Knowing My Own History


Divorced From History

The UCLA Interview

Back in the late 1980s I applied for a job as an Assistant Professor of Art at UCLA in California.  I got an interview and it seemed to go well.  The person interviewing me was the chair of the painting department and he said that the committee had been taken by how fresh and unique my work was, that it was refreshing to see. He seemed impressed with me and my work.

The Question

He then asked me something along the lines of ‘where does your work fit in art history, who has influenced you?’  After his praise for my work’s uniqueness the question caught me a bit off guard. On the one hand they wanted a one of a kind artist, on the other hand they wanted him or her to fit in with other artist and their work.  My answer was pretty much that I stood alone.  Yes, there were influences but I was not directly and tightly linked to a style or movement, an artist or group of artists.  I was proud of that.

Not Too Original

I didn’t get the job.  I tried to figure out why and I think it was that answer that did me in. They wanted a leaf that was part of a tree, not a leaf by itself.  They were an institution that needed to promote originality to their students and the art world, but not so much originality that they couldn’t explain how the art and artist fit into the rest of the art world.

At first this annoyed me but as time went on and I matured it made perfect sense. Understanding where we are in history matters to people. It reassures them, it helps organize the world.  It also protects them, sort of like a warranty.  I no longer begrudge people who want to place me somewhere. I might not agree with them, but I understand the need.

Knowing My History

If I could do it over again I wouldn’t change my work at all. But I would change my awareness of how my work is part of a continuum of art and also a compendium of influences outside of art. That it actually did come from somewhere; bits and pieces of the art that was on my Grandfather’s walls for example.  The cartoons I watched as a kid.  The artists who emphasized simplicity and elegance in composition and line, like Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse.  My inherited Irish gift of gab.  The truth was I didn’t connect my personal history or my art history back to my artwork. I was a leaf not connected to the tree.

It’s great to be a unique leaf, but it’s also of value to know what tree you belong to.


Drawing and commentary by Marty Coleman

Quote by Michael Crichton, 1942-2008, American author


Should We Condemn the Past? – History Lesson #4

1, 2, and 3 are past, so that makes this day #4 of History Lesson Week.

Should we condemn the past? History Lesson #4


This sentiment, ‘every past is worth condemning’, probably infuriates you as it did me when I first read it.  I am often the one in arguments about history to defend the past era and the decisions made then.  I don’t mean I approve of them, obviously I would not make many of the same decisions now.  But that’s the point; I am in the present, not the past.  Just as you have to take into consideration the age and mental capacity of your child when you react to what they say and do, you must do the same for the people of the past.  They knew what they knew and as a result they said and did thing based on that knowledge, not based on our knowledge.  So, I typically am against condemning the past, even if we now can say we don’t approve of the actions they took.

But after reading this simple sentence over a number of times I am starting to see the value in it.  By condemning the past and how they acted we are saying that we have learned, we have grown, we have gone beyond their understanding.  That of course can be a two-edged sword. Not all knowledge from the past is wrong and often we find ourselves as a society moving back to past practices because we have found that our ‘progress’ really wasn’t so progressive.  But plenty of knowledge from that past is worth condemning.

We don’t need to reexamine if slavery is something we should bring back. It has been condemned as wrong and we will not return to it.  We don’t need to investigate if the subjugation of women is something we want to reinstitute.  We know they are equal to the male of the species in every way and we are not going to return to the days of them being condemned to a lesser life.  We condemn that attitude and any and all rationalizations, however valid they may have seemed at some point in the past.  We know now they are not valid and we will not let them be used again.

The last point about women brings us to a dilemma.  The past isn’t always in the past.  We have subjugation of women going on all over the globe as I write this today.  They are not allowed to vote, to drive, to own property, to have their own money, to participate as an equal member of society. The societies that are perpetrating this are still using the same arguments we once used not so long ago (don’t forget, less than 100 years ago women did not have the right to vote in the USA).

We can also find it with us today in the US and other supposedly enlightened western countries.  You don’t have to go much farther than the headlines of the last week over Rush Limbaugh’s disgusting statements about one woman in particular (and be inference virtually all women in the US) to know we still have a long way to go to move past some of those same rationalizations we thought we had left behind.


