly soothed them, and they began to drift off in their turn. Untouched, their computers began to go dark, one by one.

            Moral: Sometimes pleasant things just happen.

An Unbeliever would have found belief comforting if only she thought it made sense. Her religious friends pointed out that belief involves a leap of faith rather than a chain of reason. The unreason of faith made sense to the unbeliever, but only confirmed her original difficulty, and she was left just where she had been before.

            Moral: Religion is no simple matter.

A Valkyrie grew oppressed by her duty to decide who would be victorious in battle, and who would be slain. “Who am I to make such decisions?” she asked herself. She took to tossing a coin: heads they live, tails they die. But the other valkyries noticed what she was doing, and made such a fuss about it that she had to go back to making individual calls. 

            Moral: It’s smoothest to respect convention.

A Widow lamented the death of her husband of many years. Her consolation was that now she could cancel their subscription to the opera. It had been his passion, but had always bored her.

            Moral: Just be patient. 

A Xenophobe found Chinatown quite astonishing. Threading his way along the busy streets he shook his head in disbelief at all the people babbling in Chinese. He was going to a little restaurant with an incomprehensible window sign in Chinese characters where nevertheless the cute waitress would bring him the Tea Smoked Duck he loved. And the cute waitress he loved as well, although she seemed to speak no English at all. He came there often.

            Moral: We don’t have to let our attitudes get in our way.

A Youth, full of beans, set himself in pursuit of a pretty girl who was herself full of beans in pursuit of her studies–so full, indeed, that she had little attention for the beans of others, however full of them they might be.

            Moral: Beans don’t make it on their own.

A Zealot was so ideologically rigid that he was presented with an awkward dilemma: how was he supposed to get laid? A true zealot, he recognized, can’t bed just any old bourgeoise bimbo, and the zealous women he knew were all spoken for. Really, he could see no workable solution.

            Moral: Sometimes you just have to relax.


A New Moral Alphabet of Vice and Folly

Illustrations and Text by Stan Washburn


An Astronomer gifted his son with an expensive telescope to encourage his fascination with the infinite grandeur of the skies. But the boy was already fascinated: the new girl next door. Just his age. Right there. No telescope required.

Moral: First things first.

A Beautician did what was possible, but her client left no tip, sulking that she’d had higher expectations. “Next time try a magician!” cried the beautician. She was instantly fired, but minutes later, stepping into the street, she laughed and clapped her hands and did a little dance right there on the sidewalk.

Moral: Sometimes it’s worth it to say what’s on your mind.

A Clairvoyant foresaw misery and disaster for certain of her clients, but hadn’t the heart to tell them. Instead, she foretold sunny prospects of love and fulfillment. Her dishonesty troubled her, but the upside was that happy clients keep coming back, and she was raking it in. “It can’t be all bad,” she considered.

Moral: It gets tricky when you have a business to run.

A Diva, hugely inhaling, burst her bodice. The applause was thunderous. “I’m onto something,” she thought, beaming generously. “I must speak to my dresser.”

Moral: Pay attention to your audience.

An Entertainer, massaging the truth to punch up his routine, noticed that his audiences didn’t quibble about facts so long as he delivered on hilarity. Which suggested a career in public office. He triumphed, thanks to his command of truthy entertainment, style and flash, smoke and mirrors.

Moral: And then we wonder why democracy is shaky.

A Farmer delighted in the intelligent and eager nature of his hogs. Then one day he tripped and fell among the creatures. They swarmed over him. Only fragments of his larger bones, well gnawed, were later found.

Moral: Reciprocity is not always a feature of relationships.

A Gourmand indulged himself prodigiously in all categories of food and drink. “You won’t last long if you keep this up,” intoned his physician. “C’est la vie,” shrugged the gourmand, anxious not to miss his luncheon reservation.

Moral: It’s good to die happy.

