Commentary Magazine


Topic: artist

How Not to Be Alone

I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. Franzen is a talented American writer and his works to date are not wanting for brilliant descriptive gems. But as a sermonizer on the topic of America’s derelict soul, he is as ingenious as a disenchanted ninth grader; he’s also as self-important.

Don’t believe me. Ask him. “I feel as if I’m clearly part of a trend among writers who take themselves seriously,” he offered in response to an interviewer’s question having nothing to do with himself, his seriousness, or anyone else’s. “I confess to taking myself as seriously as the next writer.” Perhaps if the next writer were Jonathan Franzen.

According to reviews, Freedom is an ambitious work intended to tell America something new and vitally important about itself. Yet, despite the torrent of ecstatic press, the book didn’t make it onto the short list for this year’s National Book Award in fiction. But Franzen need not take the snub too, um, seriously. He just gave an America-bashing interview to the Guardian’s Sarfraz Manzoor that’s all but guaranteed his Nobel Prize. This exchange provides the best cross-section view of the liberal mind at work that we’ll ever see. Read More

I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. Franzen is a talented American writer and his works to date are not wanting for brilliant descriptive gems. But as a sermonizer on the topic of America’s derelict soul, he is as ingenious as a disenchanted ninth grader; he’s also as self-important.

Don’t believe me. Ask him. “I feel as if I’m clearly part of a trend among writers who take themselves seriously,” he offered in response to an interviewer’s question having nothing to do with himself, his seriousness, or anyone else’s. “I confess to taking myself as seriously as the next writer.” Perhaps if the next writer were Jonathan Franzen.

According to reviews, Freedom is an ambitious work intended to tell America something new and vitally important about itself. Yet, despite the torrent of ecstatic press, the book didn’t make it onto the short list for this year’s National Book Award in fiction. But Franzen need not take the snub too, um, seriously. He just gave an America-bashing interview to the Guardian’s Sarfraz Manzoor that’s all but guaranteed his Nobel Prize. This exchange provides the best cross-section view of the liberal mind at work that we’ll ever see.

Franzen: [In] the last decade America has emerged even in its own estimation as a problem state. That is, there were many criticisms one could make as early as treatment of the Indians; it goes way back; and our long relationship with slavery. There have been some problems with the country at many points. In the Cold War, we were certainly culpable. But the degree to which we are almost a rogue state and causing enormous trouble around the world in our attempt to preserve our freedom to drive SUVs and whatever by…

Manzoor: Operation Enduring Freedom.

Franzen: Operation enduring freedom, good. It does make one wonder: What is it in the national character that is making us such a problem state and I think [it is] a kind of mixed-up childish notion of freedom. And perhaps really, truly, who left Europe to go over there [America]? It was all the malcontents; it was all the people who were not getting along with others.

Manzoor: Are you more comfortable in America now than you were when you started writing the book?

Franzen: (sigh) No. It was possible while I was writing the book to look forward to some possibility of significant change. And now people left of the middle feel puzzled and sort of anguished because we don’t have an object for our anger but the right is still as angry as ever. I mean that’s the worrisome thing about our upcoming elections. [The worrisome thing] is that the right is still just as angrily motivated as ever. And the Democrats are in disarray and feeling, well, we have power but the system itself is so screwed up, and we are relatively the adult party so we’re responsible for trying to make an unworkable system work. It’s just, it’s this kind of (groan) discouragement and dull throbbing anxiety.

Forget the book. The pontifications above constitute Franzen’s true unwitting masterpiece. The whole liberal template is unwound and labeled like cracked genetic code. The wonderful thing about liberals is that their dismissal of competing ideologies strips them of the need to cloak or soften their bizarro theories when speaking publicly.

The first order of business is America’s guilt. Franzen can’t imagine that any sane person would disagree with him about the U.S.’s role in the Cold War being on a moral continuum with the institution of American slavery. And of course, who could possibly deny that the Bush years were even more ghastly than either one?

After the dirty hands comes the condescension. The American conception of freedom is “childish” and the Democrats are the “adult party.”

Next up is the left’s penchant for totalitarian lockstep. Franzen wags his finger at the earliest Americans for being nonconformist “malcontents” who bucked the non-democratic European nation-states. Note the creepiness of the speculation on misfit ancestry and problematic national character.

Last, the subterfuge. The Democrats have done nothing wrong. It’s this stubborn broken thing called “the system” that no amount of liberal wisdom can set right. And so what can the enlightened liberal do but groan in the face of the “dull throbbing anxiety” created by the non-liberal world and its perpetually angry conservatives.

Franzen’s failure is ultimately not political but artistic. His realm is the creative, and in parroting those of the most meager imaginations, he has reversed the artist’s aim. Liberalism doesn’t only encroach upon things like opportunity and standard of living. It’s what it does to the self that’s most dangerous and pernicious. It pushes out the individual imagination and replaces it with wooden convictions. Before that wreaks havoc on a polity, it has its way with a mind. For a novelist, this is fatal. And so Franzen, a writer of copious narrative and descriptive gifts, ends up sounding like a 14-year-old who broke up his usual Daily Kos with his first read through Howard Zinn. The Nobel speech can’t possibly measure up.

