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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 9, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


12 Days, Laugh-In, Art Prints

I hate the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

When I was young, it was fun. Learning all the gifts -- six gees a-laying, seven swans a-swimming, eight maids a-milking -- was a challenge, and then it was always fun to get to "five gold rings."

For the first two thousand times.

Now it just makes me tired. When it comes on the radio during the Christmas season, I switch away.

At the same time, I've been giving my wife twelve days of Christmas since 1973, which makes this the 35th year. So the idea of twelve days is actually very important in our house

(I sometimes wonder if there have been times when she was about fed up with me and the only thing that kept her from booting me was the thought: "But wait. He does give me the twelve days of Christmas every year.")

So I buy twelve-days-themed ornaments and other such gew-gaws to include with the gifts I give her. I sometimes think I keep the whole twelve-days industry going.

For the first time in years, though, I can report that there is a performance of the actual song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," that is fresh and wonderful.

It's done by a men's a cappella group at Indiana University, called Straight No Chaser (in homage to Thelonious Monk), and the link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Fe11OlMiz8

The singing is terrific. The variations are inspired.

Just as interesting to me is the fact that, from the various Straight No Chaser videos on YouTube, this singing group is treated like rock stars at the university. And I can see why.

From its beginning about ten years ago, this group has been doing innovative, jazzy interpretations of great songs. Even though the group is mostly white guys, the few black members give credibility when they break into hip-hop and r&b. They even write some originals -- like an entertaining novelty called "Facebook Stalkin'."

You can see videos on YouTube of their performances of "Stand By Me" (in a Hardees!); "This Is How We Do It" (a self-explanatory hip-hop number, which is, by itself, a complete explanation of why they win a cappella choir contests); "29Ways," "Love the One You're With," and "Don't Stop Believing."

Tracking the approximate order of the recordings, you can see that their standards have risen. At first, they were merely fun and original; in recent years, they have also become excellent. The pitches and harmonies, ragged in the early years, are dead on in the most recent performances.

And with a little searching you can find out how to order their cds on www.a-cappella.com.

*

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Paralyzed Veterans Association as a charity that got a failing grade from CharityWatch.org. Since then, we've heard, via website, from someone who offers a counter opinion:

"I'm not associated with [Paralyzed Veterans Association], but I use their resources frequently in my professional life. I have a feeling that such a low percentage of funds raised goes to veterans because of the vast breadth of what they do.

"They provide education for clinicians and patients in the treatment and management of spinal cord injuries and spinal cord diseases, they advocate for accessible design and disability rights, and they're a major political force in DC.

"They're a pretty useful organization to have around, even though they aren't giving all money raised directly back to veterans. I hope they will continue to be able to provide all their services and continue to receive needed donations."

I believe that providing "education for clinicians" is almost certainly included in CharityWatch's accounting of funds getting to where they're supposed to go. But it might be that political advocacy is not included, in which case that would explain part of the low rating.

Advocacy groups involve a lot of legal fees and pay for a lot of lobbying activities, few of which are likely to look like charity.

But some advocacy groups also are known for paying extremely high salaries to their top people. I have no way of knowing about this particular group.

The main reason I included this letter is because we have to keep in mind that while CharityWatch.org is very useful to those who want to bestow their donations wisely, a single grade from a single source is not likely to tell the whole story. Fund-raising costs money; one man's "wise use" is another man's "frivolous waste" -- and vice versa.

*

During our current drought, which affects almost the whole Southeast, we've been restricted from watering lawns and asked to cut back on our indoor use of water.

So it's no surprise that the green lawns at some sites in Greensboro are explained with signs saying, "Irrigated using water from wells." Otherwise we might resent their having green lawns, when our lawns are patchy or dead.

But I still have some questions. After all, that well water isn't trucked in from wells in Maine. I assume that it's drawn from the local aquifer.

And the local aquifer is being depleted by the drought, too. Without rain to renew it, the water table will sink lower and lower; eventually, even wells will begin to fail.