A Hunter, disconcerted by the gory presence of his kill, resolved never to hunt again. But he continued to eat meat, neglecting the fact that the decorous cuts he found at the butcher were simply gory kills perpetrated by somebody else.

Moral: A blind eye is to conscience as oil is to machinery.

An Idealist, brooding upon the world, concluded that as a practical matter the grossly imperfect is about as okay as things are likely to get. “So why struggle,” she wondered—“unless things get even worse because I’m just sitting here.” Eyes down, she devoted herself to hopeful causes.

Moral: You never know.

A Jester made the classic jester error of cracking a joke about the empress. She was not amused, and ordered him thrown into the dungeon; but he pointed out that she was getting the last laugh, so he had, in fact, given her amusement. Which she had to admit, and in fairness released him.

Moral: Humor is one of those subtle things.

A Kingmaker was suddenly struck with the conviction that he ought to be employing his clout in the public good rather than for low partisan ends. This stopped him. But then what? What is the public good? He had no idea. He’d never thought about it. And what about his reputation? And his livelihood? He poured himself a stiff one and stirred uneasily.

Moral: Ethical insight can lead you down a twisty road.

A Librarian was so unrelenting in her espousal of highfalutin books that people found it fatiguing to be around her. But one day she let slip that she kept a stash of murder mysteries and romances hidden under her bed, and loved them. Word got around, and her circle warmed to her.

Moral: You can only be so much better than your neighbors.

A Madam amused her girls with delicious accounts from the time of her own youth and beauty. As it happened, most of her tales were false, but nobody questioned happy flights of fancy that lightened the grueling spirit of a brothel.

Moral: Honesty isn’t the only virtue.

A Nymph grew bored with a life of lolling about in romantic landscapes. She applied to law school, but the uproar when she arrived at her first lecture—in the nude, naturally, being a nymph—astonished her. The school manual, she pointed out, didn’t mention clothes—and she was beginning to wonder whether the law could really be so very lofty a calling as everyone made out.

Moral: ­­­­­­­­­Nothing is quite as impressive up close.

An Ogre couple quarreled over issues of cuisine. She preferred their kills well done, while he insisted that they come to the table still bloody. But in time they grew tired of bickering, and turned vegan to neutralize the point of contention.

Moral: Life is easier if you can be a little flexible.

A Politician approached the Gates of Hell in very natural terror of the torments said to await predators like himself. But the fiends on duty greeted him cordially as a brother, and urged him to carry on Below just as he had Above.

Moral: It’s warm to find yourself among kindred spirits.

A Queen groaned at the endless grand ceremonials and fancy weddings. She winced at the absurd immensity and gaudy vulgarity of her palaces. The ostentation of her royal carriages appalled her. On the other hand, everyone was polite to her, money was never a problem, and the food was good.

Moral: Learn to take the rough with the smooth.

A Recluse applied himself so compulsively to abstruse researches that his social life dwindled away to nothing. The intellectual lady down the hall was attracted to him, but she was immersed in arcana of her own, and between them they could never quite find the time.

Moral: Sometimes there’s nothing to be done.

A Scholar promised his wife to thin out the endless jumble of books and papers cluttering their apartment. But before he got around to it, the bust of a philosopher, teetering on an insecure stack of journals, fell on his head, and his widow was left to clear away the mess.

Moral: Do it now.

A Tooth Fairy, after many happy years of whispering past sleeping munchkins to leave a treat under the pillow, worried that she was in a rut. But bending an elbow at the Fairy Bar, a colleague told her to relax. “I’ve done some pillow work on a fill-in basis,” said she. “Love those kids. I’d get a transfer if I could.”

Moral: Novelty isn’t everything.

An Umpire found it depressing to be constantly yelled at. But he remembered those blood-curdling accounts of crowds in ancient Rome howling for the slaughter of innocents, gladiators, or anyone else who wound up in the arena. It soothed him after a game to ruminate on those stories—running his mind over the details—savoring them.