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Busted Tribute

Bedford, Virginia’s D-Day memorial has just been embellished. Among emotionally evocative statues of soldiers dying on the beaches of Normandy accompanied by heroic images of their leaders now stands … Joseph Stalin.

At the beginning of June, his visage was added to memorialize “the tens of millions who died under Stalin’s rule and in tribute to all whose valor, fidelity, and sacrifice denied him and his successors victory in the Cold War,” as the plaque explains. The only problem is that the statue commemorates the man, not the men who he killed. While the supervisors of the memorial condemned the statue, the artist, Richard Pumphrey, who remains in Switzerland, was not “concerned” that it might be controversial.

Regardless of what the artist may say, there are artistic conventions. A bust of Stalin commemorates Stalin, not his victims. It is the wrong image in the wrong place.

Bedford, Virginia’s D-Day memorial has just been embellished. Among emotionally evocative statues of soldiers dying on the beaches of Normandy accompanied by heroic images of their leaders now stands … Joseph Stalin.

At the beginning of June, his visage was added to memorialize “the tens of millions who died under Stalin’s rule and in tribute to all whose valor, fidelity, and sacrifice denied him and his successors victory in the Cold War,” as the plaque explains. The only problem is that the statue commemorates the man, not the men who he killed. While the supervisors of the memorial condemned the statue, the artist, Richard Pumphrey, who remains in Switzerland, was not “concerned” that it might be controversial.

Regardless of what the artist may say, there are artistic conventions. A bust of Stalin commemorates Stalin, not his victims. It is the wrong image in the wrong place.

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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Neda: The Cause, the Song

When a revolutionary cause hits the pop charts, it’s a fair indication that the cause is sunk. Pop stars don’t get behind campaigns requiring action, especially evil, American neo-imperialist, military-industrial action of the kind they’d prefer to write protest songs about. (In fact, there are more songs protesting that phantom phenomenon than songs opposing real dangers.) When a human-rights slogan is marketed as a three-minute rhyme set to a 4/4 beat, it means the artist has confirmed that the topic is yielding a safe degree of political inattention. There will be no risk of action beyond the purchasing of some music files. The true last resort in American foreign policy is consumerism.

To continue reading this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

When a revolutionary cause hits the pop charts, it’s a fair indication that the cause is sunk. Pop stars don’t get behind campaigns requiring action, especially evil, American neo-imperialist, military-industrial action of the kind they’d prefer to write protest songs about. (In fact, there are more songs protesting that phantom phenomenon than songs opposing real dangers.) When a human-rights slogan is marketed as a three-minute rhyme set to a 4/4 beat, it means the artist has confirmed that the topic is yielding a safe degree of political inattention. There will be no risk of action beyond the purchasing of some music files. The true last resort in American foreign policy is consumerism.

To continue reading this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

A disappointment to leftist civil rights groups? “The issue of race is one reason some liberals fear Kagan’s confirmation would actually tug the court to the right, particularly on voting rights, immigration and racial profiling cases that could come before the justices.”

A coward on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism? “Holder, who last year called America ‘a nation of cowards’ for refusing to talk frankly about race, plainly didn’t want to say what is plain to everyone else, that Faisal Shahzad, back from five months in Waziristan, launched his terror attack because of his Islamist beliefs.”

A sign of the administration’s obliviousness? “[T]he State Department’s showcasing of the Dar al-Hijra Islamic Center in a film about Muslim life in America — despite the mosque’s longstanding ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, its virulent Islamist ideology, its support for the murderous Hamas organization, its notorious Islamist imams and elders (including al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki), and the ties of some of its worshippers to the 9/11 attacks and the Fort Hood massacre. Then, we learned that the federal government has struck a deal to pay Dar al-Hijra a whopping $582K just for this year (i.e., about one-tenth what it cost the Saudis to build the place), purportedly because the Census Bureau needs work space — y’know, because there are like no federal facilities anywhere near Falls Church, Virginia.”

A preview of what is to come? “A British chemicals firm is involved in a secret MI5 inquiry into the illegal export to Iran of material that could make a radioactive “dirty bomb”. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) raided the Essex home of the firm’s former sales manager after a tip that potentially lethal chemicals, including cobalt, were sold to Iran last summer.”

A reminder that Richard Goldstone had the choice not to facilitate evil? “Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, 70, who helped South Africa chart a peaceful way out of apartheid by leading fellow whites into talks with exiled black leaders, died May 14 at his home in Johannesburg after being treated for a liver-related complication, Reuters reported. … As a political figure, he symbolized the emergence of a new breed of Afrikaner: urbane, articulate and committed to racial equality. … Mr. Slabbert tried to lead, leaving behind an early career as a sociologist in academia to enter politics. He represented the Progressive Federal Party, a precursor to the current opposition Democratic Alliance, in parliament during the apartheid years. He resigned as party leader and left parliament in 1985, during a crackdown on black activists, saying the whites-only legislature was no longer relevant.”

A nail biter in the Democratic Pennsylvania primary? The last tracking poll had Joe Sestak and Arlen Specter tied at 44 percent each.

