Monday, December 25, 2017

A Holiday Break: American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Books are always the best holiday gift for me. The only thing I like better than the anticipation of reading a long sought after title is the fondness that comes with remembering the discovery of an unexpected treasure.

As I look back on all the books I've profiled here in 2017, the one I'd most like to revisit is American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I blogged about it back in July, and found it to be a novel of astonishing depth and complexity.

It is a novel of two people representing two generations. First, there is Seymour "the Swede" Levov, the child of Jewish immigrants, representing a generation of people embracing the American dream and all of its totems and rituals. And then there is his daughter Merry, the radical, representing a generation of people disillusioned with the very totems and rituals that define the generation that came before.

And although the novel delivers powerfully when the reader views Seymour and Merry as individuals in conflict with each other, the transcendent depth of the novel emerges when they are viewed as the generations they represent, wrestling with each other for the soul of America. The Swede, in blaming himself, embodies the mindset of an aspirational generation, while Merry, in rejecting all that her father has arranged and decoded for her, embodies the mindset of a nihilistic one -- the American pastoral versus the American berserk.

As you enjoy your holiday break, I hope you find some time to curl up with a good book. I know I will.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert M. Price

I first learned of Robert M. Price by stumbling upon his Bible Geek podcast some years ago. As I confessed in my write-up of his The Reason Driven Life, listening to him answer questions about the origins, contradictions, and hidden meanings in the Bible is one of my favorite things to do.

Well, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man is very much like one long, sustained, and better organized episode of the Bible Geek podcast. The format of the podcast often makes it difficult for Price to cover all the background information that a newcomer would need in order to understand the context and often just the terms he uses in his answers. In book form, however, Price has all the space he needs. And here, there is really only one question to answer. It doesn’t come from Price’s “rain barrel” of listener questions. Price asks it himself in his subtitle. How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition?

In 355 pages, Price gives his answer, and all the supporting context and defined terms that he needs to justify it. It’s not. That’s the essential takeaway. The Gospel Tradition is not reliable.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s first just capture a few of the things I feel I learned while reading this book.

The Pauline Epistles Pre-Date the Gospels

I frankly don’t know how this one escaped me for so long. I’ll blame myself rather than my Sunday School teachers, but I guess I always just assumed that Paul was writing in the time after the Gospels were written, as the early Christian Church was expanding out of its Jewish core and recruiting in the Gentiles. Isn’t that what the cities referenced in the Epistle titles denote? Corinth (in Greece), Philippi (in Macedonia), and Rome (in Italy)?

Well, it turns out this is right -- it’s just my assumption about Paul having the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as reference material that is wrong. Paul, assuming he even wrote the epistles, was writing in a time before these canonical Gospels existed, even though he was writing to Gentiles who had established Christian churches far outside of Israel or Judea.

And this reality will figure significantly in Price’s calculation of the reliability of the Gospel tradition. For if the events described in the Gospels actually happened to the God/man named Jesus Christ, why does Paul never mention them?

There Are At Least Four Different Jesuses in the Gospels

This one I was already keyed into, but Price helped me tease out four clear examples of the “multiple Jesus” phenomenon. The dividing lines in question are based on when Jesus actually became the Christ -- that is, the Son of God and redeemer of mankind: upon his resurrection, upon his baptism, upon his birth, or from the beginning of time. Each tradition had their sects and advocates while the Gospels were being penned and transcribed, and each tried to influence the texts to better favor their interpretation of Jesus’s relationship with God.

If only each tradition had its own Gospel, and each consistently stuck to their conflicting story throughout. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. What we have instead are four books where within each all four traditions have been piled on top of each other through a historical progression of redactions, with not a one having a reliably original source by which such edits could be consistently identified.

And all of that is complicated by the order that the Gospels are presented to modern readers.

The average reader of the New Testament reads Matthew before Mark and then goes on to Luke and John. Matthew gives him the impression that Jesus was born God’s Son in a miraculous fashion. Mark begins only with the baptism, but the reader will think little of this: perhaps Mark begins in medias res. With Luke we are back to a miraculous nativity for one born the Son of God. In John the reader learns that Jesus had already been God’s Son from all eternity. But suppose one read Mark by itself, as its first readers did. What impression would one receive? Surely in a book where the main character shows up as an adult and, right off the bat, experiences a vision of divine calling in which he and no one else is told he is God’s Son, the natural inference would be that the baptism was the beginning of an honorific Sonship. If he were already God’s son, wouldn’t he have known it? And then why should God tell him what he already knew? It seems that Mark might believe what others in the early church did, namely, in Jesus’ adoptive Sonship.

But as difficult as it may be to tease apart these traditions, the fact that they are there in the soup has amazing explanatory power. I’ll let Price make one of his extremely helpful analogies from today’s popular culture mythology.

When Siegel and Schuster first told tales of the Man of Steel, he was said to have developed his powers only once he reached maturity. But Superman’s adventures proved so phenomenally popular that the publisher suggested moving the origin of his powers, and hence his superhero career, back one stage to his adolescence. So the adventures of Superboy premiered and continued for decades. Why not go a step further? The legend was revised again, so that the infant Superbaby was already helping out with farm chores using his superstrength, for example, lifting the tractor single-handedly. Even so, when Jesus’ divine sonship was thought to have stemmed from his Spirit-baptism at the Jordan, his adult activities formed the content of the gospel. But once his sonship was believed to have started at his physical birth, his miraculous “adventures” had to be extended backward to fill the gap.

Price is talking there about the numerous infancy Gospels -- texts, while not canonical, comically describe the child Jesus doing things like cursing people, healing others, and fashioning living sparrows out of clay. While few today take them seriously, they offer a certain logical consistency with the premise only partially addressed in the canonical Gospels -- that Jesus may have been God from birth.

Anachronisms Hide Behind Every Corner

These are some of my favorites -- all of which pretty much prove that large portions of the Gospels were written at a time far distant from the events they purport to describe.

Here’s a simple one.

We will return to the enigmatic figure of Judas later, but in the meantime, let us observe that his epithet “Iscariot” might mean, with about equal plausibility, three very different things. First, and traditionally, it has been taken to denote “Judas of Kerioth.” Kerioth was the name of a number of villages in Judea, which would make him the only non-Galilean in the group, if not even an Edomite (like Herod!), which is why he is given red hair in Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (book and film), the Edomites being notorious redheads. John’s gospel must have understood Iscariot this way, since John refers to Judas as the son of Simon Iscariot (13:26). Second, many understand Iscariot as meaning “the Sicarius,” making Judas a member of the assassin squad of the revolutionary Zealots. They carried the sicarius, or short sword, hidden in their robes from whence they would pluck it to stab their intended victim and then mix in with the shouting crowd. This would place Judas alongside Simon the Zealot and Simon Barjona as militant nationalists. I prefer the third option, the surmise of Bertil Gärtner and others, whereby Iscariot represents the Hebrew Ishqarya, “man of falsehood, betrayer.” This means, obviously, that Judas would have been called “Judas Iscariot” during his lifetime no more than Jesus would have been called “Jesus Christ.” This does not mean, however, that sufficient water has not passed under the bridge by the time of the Gospels that Iscariot could be mistaken for a surname. See Mark 3:19, “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” Mark no longer recognized it as a redundancy.

In other words, by the time “Mark” started writing his Gospel, the meaning of Iscariot had already been lost in the dimly remembered past, assuming that the name and the character are based on an actual person. It reminds me a lot of the confusion over Jesus being called “the Nazarene.” Price dissects this one pretty well when examining the record to see if the Gospels can reliably tell us of Jesus’s birthplace.

Despite the rendering of many English Bible translations, Jesus is very seldom called “Jesus from Nazareth” in the Gospels. Mark calls him “Jesus the Nazarene,” as does Luke twice … while Matthew, John, and Acts always call him “Jesus the Nazorean” … with Luke using this epithet once. … Some critics have questioned whether the village of Nazareth even existed in the time of Jesus, since it receives no mention outside the Gospels until the third century. Whether that is important or not, the difference between “Nazarene” and “Nazorean” does give us reason to suspect that the familiar epithet does not after all denote Jesus’ hailing from a village called Nazareth. “The Nazarene” would imply that, but not “the Nazorean.” That seems to be a sect name, equivalent to “the Essene” or “the Hasid.” Epiphanius, an early Christian cataloguer of “heresies,” mentions a pre-Christian sect called “the Nazoreans,” their name meaning “the Keepers” of the Torah, or possibly of the secrets. … These Nazoreans were the heirs, supposedly, of the neoprimitivist sect of the Rechabites descending from the time of Jeremiah. … They were rather like Gypsies, itinerant carpenters. “Nazorean” occurs once unambiguously in the New Testament itself as a sect designation, in Acts 24:5: “a ring leader of the sect of the Nazoreans.” Robert Eisler, Hugh J. Schonfield, and others have plausibly suggested that Jesus (and early Christians generally) were members of this Jewish pious sect.

Again, in other words, any reference to Jesus being from a town called Nazareth based on his being called the Nazarene or the Nazorean in the Gospels in a faulty attempt to square a circle. No such town existed in the time of Jesus’s reported birth, and when the connection is made, it only shows that the Gospel writers didn’t know that.

But when it comes to anachronisms, there’s one I stumbled across that really takes the cake. It’s a little more complicated than misunderstood words, so bear with me.

Jesus is depicted in the Gospels in several contradictory ways when it comes to the matter of legal observance. Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus not merely as a new Moses but virtually as a new Torah. As “Moses” and “Torah” had become practically synonymous, so would “Jesus” and “Gospel” become interchangeable, and for Matthew, Jesus is the new Torah. Matthew organizes the teachings he attributes to Jesus into five major blocs: The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), the Mission Charge (10), the Parables (13), the Manual of Discipline/Community Rule (18), and the Diatribe against the Pharisees/Olivet Discourse (23-25). The fact that he has squeezed these last two, rather different, topics together only underlines his urgency to get all the material into five sections, each of which ends with a similar statement: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching” (7:28). “And when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities” (11:1). “And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there” (13:53). “Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee…” (19:1). “When Jesus had finished these all these sayings, he said to his disciples…” (26:1).

So, these are all interpreted as new and somewhat radical teachings. The lessons in the Sermon on the Mount “astonishing” those who heard them.

And yet this new Torah is in no way intended to replace the traditional one. It belongs to a curious genre of contemporary documents that provide a sort of “new edition” of the old Torah. Other examples are the Book of Jubilees and the Qumran Manual of Discipline. Thus, Matthew can have Jesus speak as if nothing at all has changed: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Scriptures; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For amen: I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not a yodh, not a vowel point will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. So whoever relaxes one of the least [important] of these commandments and teaches others [to do] so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17-19). Of all this, only the [blue type] is from Q, paralleled by Luke 16:17, “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become [null and] void.”

Q is what Bible scholars call a set a supposed source materials that they believe several of the Gospel writers were working from. But don’t let that distract you. The larger point here is that Matthew is evidently trying to have Jesus both change and not change Jewish law. So what? Well, remember who he is supposedly preaching to: Jews in and around Galilee.

The Q saying thus isolated is already strange if we take it as a saying of Jesus, for it is a polemical proposition against someone who posits the Torah is obsolete. Who would Jesus have been talking to? Reform Jews? But the saying fits perfectly into the context of the Gentile Mission and the Pauline debate over the Torah, and that is where we have to leave the saying.

