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I am 54 years old today.

I spent the weekend celebrating this minor milestone. The celebration had it’s highs and lows as I reflected on the good times and spectacular meltdowns that have marked the trail I see when I look over my shoulder. I guess I should be thankful for everything, including all that self-inflicted pain, because all those things have conspired to make me what I am today.

One of the many activities on my busy social schedule was a trip to the Detroit Institute of Art. It may surprise a lot of people to learn that Detroit, that monument to the decline of the American Empire, is also the home of an absolutely world-class art museum. The irony of that cultural jewel in the middle of an economic war zone wasn’t lost on me, particularly as I watched a homeless man searching through a trash can beneath a sign advertising the Rembrandt Exhibition (admission fee: $16), but that’s a subject for another day.

I had a mission in mind. In addition to viewing the exhibition of photographs of a dying Detroit that is on view until April, there was a particular painting that I wanted to see, that being John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar.

McSorley's Bar (John French Sloan - 1912)

Sloan is a bit of a hero to me, a member of a group of American painters known as the Ashcan School who, at the beginning of the Great American Century, decided to paint the real lives of real people in the bustling streets of New York. They were, I’m given to understand, rebelling against the academy, as many good artists are prone to do from time to time. This particular group of rebels gave voice and dignity to people who were previously of no real interest to American art; immigrants, laborers, bums, drunks, the vast ocean of urban inhabitants who fueled our ascendency to global greatness yet did not benefit much from it. In short, they painted my people. Had they worked in Detroit or Pittsburgh, they may have encountered my grandfather in one of those dingy bars and immortalized him on canvas.

I found this painting after spending some considerable time with 18th century French aristocrats, Dutch peasants, the English Gentry, several hundred years of gruesome Catholic religious iconography (including the particularly bloody style of crucifix that I grew up fearing at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Saginaw), some really bad portraiture from post-Revolution America, a huge room full of absolutely stunning American landscapes from Thomas Cole and others, and then, finally, two rooms full of offerings from the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Degas, and even a Monet thrown in for good measure. DIA has a wonderfully rich collection that I only sampled in the three hours I spent there.

McSorley’s Bar was the grail I sought, although  I still don’t know why I so needed to see it and understand even less why it had such a powerful emotional effect on me when I found it. I guess it represents the very best of what I know of American art, the pride we have as Americans tempered with the responsibility we feel for our brothers and sisters. I wish we felt that kind of responsibility these days instead of the fear and contempt that I see.

I felt so good after visiting McSorley’s Bar that I was able to look at a couple of Warhols without openly mocking them. Well, without mocking them very much anyway.

Though I am a photographer rather than a painter, I can trace some of my own artistic heritage back to Sloan and his friends, through Edward Hopper, the very best of the American Realist painters. On this day, on top of all else, I will be thankful for those footsteps to walk in.


  1. You still make me think way too much…and I agree about Warhol…..just gotta laugh at most of his stuff…I like how you went on the trek to see McSorleys, though I have never gone looking for art. If I see something, I like it or not, but I dont look further. Hope you had a great birthday and trek to Detroit…and you didn’t even see a sporting event???

  2. Happy Birthday!
    Saginaw has a rather large post Irish population. I am sure that the ancestors of the infamous Pub keepers of the Old Word have conspired to recreate the best of what Pubs have to offer.

    Hope you enjoyed the intimate company of those important to you.


  3. happy birthday rick

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] 3) My Birthday at McSorley’s Bar (December 5th) […]

  2. By Mcsorleys pub | Jamierossphoto on 20 Dec 2011 at 6:43 pm

    […] My Birthday at McSorley's Bar « The ADD-Challenged Eye […]

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