A character witness he (and the rest of us) could do without?: “Woody Allen has restated his support for fellow filmmaker Roman Polanski, who is in house arrest in connection with a 33-year-old sex scandal. Allen said Polanski ‘was embarrassed by the whole thing,’ ”has suffered’ and ‘has paid his dues.’ He said Polanski is ‘an artist and is a nice person’ who ‘did something wrong and he paid for it.'” I must have missed the jail time Polanski served for raping a 13-year-old.

A disappointment to leftist civil rights groups? “The issue of race is one reason some liberals fear Kagan’s confirmation would actually tug the court to the right, particularly on voting rights, immigration and racial profiling cases that could come before the justices.”

A coward on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism? “Holder, who last year called America ‘a nation of cowards’ for refusing to talk frankly about race, plainly didn’t want to say what is plain to everyone else, that Faisal Shahzad, back from five months in Waziristan, launched his terror attack because of his Islamist beliefs.”

A sign of the administration’s obliviousness? “[T]he State Department’s showcasing of the Dar al-Hijra Islamic Center in a film about Muslim life in America — despite the mosque’s longstanding ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, its virulent Islamist ideology, its support for the murderous Hamas organization, its notorious Islamist imams and elders (including al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki), and the ties of some of its worshippers to the 9/11 attacks and the Fort Hood massacre. Then, we learned that the federal government has struck a deal to pay Dar al-Hijra a whopping $582K just for this year (i.e., about one-tenth what it cost the Saudis to build the place), purportedly because the Census Bureau needs work space — y’know, because there are like no federal facilities anywhere near Falls Church, Virginia.”

A preview of what is to come? “A British chemicals firm is involved in a secret MI5 inquiry into the illegal export to Iran of material that could make a radioactive “dirty bomb”. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) raided the Essex home of the firm’s former sales manager after a tip that potentially lethal chemicals, including cobalt, were sold to Iran last summer.”

A reminder that Richard Goldstone had the choice not to facilitate evil? “Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, 70, who helped South Africa chart a peaceful way out of apartheid by leading fellow whites into talks with exiled black leaders, died May 14 at his home in Johannesburg after being treated for a liver-related complication, Reuters reported. … As a political figure, he symbolized the emergence of a new breed of Afrikaner: urbane, articulate and committed to racial equality. … Mr. Slabbert tried to lead, leaving behind an early career as a sociologist in academia to enter politics. He represented the Progressive Federal Party, a precursor to the current opposition Democratic Alliance, in parliament during the apartheid years. He resigned as party leader and left parliament in 1985, during a crackdown on black activists, saying the whites-only legislature was no longer relevant.”

A nail biter in the Democratic Pennsylvania primary? The last tracking poll had Joe Sestak and Arlen Specter tied at 44 percent each.

A character witness he (and the rest of us) could do without?: “Woody Allen has restated his support for fellow filmmaker Roman Polanski, who is in house arrest in connection with a 33-year-old sex scandal. Allen said Polanski ‘was embarrassed by the whole thing,’ ”has suffered’ and ‘has paid his dues.’ He said Polanski is ‘an artist and is a nice person’ who ‘did something wrong and he paid for it.'” I must have missed the jail time Polanski served for raping a 13-year-old.

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Springtime for Dubya?

I’m sure you’re looking forward to the new off-Broadway musical, “Signs of Life,” which offers what promises to be a wonderfully tuneful look at the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. But it turns out, according to tomorrow’s New York Times, that the musical really isn’t about the Holocaust after all, which is probably a wise thing, since The Producers got there first with its signature number, “Springtime for Hitler.” No, it turns out, the Holocaust exists as a dramatic trope to teach us lessons about America in the age of Bush:

That show, which had its premiere on Thursday, centers on Lorelei, an artist who agrees to create pretty pictures of the camp for Nazi propaganda but who, with other prisoners, schemes to get her drawings of the real horrors to the outside world.

“The message of our show is not ‘Killing Jews is bad,’ ” Mr. Derfner said. “It’s: ‘What do you do when you find out you’ve been lied to? What is telling the truth worth?’ In the last 30 years this question has been vital to American life and especially so in the last nine years.”

No, this is not, as they say, from The Onion.

I’m sure you’re looking forward to the new off-Broadway musical, “Signs of Life,” which offers what promises to be a wonderfully tuneful look at the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. But it turns out, according to tomorrow’s New York Times, that the musical really isn’t about the Holocaust after all, which is probably a wise thing, since The Producers got there first with its signature number, “Springtime for Hitler.” No, it turns out, the Holocaust exists as a dramatic trope to teach us lessons about America in the age of Bush:

That show, which had its premiere on Thursday, centers on Lorelei, an artist who agrees to create pretty pictures of the camp for Nazi propaganda but who, with other prisoners, schemes to get her drawings of the real horrors to the outside world.

“The message of our show is not ‘Killing Jews is bad,’ ” Mr. Derfner said. “It’s: ‘What do you do when you find out you’ve been lied to? What is telling the truth worth?’ In the last 30 years this question has been vital to American life and especially so in the last nine years.”

No, this is not, as they say, from The Onion.

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No. Not That.

There are times when I am deeply grateful that CONTENTIONS stopped hosting comments. I do not think I could handle the people who would respond to this post. Because inevitably there will be some who insist that something can be art when it is simply horrible. Let them take their comments elsewhere!

I am speaking, of course, about a monstrosity that has appeared in Copenhagen. A model of the entrance to Auschwitz, complete with a little train car, made out of gold — gold taken from the teeth of Holocaust victims. See for yourself. Maybe someone will say it is a hoax and relieve us of the notion.

I do not know what the artist thinks about Nazism, about Judaism, about anti-Semitism, about violence, or about art. I do not care. According to Haaretz‘s captions, he put a Rolex watch in the tower, to hint at Switzerland’s complicity. I just don’t care. To me this is worse than political art, worse than feces-laden art, worse than almost anything called art. If art is meant to be a human thing, what can we say to an artist who does not seem to realize that we still count among the living the victims who passed through those gates? That every gram of gold that he touched may yet belong to someone? That it was extracted not with novocaine in a benevolent dentist’s office, but there, and then, and in that way?

Do not get me wrong. I do not believe the Holocaust is a “sacred” thing, that it is a black hole, an ultimate or absolute that cannot be compared with anything else, or that Jewish or Western identity should be built around it. The crime of this artist is not sacrilege but something else for which I do not have adequate words. Artistic inhumanity, perhaps. I just cannot understand what he is thinking, what the curators are thinking, what the backers for the gallery are thinking. And please, do not explain it to me.

There are times when I am deeply grateful that CONTENTIONS stopped hosting comments. I do not think I could handle the people who would respond to this post. Because inevitably there will be some who insist that something can be art when it is simply horrible. Let them take their comments elsewhere!

I am speaking, of course, about a monstrosity that has appeared in Copenhagen. A model of the entrance to Auschwitz, complete with a little train car, made out of gold — gold taken from the teeth of Holocaust victims. See for yourself. Maybe someone will say it is a hoax and relieve us of the notion.

I do not know what the artist thinks about Nazism, about Judaism, about anti-Semitism, about violence, or about art. I do not care. According to Haaretz‘s captions, he put a Rolex watch in the tower, to hint at Switzerland’s complicity. I just don’t care. To me this is worse than political art, worse than feces-laden art, worse than almost anything called art. If art is meant to be a human thing, what can we say to an artist who does not seem to realize that we still count among the living the victims who passed through those gates? That every gram of gold that he touched may yet belong to someone? That it was extracted not with novocaine in a benevolent dentist’s office, but there, and then, and in that way?

Do not get me wrong. I do not believe the Holocaust is a “sacred” thing, that it is a black hole, an ultimate or absolute that cannot be compared with anything else, or that Jewish or Western identity should be built around it. The crime of this artist is not sacrilege but something else for which I do not have adequate words. Artistic inhumanity, perhaps. I just cannot understand what he is thinking, what the curators are thinking, what the backers for the gallery are thinking. And please, do not explain it to me.

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Islamists Are Naive

My colleague Pete Wehner has already called attention to this Washington Post article on “Basra’s Wary Rebirth,” but I would just like to emphasize that it bears a close reading-not only for what it tells us about the current state of Iraq but also for what it says about the future prospects of political Islam.

The gist of the article is that, since the Iraqi army broke the Mahdist Army’s control of Basra, a harsh brand of Islamic law has been lifted and a semblance of more urbane life has returned. Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan writes: “Under the harsh constraints imposed by extremist Shiite Muslim clerics and militias that until recently controlled this city, men with Western hairstyles were threatened and beaten. Women without head scarves were sometimes raped and killed. Love was a secret ritual.” Now unmarried men and women can stroll in public, hand in hand; alcohol is sold and consumed in public; and secular CD’s and DVD’s are openly sold, many with lyrics or scenes considered risqué by Islamists. Of course the situation remains tenuous and many people are still afraid that the Mahdist Army will stage a comeback. Thus, Raghavan writes, “Samer Riad, 23, an artist, is still reluctant to paint portraits of women, another practice outlawed by the fundamentalists.”

What is fascinating is that the lesson of Basra confirms the lesson of Afghanistan and Iran: every place where a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam has been imposed it has proven to be wildly unpopular. It can only be imposed, in fact, at the point of a gun. That is probably true even of Saudi Arabia, which, lest we forget, is one of the most complete dictatorships on the planet. What this suggests is that President Bush and others who think that there is a fundamental desire for liberty inherent in most people are not being naïve. It is Islamists who are naïve (or simply deluded) for thinking that their crazed version of Islamic teaching provides a viable model for a modern society.

My colleague Pete Wehner has already called attention to this Washington Post article on “Basra’s Wary Rebirth,” but I would just like to emphasize that it bears a close reading-not only for what it tells us about the current state of Iraq but also for what it says about the future prospects of political Islam.

