When presidents had false teeth but spoke the truth & Texas recruited immigrants


Copyright 2012, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on January 19, 2012. Like what you read? Then please stop “liking” us and help pay for it. Designate your PayPal donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or e-mail us at that address to learn about donating in Euros or by check.

FORT WORTH, Texas — Heritage is a messy business, especially in a country built out of multiple heritages. There may be no more vivid microcosm of this principle right now in the United States than that found in the few blocks that make up the Cultural District of this cosmopolis which calls itself “Cowtown” with pride and whose concentration of world-class museums and Western heritage seems to justify the city motto, “Cowboys & Culture.”

Monday at the Will Rogers Memorial Center — named after the American cowboy journalist, humorist, actor and philosopher — the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, running through February 4, celebrated the opening of its 116th year with a Cowboys of Color Rodeo, aptly held on the day honoring Martin Luther King, who did more to emancipate African-Americans than any other American in the 20th century. Across Gendy Street, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame is honoring with her own exhibition (“The cowgirl who became a justice”) retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who, in voting to stop the Florida ballot re-count in the 2000 presidential election, helped enable the disenfranchisement of thousands of African-American voters. Right across the street, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is hosting an exhibition on George Washington — including the last intact set of his dentures — that acknowledges that the father of our country was also a slave holder, as well as an exhibition which recalls when Texas *campaigned* to bring a million immigrants into the U.S. through the port of Galveston… which was also a major entry for… slaves. And the Rodeo, meanwhile, seems to have forgotten that a founding principle of the nation whose Western heritage it celebrates was freedom of religious expression, which also means that the majority should not impose its religion on the minority; spectators for Cowboys of Color had no choice but to listen to the announcer open the event by invoking Jesus Christ before the first bull even hurtled out of the chute. (Here’s what Will Rogers said about religion: “I was raised predominantly a Methodist, but I have traveled so much, mixed with so many people in all parts of the world, I don’t know just what I am. I know I have never been a non-believer. But I can honestly tell you that I don’t think that any one religion is the religion.”)

Being American is not in itself often thought of as an ethnicity. And yet there seems to be at least one ethnic trait that most Americans have inherited: Bad teeth. This correspondent for one feels a little less self-conscious about his own dilapidated mashers after pondering a set of our founding father’s dentures and reading about his troubled dental history in “Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon,” a touring exhibition on view at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History through January 22. Most revelatory is the text accompanying the display of dentures (composed, by the way, of ivory, cow teeth, and human teeth; other sets also included hippo teeth — and none of the president’s eight dentures were made of wood). Beset by dental problems from his early 20s, by the time he was sworn in as the first president in 1789 General Washington had only one of his natural teeth remaining in his mouth, a possible explanation for his sallow cheeks, we’re told. (The exhibition also uses computer science to construct life-sized mannequins of the younger Washington from later portraits.) On another occasion, he provided a lesson in resourcefulness that perhaps ought to be included in our history books alongside Valley Forge for health-care strapped contemporary children to consider: Following his dentist’s instructions, Washington used wax and plaster of Paris to make a mold of the inside of his mouth to send away to the dentist. By the time he left office, all of Washington’s original teeth were gone.

Does the exhibition’s attempt to digest Washington as slave-holder have any teeth? Visitors can watch a series of video interviews with African-American scholars and others who differ on the degree to which perceptions of the president should be influenced by his having owned slaves. Most say it taints him, but one suggests that Washington  wanted to free his household’s slaves, but most of them were owned by Martha Washington, and he couldn’t afford to buy their freedom from his wife.

galveston-1From the exhibition Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island. Images courtesy Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

“Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island,” a massive exhibition running in the gallery next door to ‘Washington’ through April 1, does a much better job of balancing the pride and shame of American heritage related to immigration, devoting almost equal time to the slaves who were hauled in chains through this Texas Gulf port beginning in 1845, and the voluntary immigrants who decamped there through 1924, an immigration not merely welcomed by the nation and later state of Texas, but encouraged. At one point, we’re informed, the state launched a campaign to bring a million immigrants to Galveston. Even the railway companies pitched in, offering free jump on, jump off privileges so that the immigrants could explore the state at their leisure to pick a place to settle, where they could usually find low-cost housing. About the only immigrants who — late in the game, after 1913, when rules became stricter — had a harder time getting in were people like me: Jews, who some immigration officials claimed were shifty. (Perhaps tolerating invocations of Christ at Texas rodeos is one of the costs of our admission.) The exhibition even features a wall with an immigration timeline to which visitors can add their own family’s entry history with handy post-its. The only criticism I have of the exhibition is that it’s heavy on explanatory text, audio, photographs, and reproductions and very light on actual artifacts. A better bet is to head over to the Cattle Raisers Museum, housed in the same building, and into the legacy room, where “legacy drawers” contain photographs as well as personal memorabilia from pioneering cowboys and the occasional cowgirl.


One of the first things immigrant Charlie Hoffman (left) did after debarking at Galveston Island was to don cowboy gear so he could take a picture to send back home. Jewish immigrants (right) found it harder to gain entrance after 1913, with some officials labeling them slackers.

If you thought the cowboy was an artifact, then you’ve never been to the rodeo. I attended my first on Martin Luther King Day, when the 116-year-old Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo — one of the three largest in the U.S., running through Feb. 4 at the Will Rogers Memorial Center — offered as one of its opening events the Cowboys of Color Rodeo. This wasn’t just about token inclusion; a third of the wranglers who settled the West were cowboys and cowgirls of color. I however felt momentarily excluded with the opening prayer invoking “the Lord,” i.e. Jesus Christ.

I was quickly distracted by the bareback riding, in which the cowboys appear to be surfing the horses while straddling their backs (the legs have to start out over the animals’ shoulders). I was just noting how cruel the tie-down roping seems, with the calves quickly and rudely wrestled to the ground and then bound, including around their necks, when the informative announcer pointed out, “For those of you attending your first rodeo who might be thinking [this is cruel], remember this is where your meat comes from, and to do things like give the cows their medicine and get ’em to the doctor, you gotta rope ’em down.”

More pure — and seeming like more of a collaboration between horse and rider — was the thrilling Pony Express Relay Race, which is just what it sounds like, two relay teams racing around barrels, barely slowing for the hand-off of a rolled up parcel until the final rider drops it into a barrel in the center of the arena. The teams were mixed, cowboys and cowgirls; the prior event, pure barrel racing (with the winner being the fastest to get around the barrels and cross the finish line), was all cowgirls, as young as nine, and all fleet. My biggest thrill came during the bull-riding, when a bull the size of a killer whale tried to bolt from the chute above which I was sitting and into the stands. (“Arts journalist mauled by bull.”) This event still struck me as cruel and, as a Taurus, I found myself rooting for the bulls. Not that the combat isn’t dangerous for the human participants, despite that the points were trimmed from these animals’ horns. The performers who seemed to be putting their lives most at risk were the three ‘clowns.’ I put clowns in quotes because don’t let the make-up, floppy costumes, and wigs fool you: their role is serious, to distract raging bulls from fallen cowboys long enough for the cowboys to amscray. One of these jesters, sporting a multi-colored wig, took up his post in a barrel, ducking into it just before a bull charged and pushed the barrel around the grounds with his horns.

After the rodeo I moseyed (sorry) over to the animal barns, avoiding the ‘swine’ hangar and making straight for the boer goats. Except for the occasional “baaaaaaaaaah,” these animals, about the size of deer and just as pretty with white coats, brown heads, and floppy ears, seemed like they’d make ideal pets. Some even propped themselves up with their fore-legs on the fences of their pens. “Are these used for milk?” I asked a middle-aged woman minding one of the goat pens, meaning “cheese” but not wanting to seem too effete. “Meat,” answered the goat-keeper matter-of-factly. I decided maybe it was time to re-think my hankering for a particular recipe from “The Cowboy Grill” cookbook, edited by Cheryl Rogers-Barnett (Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’s daughter), Ken Beck, and Jim Clark: Johnny Cash’s Barbecued Mexican-Style Fiery Goat.