Moral: It’s comforting to know you’re not the only one.

A Voter, presented with a choice between two detested candidates, swore he wouldn’t vote at all. But he’d always despised your namby-pamby non-voter. And of course, detestation is incremental: 49 percent is not as bad as 51 percent. Holding his nose, he marked his ballot for the slightly less detested option.

Moral: 49 percent is not as bad as 51 percent.

A Witch, tiring of her dreary traditional costume, whipped up something livelier—a little dash, a little skin, a little attitude. Warlocks loved it, and other witches saw that she was on to something. Her social life picked up wonderfully, and she had to move her coven to a more capacious ossuary.

Moral: Go for bold.

A Xylophonist, busking, noticed a famous promoter lingering near her for a long moment before passing on. She felt a great surge of hope: surely he would be back. Eagerly she played until dark and after dark and far into the night on the deserted street.

Moral: Hope sustains but does not enlighten us.

A Yachtsman, far from shore, ran his boat onto a rock. It began to sink. He was a renowned scientist, an admired social commentator, a fabled ladies’ man; none of this was of present use to him. What he needed now was advanced swimming skills, which he’d neglected.

Moral: Attributes are valued according to circumstance.

A Zombie was bored chasing her diet of human brains and flesh, but of course this was all that preserved her from being entirely dead. She took to dating highbrow intellectuals so that, before dinner at any rate, she could enjoy a more stimulating social life than is generally experienced by those in her situation.

Moral: Sometimes it’s hard to read new friends.


This blog is resting for awhile.

 

E.H. SHEPARD

I was raised on Ernest H. Shepard’s illustrations for the Winnie the Pooh books, but for some reason Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In the Willows never found me until recently. Better late than never.

Shepard worked in vignettes, letting the edges go, by which device he focussed in on his perfectly selected details. And his style, while very free, is by no means wild–notice, for example, how he doesn’t bring the background tone quite down on the heads as he does on the backs. 

 

Rat and Mole

His characters are so animated. Look at the fingers on Toad’s left hand as he pulls on his glove.

 

Toad of Toad Hall

 

His humans are quite as colorful as his critters.

 

the Bench of Magistrates

Toad in the dock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wonderful stuff, stylish and intimate at the same time.

 

NON-SCHNABEL BEACH

I am not a fan of the work of Julian Schnabel (vide July 7, below). 

 

“Pascin Pig Passin Time” 1983 [Artsy]

 

But I’m reminded of his labored crockery paintings by the shore of an inlet off San Francisco Bay, in Richmond. Right across the road from Costco, as a matter of fact. Visible only at very low tide.

Decades ago, the Tepco Crockery factory used this bit of shore as a dumping site for a zillion pieces of  broken crockery.* 

 

 

Waves and the tides have spread  them in a thin, crackly layer over the beach, and colored them, creating of them something between lively rubbish and an engaging effect of nature. 

 

 

They have the advantage that no one has muddled their charm by painting over them.

 

 

 

* reported by Brody at odysseyseaglass.com

 

DALI BLUE

One of the characteristics of oil paint is that it grows transparent as it ages. When the paint is applied in thin glazes, underwork eventually begins to show through. As in Salvador Dali’s “Portrait of Dorothy Spreckels Munn” (1942) in the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.

 

 

Here we can see that Dali hogged in the whole piece from the horizon line down in blue, and then painted the foreground, including the figure, on top. Now the foreground glazes are going transparent, and the underpainting begins to tint what lies over it. This is especially visible in her right arm, but in fact the whole figure, including her dress, are noticeably darker and cooler below the horizon than above.

 

 

This is quite a common effect in older paintings done in glazes. Below, “Owl’s Head, Penobscot Bay, Maine,” (1862) by Fitz Hugh Lane. It was painted from back to front; the farther shore and far mountains, laid in first, are visible through the sails of the ship. Working this way let the artist build the image in thin, delicate tones, and saved him from having to fill in pesky little background shapes that might muddle the main action. 