Perhaps our aquifer is so deep and robust that this will not happen, and my concern is misplaced. In which case, I'm going to look into digging a well.

But my guess is that well water is not immune to the drought, and the city's restrictions on watering lawns ought to apply to businesses as much as residents, and to well water as much as city water.

I understand why ball fields and golf courses were allowed to continue watering on a more limited schedule during the summer. But now, as lawns are going dormant for the winter, and as we continue to get insufficient rain, isn't it time to recognize that the activities of golfers and ballplayers don't warrant the added risk of Greensboro's being shut down entirely because of a lack of water?

At what point is it "better safe than sorry"?

Just wondering.

*

Last Christmas we ended up with a set of "Best of Laugh-In" DVDs. But they were still in shrinkwrap when my thirteen-year-old and I broke them open to watch while we addressed Christmas cards.

I was surprised at how well the show holds up after all these years. Of course there was a definite political stance -- anti-Vietnam War, which in those daysmeant anti-Lyndon Johnson.

But they were also able to be a bit patriotic, even if obliquely -- for instance, giving a "big hand" to Charles DeGaulle when he got the Fickle Finger of Fate award, consisting of a single clap. Why? Because they disapproved of his anti-American actions.

Imagine anyone on the Left today disapproving of someone for criticizing America! Ha ha ha ha ...

Most of the show isn't political, though -- it's just funny. Either directly funny, or funny because their humor is so deliberately lame.

I wondered about my daughter's reactions. Was she really enjoying it? After all, she didn't know half the celebrities they brought in to say "Sock it to me" or "Here come de judge." (Though, upon replay, she did recognize a youthful Regis Philbin and gazed upon him in awe.)

But I should have known -- in the second generation raised on Nick at Nite and other sources of reruns, naturally she is perfectly comfortable watching old-timey TV shows.

And I suspect her willingness to spend a second evening working on the Christmas cards was solely because it would give her an excuse to watch more Laugh-In.

The show is no longer revelatory -- since Laugh-In's heyday, Monty Python reached America, and Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, Talk Soup, Leno, Letterman, and (above all) Conan have all mined Laugh-in for comic ideas and tropes.

But it holds up. It's still fun to watch. The guest stars are a hoot: Seeing Hugh Hefner when you could still believe someone might sleep with him for reasons other than his being rich. And Cher before she could act, when she was still doing her sullen slacker teenager thing.

It's rather wistful to watch, knowing which performers, like Goldie Hawn, went on to have major careers -- and which virtually disappeared. I miss Ruth Buzzi! (I know, she's made some guest appearances on TV shows -- even this year. But none that I watch.)

Whether you're old or young, it's part of American history, and even though it's truly silly, it's still worth watching.

*

Sometimes I look around at the thousands of books in my house and feel sad. About a thousand of them are reference books that we use for research. The rest are books I saved with the intention of reading them again.

Only now I'm 56 years old and I can see -- barely, if I squint -- the handwriting on the wall. I'm not going to read them all again. Not even most of them. Maybe not any.

It's time to let the least-likely-to-be-reread return to the world to find their own way to new readers, if they can.

Of course, I worry about the consequences. What if, deprived of so much weight, my house becomes so light it floats up into the air? Then we'd have to tether it, and what a bother that would be, climbing a ladder to get inside.

The graver worry, though, is that the moment I let a book go, I will immediately want to reread it, and thus will have to go buy another copy.

Fortunately, though, for book addicts like me, there is an alternative. A virtually endless supply of reading material available for Real Cheap.

I'm referring to Samizdat.com. It seems to be Richard Seltzer's life's work to preserve, in a usable form, all the library you'll ever need of books and other works that are in the public domain.

Whole collections are delivered to you on CDs or DVDs, to be inserted in your computer, providing you with a library that can be stored in a few inches of shelf space.

All the words of all the books, in collections like: "The 19th Century on DVD," which includes not just literary works but also history, religion, philosophy, and even Victorian etiquette. The price? $85.

