Donkey-patting Philistines and notions of beauty

Posted on November 29, 2009


Whenever I go to Detroit I like to go adventuring with my cousin Craig. I let him pick the adventure. He keeps up better. This time we visited the Detroit Institute of Arts to see the Richard Avedon retrospective. As you might guess, haute couture is not a big priority at the Writing Studio and Bait Shop. However, art, design, and insight into broader cultural considerations are compelling subjects, and Avedon had a lot to say about all of them. Craig and I meandered through fifty years of images from Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, along with original markups and magazine layouts, pondering notions of beauty and messages about social stratification.

Time for treats and debriefing at CaféDIA.  (I choose a table near the donkey sculpture.  I love that donkey.)  I argue for the proposition that fashion is beside the point, Craig argues that it makes the point. I grump that it can’t be about the clothes—in half the photos it’s impossible to even see the clothes. Craig says the clothes and other accoutrements are emblematic, the point is how we organize the culture and each person’s place in it. What about the prince and the pauper? Doesn’t that prove the boxes are meaningless? No, it only proves that in fairytales we can jump from one to the other . . . . We have a wonderful time.

Between bites of supper and brilliant insights, we watch little kids pat the donkey. This is especially amusing for two reasons. First, there is this poster at the entrance to the museum:

Second, there is my confession to Craig that I always patted the donkey when I visited the DIA, which was very often as Rob the Firefighter was growing up. This marks me as a hopeless Philistine. We decide to create an image for this post. Craig will pat the donkey and I will capture him in the act. OK, he won’t really pat the donkey, as he is not a donkey-patting Philistine, but he will appear to pat the donkey.

Can’t you just hear the bullhorn? Do not touch the art! Well . . . maybe not. Take a closer look.

The Detroit Institute of Arts knows when to hold ’em and knows when to fold ’em. The donkey is pattable. The tiny tots are not felons. Craig pats, I pat, we proceed to the Rivera Court to listen to the Hot Club of Detroit pay homage to Django Reinhardt.

It was a completely satisfactory evening. The whole visit was like that. Autumn is lingering in the city. There’s still a little color here and there, and the lawns are emerald in Lafayette Park. Rob the Firefighter and the Lady Alicia have a seasonal view of the Renaissance Center from their front step.

We had Thanksgiving dinner with Alicia’s side of the family and a Saturday brunch with friends from the old neighborhood and walks with the dogs everywhere.  As I drove home last night I listened to WDET until the signal faded. One of the day’s sponsors was Stuart Trager wishing Barbara his beloved a happy anniversary, and I let out a happy yelp, startling the dogs. Have I mentioned that Detroit is the world’s biggest small town?

Then we were home. Miss Sadie and the Cowboy bounded out of the car and snuffled about, checking out who dropped by while they were away. I unpacked and made amends to the cat, who is even more pattable than the donkey. This morning I got up and made toast from a delicate fruit bread from Hamtramck, in the toaster Stuart and Barbara gave me as a housewarming present.

All of this is pretty much my central notion of beauty, and definitely my understanding of my place in the world. Hope your Thanksgiving was equally joyful.

Posted in: Postcards