In other words, this can’t possibly be the verbatim report of what a Galilean carpenter preached near the start of the first millennium. It is, again, a reflection of competing traditions vying for dominance with one another through a historical progression of redactions and embellishments. The very fact that Jesus is counseling Jews to accept a new Torah shows that none of these lessons can be historically accurate. They are anachronisms that belong in the time of Christian expansion to the Gentiles.

The Inevitable End of Shrinking

There are, in fact, so many anachronisms, so many sayings of Jesus and so many reports of Jesus’s activities that can’t possibly be historically consistent with the time he supposedly lived, that Price eventually comes to the conclusion alluded to in his book’s title.

According to such an understanding, there can have been no Galilean adventures of an itinerant teacher and healer named Jesus. Rather, these stories must necessarily have arisen only at a subsequent stage of belief when the savior’s glorification, along with his honorific name Jesus, had been retrojected back before his death. I would suggest that only such a scenario of early Christological development can account for, first, the utter absence of the gospel-story tradition from most of the New Testament epistles, and second, the fictive, nonhistorical character of story after story in the Gospels.

A critical analysis, in Price’s opinion, leads to a historical Jesus that has shrunk essentially to the vanishing point.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 18, 2017

Letting the Future Guide the Present

I had a good discussion with my Board chair this week. We're looking ahead to our next Board meeting and it's time to start framing an agenda for the discussions that will take place there. At the end of our discussion we had settled on something that should not only keep our Board focused on the future, but create a structure within which we can take action today.

First, a little background. At our last Board meeting in October, it was observed that almost five years had passed since the Board engaged in a structured visioning exercise. Then, in 2013, we themed that exercise around the "future of our industry," and the future that we envisioned was five years forward -- 2018.

Then, we used the scenario planning methodology that I've described in a previous post to both identify and describe four different possible futures for our industry, each based on the juxtaposition of two uncertain outcomes of two vexing megatrends. Looking at those four futures with the benefit of hindsight, one of them now appears much more plausible that the other three, but that perspective ignores the very premise of the scenario planning methodology. The future is uncertain -- by definition. If you're going to position your association effectively for the future, you have to prepare for not one but several different possible futures, and adjust only when it becomes clear which possible future is coming true.

And that was the piece of the 2013 exercise that we realized we hadn't carried through on. Five years ago, our Board has described four different possible futures and developed strategic positioning plans for each of them. And although we had certainly reacted to the actual evolving future over the last five years, we didn't return regularly to the 2013 exercise and the predictions and plans it contained to help guide those decisions. Like so many other strategic planning exercises, I'm ashamed to admit, our 2013 future of the industry exercise had, once completed, basically sat on a shelf.

So one decision my Board chair and I made was not to let that happen again. Here we were, almost five years away from that 2013 discussion, almost in the 2018 that was imagined then. It was clearly time to not just dust off the 2013 report, but to use its methodology to look forward again, five more years, to 2023. Not only would we engage the Board in another visioning exercise, this time we would find a way to use that exercise to actively guide the decisions of the Board moving forward.

I'll describe more about how we intend to do that in future posts.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Working Committees Have Plenty To Do

We're looking ahead to another calendar year in our association, and as part of that look forward we are setting a year-long course for some of our working committees.

Working Committee is the term my association uses for what others might call Program Committees. They are not committees of the Board, helping the Board fulfill its governance function. They are committees comprised of the rank and file members of the association, and their purpose is to help the organization execute its programs.

A few of these working committees have stagnated over the past year, and we felt it was time to re-invigorate them. To help them do that, for each committee we drafted a one-page document that outlined several important elements of the committee's successful function. In addition to the committee's purpose statement, its conference call schedule, and its guidelines for selecting members and chairs, the document also included three things essential to understanding the role and function of working committee's in our association's structure.

1. The long-term strategic goal to which the association has committed itself. This is presented to the committee with a period, not a question mark. It's not up for discussion. The strategic goals of the association have been developed by the staff and approved and resourced by the Board. It is not the job of the working committee to try and steer the ship in a different direction.