Finally I left the stock show grounds and gamboled towards the giant blue crop-duster plane hovering over the corner of Montgomery Street, turning left towards the Trinity River. I stopped at the empty lot below the railroad tracks to pour a hot cup of java from my ’60s-era red polka-dot German thermos scored for a buck at a Paris garage sale. (“These days, Tex Ben-Itzak does his wrangling at flea markets.”) A sign by the tracks warns, “Many of these trains have no human conductor and will not stop,” but I still like to look up at the mustard-colored engine cars with “Union Pacific” in red letters over the rusted wheels and imagine there’s a real-life conductor making them march forward and go “choo-choo.” I looked up at the thunder clouds in the big 6 o’clock calico sky and decided they’d dubbed the wrong state “Big Sky Country.” Then I lifted up my dark brown working cowboy boots (Fort Worth garage sale, $10 with bandana) and headed towards the underpass and the Trinity, stepping right into a field of wet cement, a wanna-be cowboy grounded by progress.


At Artcurial Photography Auction, Frontiers in a Reflecting Glass

photo-newton-smallHelmut Newton (1920 – 1984), “Veruschka on the Terrace of the Presidential Suite, Hotel Meridien, Nice,” 1975. Silver gelatin print, 7.48 x 11.42 inches. Signed, titled, and dated with artist’s stamp on back. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 15,000 – 20,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

One might think that scheduled as a curtain closer on the same evening as its monumental “From the Willy Ronis Inheritance” sale, which offers 163 lots starting with a 1926 self-portrait and finishing with a 1990 nude, book-ending no less than a photo-biography of a largely mid-20th century popular Paris, an auction entitled simply “Photography” might have trouble holding one’s attention. But if the scale is more modest, the scope of tonight’s second Artcurial auction is in a way more audacious than the Ronis sale, with one predominant — and timely — theme emerging: Frontiers. We’ve chosen to share a some samples, ranging from the intimate to the inter-galactic and finishing with a presidential epilogue, from, respectively, Helmut Newton, NASA, Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, Man Ray, and Mark Seliger, whose portrait of a retreating Barack Obama is just begging to be Photo-shopped. – Paul Ben-Itzak
To access the full version of the article, including more images, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Not a subscriber? 1-year subscriptions are just $49, or $25 for students and unemployed artists. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address for information on how to pay by check or in Euros or British pounds.


moma-coburn-smallAmong the films being screened this month by the Museum of Modern Art for the series Modern Matinees: The Body Politic is, above, “The President’s Analyst,” featuring, left, James Coburn, and directed by Theodore J. Flicker in 1967. (USA). Courtesy Photofest.


strasbourg nast.jpg

strasbourg-ungererThe exhibition “Oncle Sam, Thomas Nast et Tomi Ungerer: Une satire politique et sociale de l’Amérique,” prolonged through November 13 at the Musée Tomi Ungerer Centre international de l’Illustration, in Strasbourg, features more than 150 examples of the cartoons of Thomas Nast (1840-1902), one of the fathers of caricature in the United States, from the pages of Harper’s Weekly, including, top: “The sacred elephant. This animal is sure to win, if it…” Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, 8.3.1884. Accompanying the Nast works are original drawings and posters by Ungerer, including, bottom: Tomi Ungerer, untitled, 1967. Lavis d’encre de Chine et d’encres de couleur sur papier blanc. Collection musée Tomi Ungerer – Centre international, Strasbourg © Diogenes Verlag AG Zürich \ Tomi Ungerer. Photo : Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg.


La canarie dans le mine de charbon: Pourquoi Trump a gagné, et comment la France peut evité un destin pareil

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

“The forgotten men and women will be forgotten no longer.” (Fini l’oublie des oubliées.)
— Donald Trump, president-elu des Etats-Unis, le 9 novembre

Je vous demande pardon tout d’abord pour mon francais, mais le contenu de mon message, meme s’il risque d’etre plein des fauts, est tellement importante, que pour une fois dans ses pages il faut que je vous parle dans la langue de ce pays adoptif qui m’est si chere — surtout a l’heure ou mon autre pays risque de tomber dans le neant car on n’as pas assez entendu le cri des ‘petites’ gens qui souffrent, ses delaissés de le mondialisation et le Capitalism néo-liberal.

Car oui, on les n’ont pas entendu.

