Saturday, October 17, 2015

Walt Disney, Tom Jones, and Constantine the Great

Disneyland, Las Vegas, and Constantinople. During my childhood in 1960's Los Angeles, these three international destinations exerted their combined charms in a tremendous formative influence on my visual aesthetic sensibilities. Too young to realize it at the time, it is all too evident to me now. Perhaps most Americans and Europeans would be able to see the connections between the first two, but Constantinople?!

I can explain. The 1960's was a great time to be a boy in Los Angeles, there was far more freedom then, than there is now, and obviously it was far less expensive. It was a great and fun city in which to be a child was a pleasure.

Now all of our extended family lived elsewhere in the United States, or in Greece or Germany, and Disneyland at this time in history was the secular pilgrimage for families. Every Summer my parents house was turned into a free motel. Motel Zero, so to speak, for every single relative whose wife and children had wheedled, cajoled, and nagged to the point where a cross country drive to Disneyland seemed a sensible solution. To the cacophony of pleading it might have been. They all came. Uncle's, Brother's, Aunt's, Sister's, Cousin's, Second Cousin's, In-Laws, Elderly Grandparents, Disinherited Outlaw's. You name the most far distant relation you could ever dream of, and the son of a bitch was on our doorstep wearing a Mickey Mouse cap.

They would pull up in their station wagon's, weary, cantankerous, and bleary eyed, their brood either sleeping, crying, or both. The sleeping bags were then strewn throughout the house, to accommodate the children, while the adults got the guest bedroom, and sometimes if there were enough adults present, my bedroom, in which case I was removed to a sleeping bag. Why would they stay at the Disneyland Hotel, why should they, when they could stay at our house instead? Every single Summer this familial pilgrimage would piss off my Father and have him spouting and fuming, but he couldn't say no, because he was Greek.

It didn't bother me though. Not one iota. It meant that I got to go to Disneyland. Again. And again. Due to this perpetual parade of relations, I attended Disneyland like it was a finishing school. The guys wearing the rubber character suits began to recognize me. Unconsciously I absorbed the kitsch sensibilities of Walt Disney and as a child I began making drawings and dioramas because of this phenomenon. The last time I attended Disneyland was in 1972. I haven't been back and I've no desire to ever see it again. I eventually realized that it is ninety percent queuing up, and frankly, I just don't care for that sort of thing.

Which brings me to Las Vegas. All of my Grandparents lived in the Rocky Mountains. So when we went on our family vacation road trips to visit them, we always spent the first night in Las Vegas. My Father would say this was because it was a reasonable distance for the first days driving from Los Angeles. Far likelier it was due to the fact that Greeks love games of chance. They did, after all, invent cards. It is a quite short straight line from this accomplishment to five card stud poker. Please bear in mind that the Las Vegas of my childhood was still the Las Vegas of the Rat Pack. It was an amusement park for adults. While it was glamorous and flashy, the intrigue was strictly off limits to children. So there wasn't anything to do except swim in the hotel pool in the daytime and look at everything at night. And while kind of boring for a kid, the architecture was vernacular, splendid, and luminous. It made a big impression on a boy already enamored of Disneyland. The main thing being that it was completely different from Disneyland. It was its own invention and one to be reckoned with. Sadly, all of this adult wonderment was torn to the ground as Las Vegas transmogrified into a more venal version of Disneyland.

The road to family friendly was hatched in a board room and began in the 1960's with Caesars Palace. I vividly remember the first time that I spied it. A gigantic megalomaniac version of some of the Greek kitsch tourist trinkets laying around my parents house. Just like Disneyland, all of the adults working there had to play dress up in a costume like they were someone else. The card dealers metamorphosed into gladiators. Cocktail waitresses oozed from their cocoon's as scantily clad slave chicks. There was even a floating indoors ship known as Cleopatra's Barge, reminiscent of Captain Hook's vessel in Never Never Land doubling as a cocktail lounge. It was the beginning of the infantilization of everything glamorous and exotic that had made Las Vegas intriguing. Gone forever were the tuxedo's and cocktail gowns, the cocktails and the cigarettes. They were being replaced with a childish vision of Rome. A plasticine vacuform toy Rome that had tumbled out of a Carny vending machine. Hot to the touch and smelling of petrol.

The year we stayed at Caesars Palace, I got to see Tom Jones perform at the Circus Maximus Theatre. This was at the zenith of his career. He was enjoying numerous hit singles and a weekly variety television program. In other words, the man was an international jet set superstar. A few years earlier, I had been perplexed by Beatlemania and the way teenage girls, including the ones in my family were behaving themselves. This was abundantly confusing after I saw the local Los Angeles television news coverage of the Beatles concert at Dodger Stadium in 1966 when I was eight years old.

Well, let me tell you, the sights my eyes spied at the Tom Jones Caesars Palace gig surely made whatever female animal spirits the Beatles were capable of rousing and summoning to their will look like a child's erector set stood up against the Empire State Building. The Beatles merely excited girls. Tom Jones did the same exact thing to women. Women the age of ones Mother, ones Aunties, ones School Teachers were screaming and jumping about like erotic puppets. These women were thronging the stage like a single cell organism experiencing a radioactive mutation. Some of them were throwing their brassieres, panties, and their hotel room keys at the Maestro as he wailed his way through "What's New Pussycat?" The man was caught in a blizzard of chick trash and he didn't miss a beat. I sat there slackjawed with my eyes glazed over the entire time. It was a relentless spectacle and it made a lasting impression.

I decided to become an artist.

Next I veer to the ancient city of Constantinople, a distinctly entertaining metropolis, a flesh and bloody mystical place that is eternally real in comparison to Disneyland or Las Vegas, and its founder Constantine the Great. Constantine I, Emperor of Rome founded the Byzantine Empire on Monday May 11, 330, it lasted 1,123 years and 18 days, until it fell to Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II on Tuesday May 29, 1453. If you grow up in a Greek family, this is from time to time still discussed with passion at the dinner table. There is no such place as Istanbul, it is Constantinople.

Constantine had a vision of the Cross right before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. 
His triumph over Maxentius in this battle made him the absolute ruler of all Europe. These events  marked two decisions that changed the future of the civilized world. First was Constantine's conversion to Christianity which established it as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Secondly, he moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to Constantinople. These decisions had major lasting consequences, one of these being the establishment of Orthodox Christianity.

So I finally arrive at the third formative influence on my visual aesthetics. The art and iconography of Byzantium and the Orthodox Church. This is some of the most splendid beautiful art that has ever been made at anytime, anywhere. As a Greek child, on Sundays you attend Divine Liturgy.
The cathedral where this takes place is a magnificent ornate jewel box made of icons, mosaics, and frescoes. The artist's names are mostly unknown. Because they and their personalities, their potential celebrity, aren't the point. These things are absolutely besides the point. The point being that the art, the iconography, is a window to the Divine Presence of God.

In Los Angeles as a boy I sat in the overwhelmingly beautiful Saint Sophia Cathedral and was moved immensely by everything. I simply drank in the stunning gorgeousness of it all. The design sense, the horror vacui, the materials, and the transcendent purpose that all of it was put to. This experience made you really different from most Americans. Later on Sunday evenings, we watched Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color just like most everyone else.

So there it is, the three big childhood influences on my visual aesthetics. There are others for writing and perhaps if you stick around, I will eventually get to those. I have always loathed and avoided the idea of the "Artists Statement" as pretentious academic nonsense, and as preening oneself for grants. But I guess that at this late stage of the game I just wrote one.

I think that I may have had a far more glamorous life if I had never gone to see Tom Jones, stuck with my first childhood career choice and become a pirate.

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