2. The current status of the strategic goal. Long-term means long-term. The association has been working on the goal for a while and will continue working on it for a while more. Here's a quick summary of the progress made so far.

3. The supporting agenda items the committee will focus its attention on in the year ahead. And, as we look at the year ahead of us, here are the specific things that the committee can help us do to keep the strategic goal advancing forward. If you review them, you'll see these items are not busywork exercises that staff could do, but necessary and practical decisions that require the knowledge sets and perspectives of our committee members.

I'm pretty pleased with the documents. They are a kind of contract with our committee members. They inform on our strategic direction, but they also make it clear that we can't effectively execute the necessary programs without their input and direction.

But the big epiphany for me was the realization of how much we needed the committees to actually do. When I talk with other association professionals about my approach to working committees -- that they help the organization execute programs, not direct strategy -- I am sometimes met with skepticism. Oh that would never work in my association, they often say, either not wanting members meddling in program execution or not believing the members would be satisfied in doing just that. There wouldn't be enough for them to do.

But I find it to be just the opposite. There is plenty to do in that space between strategy determination and tactical implementation. Programs must be designed before they can be executed, and their design has to be informed by the needs of the members themselves. That's the ideal space for our working committees to operate in.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, December 9, 2017

American Epics edited by Austen Barron Bailly

This is the book of a traveling art exhibition I saw at the Milwaukee Art Museum -- Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood.

A thoroughly American artist and a consummate storyteller, Thomas Hart Benton is an epic subject in his own right, but even Benton fans may be surprised to learn of his connections to the film industry. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood turns a spotlight on Benton’s early work in silent film production in New Jersey and his later expeditions to Hollywood, illuminating the impact of these experiences on his art and career. This stunning volume traces Benton’s relationships with film and Hollywood through more than eighty reproductions of his art and twelve informative essays by experts on Benton and American art and culture.

I didn’t know much about Thomas Hart Benton before going to the exhibition, but that entry paragraph on the front overleaf pretty well sums it up. Benton, I came to discover was a popular mural painter, receiving numerous commissions throughout his career for murals in conspicuous public spaces.

And murals, of course, are stories. And the best of that bunch, in my opinion, is his American Historical Epic.

But earlier in his career, in his first attempt at public art, Benton tried to combine the West’s myths with its realities. Seeking to participate in public debates about who and what was authentically American, Benton created his American Historical Epic, a critical history of the United States. Without a commission to pay for it or a building to house it, Benton independently produced a cinematic series of fourteen mural panels -- each five to six feet high by four to six feet wide. Installed side by side, the panels … amount to more than sixty feet in length. The titles and imagery unflinchingly revised traditional and idealized versions of American history to emphasize scenes of violence and exploitation.

I’ve reproduced above the first five of these paintings: Discovery, The Palisades, Aggression, Prayer, and Retribution; what Benton called Chapter 1 of the epic. Two other chapters follow, but today, even in the age of Google, these images are hard to find. At the exhibition, all were on display, but only nine were the original paintings. The other five were careful reproductions, placed, obviously, to give the viewer the full effect that Benton intended. And it was quite an effect. The figures are near life size, and the span of shapes and colors fill your entire field of vision. Their relative compositions are frequently doubled and interrelated with one another -- in Chapter 1, for example, Native American figures bookend the series, one facing right towards the approaching Europeans and the other facing left, poised to deliver a fatal blow to a helpless pilgrim, with a third Indian figure in the very center of the grouping, suspended in an act of violence being perpetrated on him. And throughout, despite the simplicity of the figures, a surprising number of details reveal themselves to the careful observer.

I can see why they were (and perhaps still are) unpopular. They shatter a set of prevailing myths of early American history, myths that Benton had spent several years servicing and enforcing as a set and promotional artist in the early days of the American film industry. Even before the rise of the talkies, the Western was well established as a distinct genre of popular entertainment, with many of the tropes and constructs we still recognize today.