Or a DVD that gathers the contents of 20 CD collections, covering various genres of fiction. Separately, the CDs would have cost you $390; bought all together, the cost is $69.

The one I just bought is "Vintage Magazines" -- old ones. In fact, it's like having a whole history of the magazine, from Samuel Johnson's Rambler and Addison's and Steele's Spectator and Tatler in England to Scientific American from 1867 through 1898 and Atlantic Monthly from 1857 through 1867.

No authors are being deprived of royalties, because they're all dead. Instead, they get a chance to speak from the grave, as new readers have a chance to find their work.

And what I get is a library considerably larger than the one I'm beginning to break up and give away -- only it takes far less space.

Leaving me much more room for all the DVDs we're buying and will never have time to watch.

*

When you buy anything from a catalog, pretty soon you're getting every catalog ever made.

How we got on a list to receive cigar and wine aficionado catalogs I can't guess -- they go straight into the garbage at our house. So do the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth copies of the identical catalog from which we've already ordered.

It's a good thing I know that all these catalogues are printed on paper made from tree farms, so that no natural forests are being depleted for all this needless duplication.

Still, in the midst of the maelstrom of catalogs, as we calculate how much it will cost to pay for our mail-deliverer's shoulder surgery, every now and then a catalog arrives that surprises me.

Sometimes it's a good surprise.

Let me tell you about the other kind. It's a catalog called Brushstrokes. And what they sell is art prints faked up to look like originals.

Now, I'm a great believer in art prints. In fact, that's mostly what my wife and I have on our walls. What we want is to live surrounded with images of power and beauty. So if a print is an excellent reproduction of a piece of art that we enjoy looking at, we're just as happy to display it as the original.

In fact, we're much happier, because it means we don't have to worry about burglars. Who would be stupid enough to break into a house in order to steal prints of great art?

Also, even if we could afford originals, why should we spend enough money to feed a village in Guatemala for a year for a single image, when, for a tenth or a hundredth of the cost, we can look at the same image in the form of a print?

At Brushstrokes, though, you can arrange to buy a framed print of the "Mona Lisa" or Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" or John Singer Sargent's "Madame X."

And just before the price is listed, we are told that each one of these prints is "Artist enhanced, hand finished."

What in the world does "Artist enhanced" mean?

Why, it means that some clown at Brushstrokes has daubed oil paint onto the print.

No, really. I'm not joking. Their "Museum Collection" consists of "Beloved images by some of the Greatest Masters of all time [their boldface]" and they are all "Artist enhanced with oil paint."

Now, there's no shame in being naive enough to be suckered in by this. If this sort of thing looks interesting to you, then let me help you avoid embarrassment.

It is not an "enhancement" to have oil paint daubed on top of prints of old masters' paintings. What, do you think somebody's going to believe you have the original "Mona Lisa" in your living room?

Who's going to be fooled?

Only you. When you buy one of these prints thinking you're getting something wonderful.

In fact, you can get good quality prints that don't pretend to be anything else. When you hang them, everyone knows they're prints, and they appreciate (or don't) your taste in images, without having to make any judgment at all about your pretentiousness, naivete, or lunacy.

Here's how you can tell the folks at Brushstrokes think you're really, really stupid. Along with that "artist"-retouched print of a classic painting, you get a "Certificate of Authenticity."

What in the world is authentic about this? It's a print of a well-known painting, which has been marred by some hack and is pretending to be something that it's not. It is the opposite of authentic, and having a certificate of authenticity makes it even more appallingly inauthentic.

Now, I'm trying to be fair. Brushstrokes spends most of its catalog pages touting the artists who do originals for them to print up and "enhance."

Some of the artists actually have some ability. For instance, one called "Pino," whose brief bio they include. Maybe what they say is true. Maybe "his work" is "among the most sought-after by collectors throughout the art world." But somehow I doubt it.