 

 

Considering that transparency is an old and well-known characteristic of the medium, you’d have thought that Dali would have been more adroit.

 

SIDEWALK DELIGHTS

Followers of this blog will know, of course, that we ponder only the most lofty and profound questions of art, except when, as now, we pause to notice odd, nifty little things.

As here. Every year dozens and dozens of youngsters fan out to execute pastels on the sidewalk on a shopping street in my neighborhood. As you’d expect, much of what they do is no more than cheerful scribble, but here and there you find engaging, imaginative images.

 

 

Staying within the bounds of one concrete square enforces a compositional discipline they might not enjoy if they were spreading out vaguely over unrestricted space.

Fascinating in the piece below is the repetition of colors in the eyes and the voice balloon. If a mature artist had done that, we would all be chattering about the insightful connection between observation and belief. 

 

 

 

Above, a catalogue of delights.

 

 

Rainbows seem to have been a widely adopted theme, but put to a variety of uses.

 

 

Those waves must have come from someplace, but no artist invents everything, and here they are convincingly folded into the narrative. The pattern on the bathing suit. So much going on.

 

 

TWO MORE CEZANNES

Recurring to the subject of Cezanne’s methods (see July 28 below), consider two portraits of Antony Valabrègue, done about five years apart. One is so much better than the other.

24 x 20″ 1869-70

25 x 21″ 1874-5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The earlier piece is just plopped down. The parts are there, but flatly, just showing up for duty.

As opposed to the later piece, where the beard, for example, comes and goes, full of little spritzes and subtleties. The hair and hairline—that delightful escaping ear, and the lock of hair behind it. The shoulders skipping downward, alive with action. The bouncy eyes and brows. Every line and shape witty and on the go.

Every artist, of course, has a range of success. But it’s worth taking a minute to see what that range is, and notice the reasons.

 

pics from Cezanne Portraits by John Elderfield

PICKETT? REALLY?

Recently, paging happily through “The New Yorker Album of Art & Artists,”* I stopped to enjoy the classic Tobey cartoon after “The Sleeping Gypsy” by Henri Rousseau, c. 1897. I’d admired this many times before, but never bothered to notice the painting on the wall to the left.

 

It is “Manchester Valley” by Joseph Pickett (1849-1918). 

When discussing avant-garde art, the name of Joseph Pickett is not on every lip. But “Manchester Valley” is, in fact, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and hung in the museum’s 25th Anniversary Exhibition in 1954-55. It was on Floor 1: “CEZANNE THROUGH THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY”: Cezanne and his contemporaries; Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin; Ensor, Redon; Rousseau; Bonnard, Rouault; Prendergast; Matisse; The lesser “fauves”; Modigliani; Expressionism in Central Europe.

And Pickett. Who seems like odd company for those luminaries. The fact that it was a gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a founder of MOMA, and wife of moneybags John D. Rockefeller, Jr., may have had something to do with its inclusion. In any case, there it was.

My parents saw that show, and picking through the competition, walked out with a reproduction of “Manchester Valley.” Which in the fullness of time came to me, and now, a bit darkened with age, still hangs in my house. An odd piece, but full of satisfactions. It holds up after all these years. Thus my interest, and how I can’t imagine how for so long I failed to notice it in the Toby.

 

*Published 1970. Heartily recommended. Pieces from The New Yorker’s great old cartoon days, riffing on art and art fashions from the ’40s through the ’60s. Available at abebooks.com for $4.64, the last time I looked.

 

 

BROOKLYN WINDOWS

You find these and many similar windows along Carlton Ave in Brooklyn. Informal art of an unassuming, delightful kind: people putting out little plantations and looking after them. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And sometimes plantings mingle with burglar bars–a happy assertion of domesticity amidst the uncertainties of urban life