How strange it then seemed, at least to me, to see Benton’s work during the Second World War, where, like many a patriotic American artist, he used his considerable talents not to shatter but to reinforce the myths and the stereotypes of that conflict.

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor provided an instantaneous casus belli, mobilizing public and private support for American engagement in total war. Benton’s own pent-up anxieties about the security of the nation were unleashed by the attack, and he began to work immediately, and furiously, on an ambitious project called Year of Peril (YOP), a series of eight propagandistic paintings he finished in about four months. Benton dedicated the project to “those new Americans who, born again through appreciation of their country’s great need, find themselves with new shares of patriotism and intelligence, and new wills to see what is what and to come to grips with it, in this Year of Peril.”

Whether it is the depiction of savagery upon civilians in Invasion...


...or the caricaturistic allegories bleeding across the canvas in Exterminate!...


...or the monsters flying Axis flags seen crucifying Christ in Again...


...I personally find plenty of patriotism, but not much intelligence; the social commentary of his American Historical Epic entirely supplanted by the unnerving jingoism of the times.

I far prefer Benton’s more simple and more transcendent works. Pieces like Romance, painted in 1932, with allegory and meaning so deep and purposeful, I was entranced by the thoughtful essay written about it by Richard Powell.


An impossibly elongated couple, walking hand in hand, commands center stage in Romance, a painting by the renowned American artist Thomas Hart Benton. A woman, wearing a red dress and a cloche, and her partner, a barefoot man with his shirtsleeves and pant legs rolled up, are enveloped by an idealized southern United States landscape -- a rickety wagon, a moss-covered tree, a cabin with a stone chimney, a worn-out barrel -- and an anthropomorphic sky, with a cloud-shuttered moon resembling the heavy-lidded all-seeing eye of a gigantic deity.

Depicted with downcast heads and austere, serious expressions, the pair appears to be moving with an intended objective in mind, their long, gangly limbs are caught mid-stride, almost as if they are dancing but without the frivolity or theatricality of a pas de deux. Their mirrored movements and near-identical poses underscore their assumed status as a couple and suggest a common purpose within the painting’s implicit narrative, in which they are ostensibly walking away from the rustic scene behind them and toward an open, shadowy land ahead, at the lower-left corner of the painting.

I didn’t see all of that upon first look, but it is all there. But what’s more remarkable, and what the essay goes into much greater depth on, is Benton’s intended meaning behind that dangling pair of shoes.

Benton’s autobiography An Artist in America offers clues to what he might have intended with this visual passage. In the chapter titled “The South,” Benton inserted the following, somewhat cryptic, anecdote from his travels in the late 1920s below the Mason-Dixon Line:

“Two Negro boys were walking along a dusty north Georgia road. They were barefoot. Their new pants were rolled up in fat cuffs below their knees. Both had shiny patent leather shoes hanging from their shoulders. One carried a bulging black paper suitcase, the straps of which were reinforced with strands of rope. It was a heavy load. They were sad-eyed and their lips drooped.

“‘Mistah,’ said one to me, ‘is it fuh frum hyeah to Noo Yauk?’”

As suggested in this story (and possibly in Benton’s Romance), the triumvirate of bare feet, unworn shoes, and African American travelers collectively conjures not just an image of a leisurely stroll or an obligatory walk by country folk but also visions or escape and migration. Beyond this particular recollection, there are other references in Benton’s autobiography to black subjugation and white brutality in the South that function as subliminal spurs for these boys: the psychological cuts and actual blows that prompted them to take up a “heavy load” and seek refuge in “Noo Yauk.” Their journey -- a symbolic, barefoot pilgrimage to freedom -- and their shoes -- emblems of prestige and modernity -- resonate with Benton’s Romance through these same components, the couple’s sober, ambulatory undertaking and the scene’s overarching serious-mindedness and moon-lit singularity. Indeed, the descriptive breakdown and itemized recounting of bare feet, rolled-up cuffs, and hanging shoes operated in both Benton’s text and his painting as surrealistic fragments: focal, discernable elements that triggered subconscious figments of corporeality, orderliness, and flight, respectively.