Si les americains ont elu Barack Obama en 2008, ce n’etait pas parce que le racisme des certains segments de la population americaine a tout a coup fondu. C’est parce que les gens avaient peur. Ils avaient peur de se retrouver SDF, sans de quoi manger, sans futur sur a leguer a leurs enfants. Et comme le candidat Republican de l’epoque — assez moderé, d’ailleurs — n’a pas semblé maitraisé ou meme comprendre la crise economique, ils ont preferé a mettre leur confiance dans le jeune homme, diplomé de la prestigeuse Harvard University Law School, qui leur a semblé le mieux equipé et preparé pour fair face a le situation. Peu importe la couleure de sa peau.

Donc, si aujourd’hui ils ont choisi un homme aux mots racistes, misogynes, anti-immigrants, sans gout, et qui des qu’il se trouve devant un fait qui ne lui convient pas le nie, ce n’etait pas parce qu’ils sont (en majorité)  racistes ou betes. Bien sur que — et malheureusement — il  existe probablement parmi les soutiens de Trump un noyau de 30% (ca vous fait penser à quelq’un?) qui le suit dans ses prejudices. Mais les voteurs qui l’ont donné la marge de la victoire sont les delaissés de la mondialisation et de capitalism néo-liberal. (Je ne dis pas qu’ils avaient raison de penser que c’est un des pires exemplaires du capitalism, M. Trump, qui va les sauver!)

Né dans la Californie, j’ai passé le plupart de mes années adult Etats-Unisian la-bas et a New York. Mais avant de rentrer en France, j’avais vecu 3 années dans le Texas. Bien evidemment j’ai cotoyé pas mal des racistes la-bas (et des gens de bon coeur aussi), et des types plein de haine pour autrui (surtout quand il s’agit des freaks comme moi!). Mais un beau jour, j’ai rencontré un homme de mon age, c’est a dire 50 ans, en train de vendre ses affaires dans un vide maison. (Parmi lesquelles  une photo des soeurs tisseuses a Toulouse prise par un certain John Howard Griffin, autrefois auteur du fameux livre “Black Like Me,” edité pendant les années ’60, et qui raconte l’histoire d’un homme blanc qui a changé le couleur de sa peau en noir pour voir comment les gens le traitait.) C’etait en 2012. Et cet homme — qui autrefois a travailé dans la batiment — etait au chomage depuis 2008, et donc se trouvait forcé de vendre la maison de son pere.

A Paris, j’ai un ami de longue date, artisan-electrician, et qui tend une petite commerce, avec lui-meme comme seule salaire. Depuis des années, il me raconte que il devrais payé tant des impots — jusque presque 60 percent de ces revenues — que des fois c’est moins couteuse de prendre ses vacances que de travailé. Et pour l’assurance santé, c’est pas gagné. On a parlé aprés la vote pour le “Brexit.” Selon lui, c’etait comme (c’est mon phrase mais c’etait le sens de son commentaire) la canarie dans le mine de charbon. Des qu’il y a un commencement de manque d’air dans le mine, c’est la canarie qui tomber d’abord — c’est comme un signalement aux mineurs que ca vas pas dans le mine. Pour lui, la vote pour le Brexit donc n’etait pas forcement un rejet de l’immigration, mais des regulations (austerité, pour example) imposé par Bruxelles. Et il faut, selon lui, que l’EU prendre la vote pour le Brexit comme un avertissement que si on ne veut pas que les autres pays suive, ca devrais changé. Il faut qu’on ecoutet aux ‘petites’ gens. (Ce matin meme, suit aux resultats du scrutin americain, Dominique de Villepin a qualifié les Etats-Unis et la France comme ‘les freres jumeaux.’)

Donc — et comme aux Etats-Unis — soit si c’est les ‘petites’ retraits (comme mes voisins ici dans la Sud de France) qui arrivent a peine a leur fin de mois, soit si c’est les jeunes pour lesquelles souvent la seule embauche est un stage mal ou non-payé, soit si c’est les gens plus agé qui (comme votre serviteur) sont les rejets de la marché d’emploie — oui, les ‘petites’ gens ont peur. Et il faut les entendre.

Mais les bonne nouvelles — car oui, des bonnes nouvelles il y en est, si vous avez la chance de vivre et pouvoir voter en France — c’est que coté democracie, ici c’est pas comme aux Etats-Unis.