The gist of the article is that, since the Iraqi army broke the Mahdist Army’s control of Basra, a harsh brand of Islamic law has been lifted and a semblance of more urbane life has returned. Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan writes: “Under the harsh constraints imposed by extremist Shiite Muslim clerics and militias that until recently controlled this city, men with Western hairstyles were threatened and beaten. Women without head scarves were sometimes raped and killed. Love was a secret ritual.” Now unmarried men and women can stroll in public, hand in hand; alcohol is sold and consumed in public; and secular CD’s and DVD’s are openly sold, many with lyrics or scenes considered risqué by Islamists. Of course the situation remains tenuous and many people are still afraid that the Mahdist Army will stage a comeback. Thus, Raghavan writes, “Samer Riad, 23, an artist, is still reluctant to paint portraits of women, another practice outlawed by the fundamentalists.”

What is fascinating is that the lesson of Basra confirms the lesson of Afghanistan and Iran: every place where a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam has been imposed it has proven to be wildly unpopular. It can only be imposed, in fact, at the point of a gun. That is probably true even of Saudi Arabia, which, lest we forget, is one of the most complete dictatorships on the planet. What this suggests is that President Bush and others who think that there is a fundamental desire for liberty inherent in most people are not being naïve. It is Islamists who are naïve (or simply deluded) for thinking that their crazed version of Islamic teaching provides a viable model for a modern society.

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Bookshelf

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60’s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been, I spent most of the past two weeks working on an opera libretto (about which more later) and writing the concluing chapters of my latest book, Rhythm Man: A Life of Louis Armstrong, which is now finished (you can read all about it here).

My world has thus been far more narrowly circumscribed than usual, and so it was a relief to read about something completely different the other day, the something in question being the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, one of my favorite composers.

When I last wrote about Elgar for COMMENTARY four years ago, I speculated that a revival of his music might be in the offing:

My own guess is that Elgar awaits a generation of charismatic young performers who will do for him what Leonard Bernstein did for Mahler in the 60’s. It has long seemed to me that his best music is ripe for revival, not least because of its individuality. “I hold nothing back,” he said, and it was the truth. All that he thought and felt went into his compositions, which are so unguarded at times as to make the reticent listener squirm.

Alas, it hasn’t happened yet, though Hilary Hahn, the most gifted and satisfying young violinist to come along in years, did release a remarkable recording of Elgar’s B Minor Violin Concerto later that year (DGG B0003026-02GM) and play the piece in concert with the New York Philharmonic. I heard her performance and wrote that it was “so beautiful that I expect to remember it as long as I live.” One recording does not a revival make, but it doesn’t hurt, either, and neither did the publication that same year of The Life of Elgar (Cambridge, $26 paper), a penetrating brief life by Michael Kennedy that is the best short discussion of Elgar that has been published to date.

While I don’t expect to see Kennedy’s book bettered any time soon, Elgar was big enough, both as an artist and as a man, to profit from being viewed from multiple perspectives. Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait (Continuum, $33), a collection of essays edited by Nicholas Kenyon, offers several different and provocative points of view from which to consider Elgar’s achievement. I was especially pleased that Kenyon invited a number of performers to contribute to the book. It is always valuable to hear from working musicians about the works they perform, and Tasmin Little’s essay about the Elgar Violin Concerto, in which she talks about what it feels like to play that exceedingly English piece with a foreign orchestra and conductor, is highly instructive. So, too, is Stephen Hough’s thoughtful essay on the composer’s Catholicism, in which he discusses how The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar’s dramatic oratorio after the poem by Cardinal Newman, alienated those who heard its first performance at the Birmingham Festival in 1900: “England was a deeply Protestant country, and such a subject choice would be a little like selecting a Talmudic text for an Islamic festival commission.”

When the critics and scholars speak in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait, it is to no less valuable effect. Best of all is David Cannadine’s “Orchestrating His Own Life: Sir Edward Elgar as a Historical Personality,” which takes a hard-nosed view of Elgar’s relationship with the British ruling class, with which he claimed, not unconvincingly, to be at odds:

This was the man who married for money (one hundred pounds a year) and status at least as much as for love and reassurance; who sought and cultivated aristocratic and plutocratic friends to promote his music and his cause; who did all he could to ingratiate himself at the courts of Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V; who never refused an honour and who was disappointed not to receive more of them; and who hoped “some day to do a great work-a sort of national thing that my fellow Englishmen might take to themselves and love.”

The only essay in Elgar: An Anniversary Portrait that disappointed me was Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscence of the composer, which is full of his usual vaporous blather. Otherwise the book is a gem, smart and concise and entirely to the point.

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Bookshelf

• One of the smartest decisions the Library of America ever made was to include the complete text of Bill Mauldin’s Up Front in Reporting World War II, its two-volume anthology of World War II journalism. Up Front is the best collection of editorial cartoons ever published by an American, though that flat phrase cannot begin to suggest the true nature of the book’s excellence, much less its formal uniqueness. Not only are the cartoons themselves devastating in the deadpan eloquence with which they sum up the combat soldier’s now-grubby, now-terrifying life (“I’m beginnin’ to feel like a fugitive from th’ law of averages”), but the combination of Mauldin’s brilliantly evocative drawings and plain-spoken accompanying text adds up to something far greater than the sum of its considerable parts. He and Ernie Pyle were without doubt the best newspaper journalists to cover the war, and it is all the more impressive to learn that Mauldin was a smooth-faced boy in his early twenties when he drew the cartoons that went into Up Front—and all the more dismaying to discover that he never did anything remotely as good for the rest of his life.

Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (W.W. Norton, 352 pp., $27.95), Todd DePastino’s too-admiring but nonetheless illuminating biography of the cartoonist, is interesting for the first two-thirds of its length, in which DePastino describes Mauldin’s troubled youth and the demanding circumstances under which he produced the cartoons that went into Up Front. Much of this story has already been told in Mauldin’s autobiographical writings, but DePastino goes over the same ground with more detachment and detail. It is especially interesting to see reproductions of Mauldin’s early work, which is conventional and devoid of obvious promise—it could have been drawn by any provincial cartoonist—and to watch his familiar style start taking shape as soon as he was shipped out to Europe in 1943. All at once (it is almost as sudden as that) he breaks free from the conventions of early-40’s cartooning and turns into an artist, one whose ability to embody the feel of modern war in individual, lightning-like flashes of candor and grim wit brings him on occasion within spitting distance of Daumier.

Then the war ended, and Mauldin, by now famous, returned stateside and started floundering. He would not be the first prodigy who later proved incapable of producing work comparable in quality to that with which he made his name, though DePastino fails to see what went wrong. The problem was that Mauldin, who had no feel whatsoever for politics, tried to fit his genius into the wrong mold when he attempted to retrofit himself as a political cartoonist. His newly acquired liberal views, which ran to the reflexive, were too obvious to serve as the basis of striking comment on the issues of the day, and the only postwar cartoon of his that continues to be remembered, the captionless caricature of the Lincoln of the Lincoln Monument holding his head in his hands after hearing of the Kennedy assassination, is both crude and mawkish.
Mauldin was largely forgotten by the time he died in 2003, though the publication in 1995 of Reporting World War II (an event of which DePastino inexplicably makes no mention whatsoever) was to introduce his and Pyle’s work to a small but significant number of readers born too young to know how well those two men captured the American experience in World War II. Owners of that invaluable collection will want to read Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front and see for themselves how the horrors of war transformed a confused ne’er-do-well into—briefly—a great journalist.

• One of the smartest decisions the Library of America ever made was to include the complete text of Bill Mauldin’s Up Front in Reporting World War II, its two-volume anthology of World War II journalism. Up Front is the best collection of editorial cartoons ever published by an American, though that flat phrase cannot begin to suggest the true nature of the book’s excellence, much less its formal uniqueness. Not only are the cartoons themselves devastating in the deadpan eloquence with which they sum up the combat soldier’s now-grubby, now-terrifying life (“I’m beginnin’ to feel like a fugitive from th’ law of averages”), but the combination of Mauldin’s brilliantly evocative drawings and plain-spoken accompanying text adds up to something far greater than the sum of its considerable parts. He and Ernie Pyle were without doubt the best newspaper journalists to cover the war, and it is all the more impressive to learn that Mauldin was a smooth-faced boy in his early twenties when he drew the cartoons that went into Up Front—and all the more dismaying to discover that he never did anything remotely as good for the rest of his life.

Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (W.W. Norton, 352 pp., $27.95), Todd DePastino’s too-admiring but nonetheless illuminating biography of the cartoonist, is interesting for the first two-thirds of its length, in which DePastino describes Mauldin’s troubled youth and the demanding circumstances under which he produced the cartoons that went into Up Front. Much of this story has already been told in Mauldin’s autobiographical writings, but DePastino goes over the same ground with more detachment and detail. It is especially interesting to see reproductions of Mauldin’s early work, which is conventional and devoid of obvious promise—it could have been drawn by any provincial cartoonist—and to watch his familiar style start taking shape as soon as he was shipped out to Europe in 1943. All at once (it is almost as sudden as that) he breaks free from the conventions of early-40’s cartooning and turns into an artist, one whose ability to embody the feel of modern war in individual, lightning-like flashes of candor and grim wit brings him on occasion within spitting distance of Daumier.

Then the war ended, and Mauldin, by now famous, returned stateside and started floundering. He would not be the first prodigy who later proved incapable of producing work comparable in quality to that with which he made his name, though DePastino fails to see what went wrong. The problem was that Mauldin, who had no feel whatsoever for politics, tried to fit his genius into the wrong mold when he attempted to retrofit himself as a political cartoonist. His newly acquired liberal views, which ran to the reflexive, were too obvious to serve as the basis of striking comment on the issues of the day, and the only postwar cartoon of his that continues to be remembered, the captionless caricature of the Lincoln of the Lincoln Monument holding his head in his hands after hearing of the Kennedy assassination, is both crude and mawkish.
Mauldin was largely forgotten by the time he died in 2003, though the publication in 1995 of Reporting World War II (an event of which DePastino inexplicably makes no mention whatsoever) was to introduce his and Pyle’s work to a small but significant number of readers born too young to know how well those two men captured the American experience in World War II. Owners of that invaluable collection will want to read Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front and see for themselves how the horrors of war transformed a confused ne’er-do-well into—briefly—a great journalist.