What a wonderful description of the things that all great art contains -- surrealistic fragments; focal, discernable elements that trigger our subconscious. And on that front, these shoes, it seems, have even more to trigger in us.

And one doesn’t want to exclude from a discussion of Benton’s fixations on bare feet and isolated shoes his lifelong admiration for fellow Missourian, the author and humorist Mark Twain, and Twain’s well-documented deployment of these same emancipatory icons in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Observing an African American shoeshine boy cleaning a pair of riding boots on the back stoop of a southern hotel, Benton became captivated by the boy’s work song, which he repeated over and over again, Benton noted in his autobiography, with “a funereal solemnity”:

Dem ole duhty shoes
Dem ole duhty shoes
Who se-e-ehd dem shoes --

Like Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of abandoned, seemingly forsaken shoes, the spare refrain of Benton’s shoeshine boy paints an evocative still life with words: a sound-painting fraught with privation, melancholy, and the ghostly specter of feet that once resided in an empty pair of brogans. In another Benton painting, Butterfly Catcher (1942), the artist consigned a derelict, shabby shoe to a landscape of forest undergrowth, rotted tree trunks, and debris, relying on the viewer’s ability to conceptually link the true butterfly chaser (in the far distance), the butterfly’s literary associations with departed souls, and the cadaverous shoe in the immediate foreground. Vacant, unfilled shoes, and other marked absences in Western art and visual culture, often signify death, and, in the context of Benton’s Romance, the barefoot man’s dangling oxfords unavoidably evoke, along with Mark Twain’s two defiantly shoeless protagonists, the lynched bodies of black men, suspended from gnarled tree branches and strained ropes.

Pilgrimages to freedom and the swinging bodies of lynched men. That’s a lot to pack into a pair of dangling shoes, but it is, I think, an example of what makes great art so compelling and worth understanding.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, December 4, 2017

I Don't Know How To Do That

I was talking to a friend last night about one of the newest education programs in my association. He's a friend, but he's not in the association business, and I often find his viewpoint as an outsider to my world refreshing.

The new program has a lot of potential, but it's not living up to expectations. Those who attend it, love it, but the number of members attending it falls far short of the demographic that it's geared for. We promote it through all our traditional channels, but it always draws about the same number of members, with the largest percentage comprised of repeat participants.

First I described the goals of the program and my friend, even from outside the association business, saw its value. He compared it to something in his business that he was familiar with and he was spot on with the comparison. Then I described the challenge we were facing, the disappointing lack of participation.

Livestream it, he said.

Now, I don't want to go into the details of why I should or should not consider livestreaming this series of programs. Some associations, in my experience, have an aversion to distributing content from their live education sessions to anyone who isn't in the session room. If people can get it online, the thinking goes, they'll stop coming to the live event. Maybe they will and maybe they won't, but that's not what I'm here to debate. I'd rather focus on the first thought that popped in my head when my friend made this suggestion.

I don't know how to do that.

So what? Even I recognized how meaningless this objection was -- so much so that I successfully kept myself from uttering it out loud. There are a dozen other people I could rely on, and some of them may know how to do it, and if they couldn't we could certainly hire a vendor with the right equipment and expertise to do it for us. I am, after all, the same blogger who posted last week on the importance of putting your resources where your strategic objectives were.

So where did this impulse come from? It was, I realized with some reflection, a fear of something I didn't fully understand, and it came from the same place that all such fears do. The place of uncertainty that keeps us from trying something new, to rely again and again on the things that feel comfortable but which ultimately don't bring us success.

The challenge, you see, has nothing to do with live streaming. It rather has everything to do with banishing the fear of experimentation.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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