Aux Etats-Unis, sachez vous qu’on n’a pas que les Democrats et les Republicans? On a aussi les petites parties, voir les Verts et les Libertarians, mais — au contraire a la France — ils ont etaient exclu des debats televisés (qui sont controlé par les deux grandes parties), et de la media dit ‘mainstream’ en general. Et quand un Socialist atypiquement malin a reussi a entrer quand meme dans le course des primaires Democrats, l’appareil du partie (controlé par des proches à Clinton) a carrement favoré, voir travailé, pour l’election de Hilary… ca que, en fin de compte, n’as pas joué dans sa favour dans le scrutin general car des milliers des jeunes qui ont voté et travailé pour Bernie Sanders, se sentient disenfranchisé, n’ont pas voté.

Cette manque de vrais democracie n’est pas le cas en France.

Vous savez, la ou je vivre en ce moment — dans une petite village en Sud de France — j’ecouter beacoup la radio publique Francaise. Et la, dans cette period pre-presidential, tout les points de vu — tout les candidats et candidates, je veut dire — sont exposé et representé. Uniquement cette semaine sur France Inter et France Culture j’avais deja entendu le chef du parti communiste, Pierre Laurent, le candidat presidential d’Europe Ecologie Yannick Jadot, et Daniel Cohn-Bendit. (On entendre JAMAIS les Communists sans parle les Verts  sur les chaines dit mainstream aux Etats-Unis.) La semaine derniere c’etait Bruno Lemaire. Ce n’etait pas mon ‘rayon’ political ce derniere, *mais* lui, au moins, il a dit avec raison que le probleme centrale qui occupe les francaises c’est pas l’identité national mais le BOULOT. Et donc OUI, ici en France au moins, au contraire aux Etats-Unis on est exposé aux politicians  — et visions — des presque toutes rayons (ou au moins plus des rayons qu’aux Etats-Unis), et c’est bien.

Donc, voici la message — meme leçon, si j’ose dire — que je tienne a tiré et de transmis de la scrutin americain pour mes ami/es francaises:

Si vous ne voulais pas vous trouver encore une fois devant un 21 avril ou (maintainant) un 9 novembre a la francaise — ou, comme a dit Yogi Berra, le baseballer qui a produit autant de pearls de sagesse que home runs, un cas de ‘deja vu all over again’ — arrete de dire, s’il vous plait, “Ils sont tout pourri.”

Parce qu’il y a Benoit Hamon.

Il y a Yannick Jadot.

Il y a Clementine Autain.

Il y a Pierre Laurent.

Il y a Francois Bayrou.

Il y a Emmanuel Macron.

Il y a Bruno Lemaire.

Il y a NKM.

Il y a *meme* Francois Hollande.

Surtout, ne vous resigné pas a dire que si vos compatriots veulent voté pour la Marine, c’est car ils sont des xenophobes. *Montré leur qu’il y a un autre voie possible.* Avant qu’il sera trop tard.

Pour ecouter un radio de gauche Etats-Unisian — genre le La-bas si j’y suis de Daniel Mermet — cliquez ici.


A la MEP, l’Amerique vu par Andres Serrano /At the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, America by Serrano


Andres Serrano, “Blood on the Flag” (9/11), 2001-2004.  © Andres Serrano and courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/ Bruxelles.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

In a jaundiced media climate in which too many journalists seem more interested in confirming stereotypes than confronting them, what artists can provide is a perspective guided not by fixed political, racial, national, or societal constructs but by their own inherent acute aesthetic antennae and geographic sensibility. Such is the frank portrait etched of the United States — not incidentally providing a much-needed antidote to the tired stereotypes the American presidential election has enabled much of the French media to regurgitate (we’re just a bunch of Puritan sexists, 60 million of us are in prison, ad nauseum) — by the photographs of Andres Serrano in a major exhibition opening November 9 at the City of Paris’s Maison Européenne de la Photographie, where it continues through January 29.

To access the rest of the article, including more images — among them by pioneering 19th century photographer Gustave Le Gray — subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Not a subscriber? 1-year subscriptions are just $49 or Euros, or $25 or Euros for students and unemployed artists. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address for information on how to pay by check or in British pounds.