A few others have work that looks mildly interesting -- at least in the tiny reproductions in the catalog (where you can't see just where it was "enhanced").

But even the best of them look as though they can be painted in a day or two, an endless series of paintings with the same upholstery-appropriate palette.

And the worst of them are shockingly awful.

Unless you like them. If you like them, if you enjoy looking at them, then ignore my contempt for those paintings and display them in your home, because your home should surround you with things you like, and go hang critics like me. What do my opinions matter, in your home?

But if you're buying, not the image, but the prestige they promise you, then you are being so snookered.

Maybe Lucia Sarto's "sun-kissed coastline" paintings really did win "universal acclaim." Maybe her work really is in "the most important public and private collections from New York to Tokyo, from London to Frankfurt." I mean, these people wouldn't lie.

Look, it can be hard to find affordable art that you want to look at again and again. Forget "prestige," though, and let me tell you about several online (or catalog) sources of authentic, unpretentious prints that are worth buying and hanging.

First, if you're trying to keep the budget low, go to All Posters (http://www.allposters.com). Posters of art usually have very high-quality reproduction of the images you want. And All Posters isn't, despite its name, all posters. It has legitimate art prints as well.

Just a word of warning: It's really not worth it to get their canvas transfers. They take the print and "transform" it to "look like an original painting." Sound familiar?

The only helpful thing they do in this process is give it a UV coating to protect it from fading in sunlight. But it will not "look like an original painting." It will look like you tried to make it look like an original painting, and that's just vaguely sad.

Buy the inexpensive print and spend the money you saved on getting it beautifully framed locally. Believe me, you and your local framer can choose a better setting for the print you love than their catalogue.

Second, give a look at The Artful Home at http://www.guild.com. From the home page, click on "Art for the Wall" and then click on "Paintings."

What you'll find is a smattering of serious prints -- limited runs of (usually) giclee prints, with vivid and accurate color reproduction. Most of these really are by well-known, highly collectible artists. Along with a lot of originals that run to thousands of dollars.

For instance, one of the best artists working today is Brian Kershisnik. They have a dozen of his limited-run prints, which are always full of wit and meaning. My only regret is that you simply can't buy a print of his greatest painting: a mural-sized depiction of the Rapture, which brought me to tears when I chanced upon it while passing through the art museum at Brigham Young University on my way to the visitors parking lot.

I can't get that painting out of my mind or my heart. But until it is somehow made available to me in some form, I will happily make do with some of his lesser works.

There are other wonderful artists. For instance, I love Christine Brennan's work, even though it's so weird I'm not sure I could live with it on the walls where I'd see it every day.

Jeff Darrow's buildings, Walter Gabrielson's trains, David Moose's skies, Gilbert Riou's still lifes of ceramic and glass, Sherry Sanabria's architecturals ... well, I think you'll enjoy browsing through this online gallery, even if, like me, you can't possibly afford most of the pieces.

Third, take a look at the Art Renewal Center (http://www.artrenewal.org) where you can find a glorious collection of art from the era of beautiful, realistic paintings -- including work by such artists as Bouguereau, Leighton, Alma-Tadema, and Burne-Jones, whose gorgeous work was so dispraised by the "modern" artists and their worshippers that they have been nearly forgotten by the general public.

From the home page, you can go to the store, which offers a limited selection, or to the museum, where you can literally spend days looking at a vast array of pre-modern artists. Most of the images in the museum can be purchased as prints.

You can get good-sized prints for several hundred dollars, but you can also get small reproductions for as little as thirty dollars. Not every work of art has to hold a place over the couch. Sometimes a small reproduction is enough.

I have ordered prints from all three of these online sources. They provide excellent reproductions, shipped in sturdy containers. All Posters and Artful Home can still (barely) deliver by Christmas -- but good art knows no season, so there's no rush.

To live surrounded by the interpretations of brilliantly talented artists is part of the good life. And it really is within the reach of most people to have at least a few treasured images as a regular part of life -- without pretension or fakery.


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