Drawing and commentary by Marty Coleman of The Napkin Dad Daily

Quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900, German philosopher


The Merging of Character and Circumstances – History Lesson #3

Don’t get distracted, not while it’s only day #3 of History Lesson Week!

The Merging of Character and Circumstances


I sometimes get distracted easily.  I work at home so it might be like today where I heard a bang up in the attic.  Investigating I found that a christmas box had compressed a box below it, sliding down enough for a box on top of it to fall off. Nothing harmed and I was thankful it wasn’t a raccoon or alien, or alien raccoon.

But while I was up there rearranging it I noticed another box in a funny place so I moved it. I also brought up some empty boxes and made room for them, then I came down into the kitchen and wanted coffee and realized my milk is almost gone which I was going to replace with a new carton yesterday but was distracted on my way home from running by the report on the radio which I switched to during a commercial that I was going to switch back to the other station but forgot and while in the kitchen I noticed the dogs want to go out and while letting them out I realized the wind had blown stuff around so I picked that stuff up and then I realized I needed to get the mail and put the trash out for pick up and then I wanted a snack and then I remembered to get back to my office and start writing this a half an hour later but when I got back I had an image in a directory showing and I remembered I needed to edit it which I did and while I did that I realized I forgot my coffee in the kitchen and then decided to change shoes and then I wrote this.

Luckily the merging of my character and circumstances didn’t lead to a nuclear holocaust or falling down a sewer pipe.  But it could in the future so I really need to get a grip on this attention span thing, which I will right after I go get milk…

Drawing and commentary by Marty Coleman, who just saw a pretty bird in the back yard.

Quote by Donald Creigh….oh wait, TWO pretty birds! 

Is History is a Fluid, a Solid or a Gas? – History Lesson #2

Historically speaking, it’s day #2 of History Lesson Week at the NDD.


Is History is a fluid, a solid or a gas? - History Lesson #2


Why are histories about the same era written again and again?  Gibbon’s wrote a multi-volume history of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Why isn’t that enough, why more books on the same topic?  Why so many books about Lincoln, World War II, the American revolution, China, technology, wars? Why is there such a long history of histories?  Because our prejudices are fluid over the generations and our histories will always be updated to fit our prejudices.

What are our historical and present day prejudices?  Just ask yourself what you believe in and that will tell you.  The belief might blind you to the truth, as is the case in certain branches of Islam or Christianity where they do whatever they can to keep women down.  They go so far as to create and then perpetuate gargantuan lies under the guise of history to validate and support their prejudices against women being equal. They are driven by fear and they call it ‘truth’.

I read a synopsis of Hegel’s idea of ‘the Dialectic’ yesterday. No, I don’t really understand it, and no I haven’t ever read his actual work. (Ask my daughter Rebekah if you want to talk to someone who has actually read it and understood it).  I read it in a book called ‘Eureka! – What Archimedes Really Meant and 80 Other Key Ideas Explained.’  It essentially is this: Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis.  We start with an idea, the opposite of the idea comes up to challenge it and eventually the two ideas combine to some degree to create a synthesis, a new idea.  That idea/thesis in turn is the starting point for a new antithesis to challenge it and on it goes.

That is how we can see our fluid history.  A way of looking at a series of events is put forth, let’s say about the American Civil War.  Someone writes a book saying it was fought over slavery.  Then someone else challenges that it was about slavery and writes that it was instead about state’s rights.  A third person writes another book that says it was about both.  That leads to yet another book that says it was about neither but instead was about cotton. And on and on it goes. The positive side to the idea of the dialectic is that it should lead to ever increasing knowledge and understanding.  In practice, while I do believe we make some progress in society and life, I also believe that fear and vested interests keep society and individuals from moving forward towards a better life for all.

Drawing and commentary by Marty Coleman, who would always choose ‘history’ on Jeopardy!

Quote by Mark Twain, who was born 4 years after Hegel died.

Subscribe and Join TheNapkin Kin

Get on the mailing list and get The Napkin Newsletter once a month and get a review of the months postings, with extra resources and features that will make your brain bigger and your day better!


Thanks, You Are Now A Napkin Kin!

%d bloggers like this: