Saturday, April 15, 2006

Looking at American Gothic

For the next three weeks or so, Washington DC's various art museums will offer a bewildering array of options for art lovers and connoisseurs alike. The National Gallery of Art, still free to visitors, offers a terrific Cezanne retrospective in the West Wing and an important exhibit on Dadaism in the East Wing. Until mid-May, the pay-for-play Phillips Collection will be a treasure trove of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces, with Degas's "L'Absinthe" and Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" on display -- along with its usual assortment of minor Bonnards and Vuillards. Placed end-to-end, a visit to each of these museums would make a full weekend and then some. So it would be easy to ignore a smaller, out-of-the-way exhibit at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, one of DC's many neglected-stepsister museums that even a lifelong DC resident can successfully avoid. The Renwick is generally devoted to "decorative arts" -- which can include anything from George Catlin's Indian paintings to one of Hans Arp's bronze helmet-heads. But with the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art temporarily closed for renovations, it has become the unlikely venue for Grant Wood's Studio, a remarkable new exhibit on one of America's most popular painters.

Grant Wood is generally considered a minor figure. He died in 1942 -- at age fifty, relatively young -- and produced nothing of import until 1929. His time-consuming pencil drafts and meticulous brushwork ensured that he would never be as prolific as the more spontaneous modernists and post-Impressionists who dominated the international art scene throughout the Depression. In addition, Wood was constantly involved in other activities, from founding an arts colony to teaching at the University of Iowa. Yet few American artists have been so thoroughly embraced by mass culture: American Gothic is one of the best-known, most parodied paintings in the history of Western art. (Films as disparate as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Disney's Mulan have taken potshots at it.) Wood's output also includes the childlike, tongue-in-cheek Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and Parson Weems' Fable, as well as overdetermined, fairy-tale landscapes such as Stone City, Iowa and the defiantly unsubtle allegory Young Corn (painted in memory of a local teacher).

The Grant Wood exhibit at the Renwick takes less than an hour to view from start to finish, yet contains all but two of the artist's best-known works. (Parson Weems' Fable is represented by a full-size drawing, and Dinner for Threshers by a partial pencil sketch.) The centerpiece, of course, is American Gothic ...

(more to come)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday, Bad Friday

To constrain the brute force of the people, they deem it necessary to keep them down by hard labor, poverty and ignorance, and to take from them, as from bees, so much of their earnings, as that unremitting labor shall be necessary to obtain a sufficient surplus to sustain a scanty and miserable life." -- Thomas Jefferson

For hundreds of millions of Christians around the world, today is Good Friday, when we commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. For hundreds of millions of Americans, today is also Tax Friday, the last Friday before income tax returns are due. Which means, on a practical level, that if (like most Americans) you've waited till the last minute to file your papers, your brokerage house is likely to be closed on the very day you need its services most. Good Friday, you see, is a stock market holiday.

If I were a liberal, I might take advantage of this coincidence to remind you, gentle reader, that every Tax Friday is by definition a good Friday. I would probably claim that Taxes are inherently Good because they bring lots of public money to children, old people, illegal immigrants and bloated bureaucracies, all of which we need to keep America free and happy. But since I'm an old-school conservative, I'll use this occasion to remark that excessive taxation and capital punishment are two very nasty things that government can do to you -- and that with the many twists and turns of the US tax code, filing an average income tax return takes about as much time as a crucifixion and often seems only slightly less painful. The major difference between capital punishment and excessive taxation, is that sometimes capital punishment is justifiable.

The Washington DC-based Tax Foundation has the right idea about America's tax system: It's too complicated and too greedy. The statisticians there have measured America's tax burden as a percentage of American income, and have determined that on average, Americans will work from January 1 until April 26 of this year, just to pay the various taxes they owe to local, state and federal governments. After April 26, which the foundation has designated as this year's "Tax Freedom Day," the average American worker can start spending his or her hard-earned income on items like food and clothing. Of course, state governments can speed or delay the happy day's arrival: This year, Connecticut residents won't be able to celebrate Tax Freedom Day until May 12, but Oklahomans and Tennesseans may consider themselves liberated as of today. (For those lucky few, today might qualify as the first good Friday of the year.) The date of Tax Freedom Day can vary from year to year, too, according to tax rates and income levels. In the past twenty-five years, the average Tax Freedom Day has fallen between April 16 (in 2002 and 2003, when Bush's tax cuts took effect) and May 3 (in 2000).

According to the Tax Foundation, the average American in 2006 will work for more a month just to pay Social Security taxes. Nearly a month and a half of toil will be applied toward state and federal income taxes. Property taxes, which fund local governments, will require only two weeks of labor, though for some homeowners (and more than a few renters, who pay their landlords' property taxes through higher rents), those two weeks can make the difference between the comforts of home and the streets. Then there are sales taxes, sin taxes, capital gains taxes, excise taxes, hotel taxes -- taxes, it seems, on every conceivable situation, activity, or product. For low- and moderate-income workers, the cumulative effect of all these taxes can be devastating: Money that could improve their quality of life, provide themselves or their children with college educations, or enable them to start new businesses on their own, is taken out of their hands and converted into government revenue -- and as often as not, government waste.

One of the most important principles of the American Revolution was that government should be kept small and taxes low: The right to control one's own labor, goods, and resources was considered the essence of self-determination. Riots and rebellions prior to the Revolution were fought over tea and paper taxes that were miniscule compared to what we pay today. Sometimes I think that if the Founding Fathers knew what the American tax code would become, they would have laid down their muskets and quill pens, and taken their chances with old King George.

Happy Good Friday, taxpayers.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]