Russell At Cranbrook

IMG_5215Russell’s time in the master’s program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art is drawing to a close.  In a few days some of his new work will be shown as part of the graduating students’ exhibition at the Cranbrook Museum, followed shortly thereafter by an open studios event and then by graduation in early May.

IMG_5182Kish and I are excited to go up and see Russell’s new pieces as displayed in the museum and also to see what is underway in his studio.  In the meantime, we’ve been reflecting on Cranbrook, the institution.  It’s an interesting and physically beautiful place, with a fascinating history that finds deep roots in notions of American exceptionalism and the uniquely American ability to find a better approach to education, creativity, and craftsmanship, unbound by traditional notions of class and status and settled ways of doing things found in European cultures. Having a Master’s art program on the same campus as a secondary school, sharing grounds that feature lovely buildings, art objects, and carved expressions of sentiments about the importance of constantly seeking beauty in your daily life, is certainly an unusual concept not found in every educational institution.

Cranbrook has also been, I think, a good fit for Russell.  Returning to the Detroit area — Cranbrook is in Bloomfield Hills, a Motor City suburb — after living for several years in Brooklyn has allowed Russell to really reconnect with his Midwestern roots, in ways that have found expression in his artwork and artistic interests.  Cranbrook’s multi-disciplinary approach, in which students in the painting program are interacting regularly with student metalworkers, ceramic artists, architects, sculptors, fiber artists, and photographers, has also allowed Russell to experience different perspectives on art and experiment with incorporating some aspects of those approaches into his own artwork.

It might just be the Dad in me talking, but I think Russell’s willingness to experiment and embrace and understand what other students are doing has been true to the vision of a different, open approach that led to Cranbrook’s founding in the first place.  I think the people who started the Art Academy would be as proud of him as we are.

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The Putin Piece

Several Webner House readers and friends have asked me what I think of the op-ed piece from Vladimir Putin that was published in the New York Times.  If you haven’t read it, it’s here.  I’ve got several reactions to it.

First, I’m amazed that some people are questioning the decision of the Times to run the piece at all.  As a fan of the First Amendment, I firmly believe that more speech is better than less.  I’m glad the Times ran the piece, because it did what free speech advocates expect — it provoked lots of comment.  The Washington Post, for example, ran a response that annotated and “fact-checked” the Putin piece.  In my view, all of the discussion — about the role of the Russians, what American policy is and should be, and is the piece a pure propaganda effort — is a very good thing.  The more people become aware of competing views, the better.

Second, I think the piece was a carefully crafted bit of propaganda from a foreign leader who is following his own agenda.  So what?  There is still value in being exposed to the views of other actors on the world stage.  I’m also not troubled by the criticism of American policy.  We’re big boys, and we — and our leaders — should be hardened to the rough and tumble of a world where others are pursuing different agendas.  If there are members of the Obama Administration who are feeling bruised by the criticisms of Vladimir Putin, they really need to get over it.

Finally, although I agree with Putin’s notion of America working within the framework of international law and international organizations to resolve the Syrian crisis, I completely disagree with one of his broader points.  He thinks its dangerous that many Americans view our country as exceptional, I think exactly the opposite.  Most of our ancestors came to America precisely because they believed it was exceptional — and it was, and is, exceptional.  It is the place where Old World class, religious, and ethnic divisions are shed and where freedom allows people to advance and prosper no matter what village they come from or what religious faith they follow. The opportunity and freedom found in America is not found in Putin’s Russia or countless other countries.

Sorry, Vlad!  You’re wrong about America.  We are exceptional, and the world is a better place for our exceptionalism.  In the gush of reaction to the Putin piece, I’m hoping that many Americans — including President Obama — focus on that reality as well.

Uncomfortable With Exceptionalism?

Occasionally I wonder how much of the impetus for changes in our foreign policy, government health care, government takeover of industries, climate change regulation, and other recent policy initiatives is attributable to simple discomfort with the fact that American policies and approaches in many of these areas is just different from those in other developed countries.

For most of our history, there has been a strong current of American exceptionalism in our politics. Since the dawn of the Republic, America has emphasized its differences with Europe and its royalty, nobility, and class systems. We proudly trumpeted our differences and were glad to accept the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses who wanted to take their chances in a society that was different from the “old country” they knew. In the Cold War era, too, we were happy to point out how we were different from the Soviet Union, China, and other “eastern bloc” countries with their state-run media, restrictions on personal freedoms, and planned economies that inevitably failed to provide their citizens with the products and lifestyles and opportunities that were available in America in abundance.

I think there has been a change in this formerly pervasive attitude of American exceptionalism. Rather than being proud of America’s uniqueness, some peopIe appear to be unsettled by it. One undercurrent in the health care reform debate seems to be simple discomfort with — and even embarrassment about — the fact that America is, in that area as in so many others, different from other countries. After all, Canada, England, France, and other countries have systems where the government provides health care. Wouldn’t it just be easier and better to just go along with what everyone else is doing?  Why should America expend its blood and treasure  fighting in faraway lands when other nations are unwilling to do so?

It takes some courage to be different, and even more courage to argue that your approach is not only different, but better. I think that, in many areas, the American approach has been better. In view of that history, the fact that other countries do things differently does not seem, to me, to be much of an argument that we should change.