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Bookshelf

• “A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?” Max Beerbohm once observed. No more so than the Wagners, a family whose head was the most fascinating and least likable great composer in the history of classical music. Even those who find Richard Wagner’s operas exasperating beyond endurance—a group that is legion and whose members include, more often than not, myself—are not infrequently willing to read just about anything about the man himself, provided that it’s sufficiently well-written and dislinclined to fawn over its subject. Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany’s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family (Atlantic Monthly, 409 pp., $27.50) hits the bull’s-eye on both counts.

A British journalist whose strangely sorted resume includes lives of Helmut Schmidt and Gustav Mahler, Carr clearly knows a fair amount about music, but The Wagner Clan is not primarily about the works of the composer of Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde, nor is it solely about his wildly tempestuous life. Carr’s main interest, rather, is in Wagner’s family and what they wrought, with and without him. Cosima, the mother of Wagner’s children, was the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of Hans von Bülow, the great German pianist and conductor, until Wagner stole her from Bülow (who had previously been one of his adoring acolytes). After Wagner’s death she ran the family business, the Bayreuth Festival, with an iron hand undisguised by the slightest trace of velvet. Siegfried, Richard’s youngest child, was a second-rate composer, a highly accomplished conductor, and a secret homosexual who struggled throughout his life to come to terms with the burden of his family heritage. Winifred, Siegfried’s wife, developed a lifelong crush on Adolf Hitler and delivered the festival into the hands of the Nazis after her husband’s death. Wieland and Wolfgang, their sons, dragged Bayreuth into the 20th century and made it a postwar center of up-to-date thinking on operatic production style. To this day members of the Wagner family continue to run the summer festival, which has long been one of Europe’s hottest tickets.

All this adds up to an immensely interesting tale that Carr tells with great skill, and anyone who wants to know what became of the Wagners will find it both informative and entertaining. As for those whose main interest is in Der Meister himself, The Wagner Clan offers readers unfamiliar with the vast Wagner literature an exceptionally accessible short introduction to the complicated subject of his life and personality. What I like best about Carr’s book is that it is even-handed but not bland: he takes a distinctly jaundiced view of Wagner the man without ever failing to acknowledge the genius of Wagner the artist, and he seems to have no axes of any kind to grind.

I was especially impressed by the section of The Wagner Clan in which Carr discusses Hitler’s consuming interest in Wagner, a famously difficult subject that the author plays straight down the center:

If Wagner’s works really were “the exact spiritual forerunner” of Nazism, surely the Führer of all people would have drummed that point home ad infinitum. But one looks to him in vain not only for fascist interpretation of the music dramas but, stranger still, for direct references to the [anti-Semitic] theoretical writings. There is, indeed, surprisingly little evidence that Hitler read Wagner’s prose works…Grotesque though it may seem, Wagner’s life and works were almost certainly mirrors in which the Führer thought he saw himself reflected—at least in broad and, to him, imposing outline.

I couldn’t have put it better.

• “A tense and peculiar family, the Oedipuses, were they not?” Max Beerbohm once observed. No more so than the Wagners, a family whose head was the most fascinating and least likable great composer in the history of classical music. Even those who find Richard Wagner’s operas exasperating beyond endurance—a group that is legion and whose members include, more often than not, myself—are not infrequently willing to read just about anything about the man himself, provided that it’s sufficiently well-written and dislinclined to fawn over its subject. Jonathan Carr’s The Wagner Clan: The Saga of Germany’s Most Illustrious and Infamous Family (Atlantic Monthly, 409 pp., $27.50) hits the bull’s-eye on both counts.

A British journalist whose strangely sorted resume includes lives of Helmut Schmidt and Gustav Mahler, Carr clearly knows a fair amount about music, but The Wagner Clan is not primarily about the works of the composer of Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde, nor is it solely about his wildly tempestuous life. Carr’s main interest, rather, is in Wagner’s family and what they wrought, with and without him. Cosima, the mother of Wagner’s children, was the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of Hans von Bülow, the great German pianist and conductor, until Wagner stole her from Bülow (who had previously been one of his adoring acolytes). After Wagner’s death she ran the family business, the Bayreuth Festival, with an iron hand undisguised by the slightest trace of velvet. Siegfried, Richard’s youngest child, was a second-rate composer, a highly accomplished conductor, and a secret homosexual who struggled throughout his life to come to terms with the burden of his family heritage. Winifred, Siegfried’s wife, developed a lifelong crush on Adolf Hitler and delivered the festival into the hands of the Nazis after her husband’s death. Wieland and Wolfgang, their sons, dragged Bayreuth into the 20th century and made it a postwar center of up-to-date thinking on operatic production style. To this day members of the Wagner family continue to run the summer festival, which has long been one of Europe’s hottest tickets.

All this adds up to an immensely interesting tale that Carr tells with great skill, and anyone who wants to know what became of the Wagners will find it both informative and entertaining. As for those whose main interest is in Der Meister himself, The Wagner Clan offers readers unfamiliar with the vast Wagner literature an exceptionally accessible short introduction to the complicated subject of his life and personality. What I like best about Carr’s book is that it is even-handed but not bland: he takes a distinctly jaundiced view of Wagner the man without ever failing to acknowledge the genius of Wagner the artist, and he seems to have no axes of any kind to grind.

