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  • Writer's pictureJay Abel


Updated: May 20, 2023

My brief but intense romance with the American museum establishment began in 2013 and ended in 2014. It has been 10 years since one or two friendly art directors at museum X were foolish enough let me show anything I wanted in the upstairs space. The result was my 2nd published book “Rank ’n File, Life and Death for the American Underclass” , now available in a revised 2023 edition.

In 2013 I was a life-long exile from a contemporary museum non-ethic that gave up believing in anything except marketing artificially colored cornflakes to an audience with an attention span measured by the time it takes to get through an amber light. We are living in a world that’s failing on every level, and one crazy dictator away from an ICBM apocalypse, but you’d never know it by a visit to the post modern, neo-pop lollypop shop where the bon-bons play on the sunny beach of peppermint bay. There was a time when at least a few foolish, idealistic heroes like Diego Rivera, had balls big enough to take a moral or social stand for something other then establishing a color accent over the chaise sectional.

Western art used to believe in its ability to state its conscience.

It no longer has one.

Now, Instead of conviction we get confection, instead of content we get kool whip, instead of food for thought we get a sugar high. Old school humanist faith in a better world has become a back number except for hopelessly idealistic dimwits like me, who keep a candle burning in the window and recycle their cardboard.

But I digress.

After a year of hard labor, the show was completed, framed and mounted. The show catalog was also a book, “Rank ’n File - Life and Death for the American Underclass”. It was lavishly underwritten by a generous donor and a nationally known freelance critic wrote an insightful afterword.

A nice crowd showed up to cheer, I gave a talk, and that was the end of my museum adventure.

It was sort of like a few really good first dates. Even though you’re not a people person who likes Thai food and girl movies you establish a friendly dialog and get a nice roll in the hay. Later, there’s a message on the answering machine - “It’s not you it’s me” and your next roll is out the door. Museum revenue declined, my friendly art directors moved on, and never again was I called upon to poison the content-free, imitation sherbet ice milk and festive flower arranging that now defines our local “museums” with anything that need be taken more seriously than a greeting card from your friendly insurance company.

Well, I got more out of it than most people.

My big show is now forgotten as “Frankie goes to Hollywood”, and my book is long out of print, though a few copies are still laying around, immortal ’til somebody throws ‘em out with a pile of National Geographics, or lights ‘em up to start a bigger fire.

The book seemed, after all, rather time sensitive. During the 2nd great depression of 2008, unemployment, eviction and demoralizing part-time minimum wage poverty blighted a once prosperous American middle class. 2008 was still a recent memory when I began the book and all of that was still considered shocking. “Rank ’n File” illustrated some 50 or so very short stories, told in the graceless words of America’s working poor, lifted mainly from internet postings and edited for pith and clarity.

I wondered, half consciously, if my little book was still as relevant now as it was 10 years ago. Upon reflection, only one thing has changed - the social pathology my book cataloged simply became normal. Half of America now lives at or below the poverty line. Unrelenting, low-income wage slavery, and far worse, in our much-ballyhooed land of opportunity is now passe’. Social pathology is no longer anymore shocking to Americans than a dead cat in the freeway.

Hooverville is back, it’s here to stay, and we’ve got used to the smell… Thank you.

Most Americans now think about labor exploitation, obscene income inequity, stratospheric rents, tent cities and short life expectancy about as often as they think about sunspots. Those who think even less about such things are the very few who get rich off of social crimes, or the very many who are crushed beneath them.

The latter are, I assume, too tired to think cogently about much after working two jobs with 3 hours sleep.

I was happy enough with the book at the time, but ten years of 2nd thoughts have been nagging me in my idle moments ever since, and I found myself tinkering with a revised edition. Revision has always been my best friend and worst enemy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. On the balance it worked this time and I’m far happier with the simplified layout and re-organization of the material. A half dozen graphics were replaced or added and many were spot corrected.

The book remains, like myself, far from perfect, but is now less cluttered. I ran the vacuum, put some things away, fixed the the busted window, tossed some junk.

A few terms are dated. “Tea-baggers” are either “proud boys” or “oath keepers” and cringeworthy racial slurs like “Jigobama” have been decommissioned in favor of new ones. ACA has mitigated, slightly, the worst public health racket in the industrialized world.

Aside from that, then is now, only more so. JDA

Note - The new edition of “Rank ’n File” is now available under the “Bookstore” button, homepage of this site, $12 plus ship. Please scroll all the way down to the bottom of this page for comments.

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