The purpose of art

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Reaching out. Photo: JH.

Monday, April 29, 2024. Another bright and beautiful sunny day in New York. The newly born greens outside our windows are getting larger and brighter. Walking the dogs through the park, I noticed the greenery in full force also with some full flowering red and yellow tulips and other fresh florals mixed in with bushes, as if growing wild like upgraded weeds. All among the fresh masses of greenery, replacing winter’s stix with their new seasons.

Meanwhile I was a guest at dinner last night of Gigi and Harry Benson at Sette Mezzo, along with Paige Peterson. The night before, Staley-Wise Gallery held a book signing for Harry’s The Beatles on The Road 1964-1966 (“the best of Harry Benson’s era-defining photographs”) at the The Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) The Photography Show at the Park Avenue Armory.

Gigi and Harry Benson, DPC, and Paige Peterson last night at Sette Mezzo.

If you’ve never been to AIPAD’s The Photography Show, it’s the longest-running fair dedicated exclusively to photography. The 2024 edition brought together 77 international exhibitors including Staley-Wise Gallery who’s represented Harry for many years, along with other world-famous photographers including Slim Aarons, Lillian Bassman, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Patrick Demarchelier, Helmut Newton, Bob Richardson, Herb Ritts, Melvin Sokolsky, Bert Stern, Deborah Turbeville, and more.

Etheleen Staley and Taki Wise of Staley-Wise Gallery, with Gigi and Harry Benson, at the book party they hosted for Harry at AIPAD on Saturday night at the Park Avenue Armory.
Harry with Liz Cohen Houseman, Alissa Mazzola Mitchell, daughter Wendy Benson Landes, and Cornelia Knight Woods. Behind them is Harry’s photograph of The Beatles Pillow Fight taken at the George V Hotel in Paris in January 1964 … the night The Beatles found out “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was #1 on the American charts.
Standing next to Harry as he signs his stack of books is Staley-Wise Director George Kocis. Photos: Gigi Benson

The world is too much with us and a sign of the times are harsh, if confusing. The general behavior has changed noticeably over the past few years. What I do hear more and more, off-handedly without being asked, is that the world is in a terrible mess. They rarely go beyond the observation in terms of why and where and how. It seems that there is no observation. It’s the old argument with the freedom fighters against the commies. I’ve heard it at the kitchen and dinner tables; the Commies.

Meanwhile: Cleaning out the Books. This book came out in 2017 and it was a good one — In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis — an excellent history of New York by Clifton Hood, a professor of American history with the talent for keeping the reader reading.

He explains how it happened (or used to anyway). A family belonged to the upper class by dint of their family background and upbringing, their personal networks, and their money. They could afford to live well and make use of a house that would corroborate their wealth, prestige, and, of course, taste. The house is the evidence.

It has always been popular to think that we, the U.S., does not have “classes.” In the centuries gone by, when a city was forming, its economic leadership produced an Upper Class. It is always the economic class that has the political power or, Power unmasked. 

But Technology has changed our behavior as creatures. Or rather, beginning with the light bulb, the telephone and the steam engine, distances were abbreviated. Community that grew and progressed from that has now been diminished, and ironically many of us are more alone now despite our abundance of “communicable” devices.

Prof. Hood uses the history of a small but hugely consequential group of Americans, whose access to economic resources provided them with unprecedented social, cultural, and political power. His lively excursion into their world of social clubs and museums, dinners and finishing schools covers more than 250 years and shows persuasively how the upper class made New York and how New York constantly changes its upper class. 

Every city has a social and economic elite. But as Hood shows, the New York elite has always been larger, wealthier, more fluid, and more powerful than in other places, enabling it to simultaneously perpetuate class inequality and create cultural institutions that are world-class in every field. That’s what’s drawn so many millions of us to the City and its life.

The crowd in front of Zabar’s on 81st and Broadway.

Meanwhile, back to reality. Waiting in line at Zabar’s. Watching people on their cell phones, obviously unaware of the environment around themselves. That’s not a criticism, only an observation of the present set of circumstances.

It’s fashionable for women, for example — mainly young, but of all ages — to carry their cellphone as they are walking down the street, in the palm of their hand or held by their manicured fingertips’ holding the cell out and away from themselves, with bent elbow, assuring that they will “see” it, if anything “important” comes online while walking. 

The irony is that this “advance” in our economic progress has lessened our personal responsibilities and has been off-handedly emptying our minds of any real knowledge.

However, not everywhere, again here in New York. I frequently dine at a restaurant on Lexington Avenue in the low 70s. It’s a block that starts on 71st and runs toward 70th with a couple of dress shops, a barbershop, a deli and three restaurants and a pizza parlor. And that’s just the east side of that block along the avenue.

It’s always been a prosperous block although after the “pandemic” a lot of small businesses were closing; this same block lost a restaurant, and a clothing store.

Nevertheless — and this is New York — one weekday on my way to lunch at Sette Mezzo, I passed what had been one of the emptied commercial spaces, which was now, suddenly, an artist’s studio complete with the artist painting a large canvas as I walked by.

Phillip Michaels at work at his studio at 979 Lexington Ave. In the artist’s words: “There is a consistency and layer in the work in that it is composed of intertwining and layered strokes … but the process is spontaneous. This is where the freshness comes from. The life of the painting lies in what goes into it,” adding “it is my entire body and being that paints.”

For the past couple of years or so, I’ve been observing his enterprise, daily, sometimes seven days a week, with constantly changing paintings done in a similar style in different sizes. And obviously moving, as they say in the retail business.

Finally one night after an early dinner with Paige Peterson. She, being a painter, wanted to stop and look, so we went in. The artist’s name is Philip Michaels. A young man from Chicago, at 18 he ventured out to travel the world. It was in India in an ashram that he discovered his interest in art.  After returning to college and attending Art courses in Italy, he decided to go off on his own.

Each time I pass by his studio I’m amazed that his work – and he’s often working on a canvas – constantly varies, producing changing inner responses, providing a change in energy. Aall of which are alluring in the artist’s works.

Visiting with the young painter.
The tools of the trade.
A recently finished work. Inquiries: / @phillipmichaelsart

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