I was especially impressed by the section of The Wagner Clan in which Carr discusses Hitler’s consuming interest in Wagner, a famously difficult subject that the author plays straight down the center:

If Wagner’s works really were “the exact spiritual forerunner” of Nazism, surely the Führer of all people would have drummed that point home ad infinitum. But one looks to him in vain not only for fascist interpretation of the music dramas but, stranger still, for direct references to the [anti-Semitic] theoretical writings. There is, indeed, surprisingly little evidence that Hitler read Wagner’s prose works…Grotesque though it may seem, Wagner’s life and works were almost certainly mirrors in which the Führer thought he saw himself reflected—at least in broad and, to him, imposing outline.

I couldn’t have put it better.

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Mr. Sharpton’s Neighborhood

New York magazine recently reported on the continuing political influence of Al Sharpton, a man whose last foray into politics was the 2004 Democratic presidential primary in which he received negligible support. For some inexplicable reason, Sharpton plays the role of kingmaker in Democratic circles, with candidates falsely assuming that he holds sway with black voters. Sitting with him at the swank Grand Havana Room on Fifth Avenue, Geoffrey Gray listens to voicemails left on Sharpton’s phone from both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seeking Sharpton’s advice. “In the end they may all hate my guts,” Sharpton says. “But it’s the reality of the landscape . . . how much they need me and how bad. I’m sure right now they know they need me.”

One would hope that the F.B.I.’s subpoenaing several of Sharpton’s closest associates as part of an investigation to determine whether he swindled the government out of federal campaign-matching funds four years ago would dissuade the leading Democratic contenders from so shamelessly paying obeisance to this man. But if instigating race riots and defaming public servants were not enough to get Sharpton booted out of respectable circles, what’s a little embezzlement of taxpayer money?

Sharpton’s lawyer told the New York Daily News “I can’t think of a time when the Rev. Sharpton wasn’t under investigation,” which is probably accurate. His latest travails conjure up memory of this December 2000 New York Times article–perhaps the most hilarious item ever to appear in the paper–detailing a deposition Sharpton gave to the lawyers of the prosecutor he defamed in the Tawana Brawley case:

The company, he says, pays part of his rent and all of his utilities for the family home on Ditmas Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn. It bought some of his furniture and a couple of his business suits. It pays for most of his telephone calls. He says it now pays the $15,000 tuition for each of his two young daughters who attend the prestigious Brooklyn private school Poly Prep Country Day School. . . .
Mr. Bolnick wanted to know if Rev. Als Productions maintained an office in Mr. Sharpton’s home. Mr. Sharpton said it did.

”A separate entrance?” Mr. Bolnick asked.

”We use the front entrance for Rev. Als,” Mr. Sharpton said. ”The back entrance is what we use for the family and guests.”

Mr. Bolnick seemed a bit confused. ”But when I walk in the front door to visit, to make a business meeting with Rev. Als, I walk through your personal residence?”

Not exactly, Mr. Sharpton said. ”We consider it our personal residence, one part of the house, one that you would not walk through.”

The answer was still not getting through to Mr. Bolnick. He asked again, ”So I can go through the front door to Rev. Als without going through your personal residence?”

Mr. Sharpton then explained how his entertainment business related to his floor plan: ”We consider the living room and dining room part of Rev. Als. We entertain people for speaking engagements — hopefully the artist will sign with us. That’s all part of doing the business.”

”If I have Artist A at 1902 Ditmas and they eat in the dining room,” he said, ”that is a Rev. Als.”

The exchange ended with Mr. Bolnick noting that while he himself met clients in his living room, that did not make it an office.

”There is an office there,” Mr. Sharpton said of his house. ”But when you walk in the door, you are not walking into the office. But nor are you walking into my living quarters, either.”

On second thought, any politician worth his salt ought to be consulting Sharpton, whose parsing and inability to answer a simple question prove him to be a valuable political consultant.

New York magazine recently reported on the continuing political influence of Al Sharpton, a man whose last foray into politics was the 2004 Democratic presidential primary in which he received negligible support. For some inexplicable reason, Sharpton plays the role of kingmaker in Democratic circles, with candidates falsely assuming that he holds sway with black voters. Sitting with him at the swank Grand Havana Room on Fifth Avenue, Geoffrey Gray listens to voicemails left on Sharpton’s phone from both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seeking Sharpton’s advice. “In the end they may all hate my guts,” Sharpton says. “But it’s the reality of the landscape . . . how much they need me and how bad. I’m sure right now they know they need me.”

One would hope that the F.B.I.’s subpoenaing several of Sharpton’s closest associates as part of an investigation to determine whether he swindled the government out of federal campaign-matching funds four years ago would dissuade the leading Democratic contenders from so shamelessly paying obeisance to this man. But if instigating race riots and defaming public servants were not enough to get Sharpton booted out of respectable circles, what’s a little embezzlement of taxpayer money?

Sharpton’s lawyer told the New York Daily News “I can’t think of a time when the Rev. Sharpton wasn’t under investigation,” which is probably accurate. His latest travails conjure up memory of this December 2000 New York Times article–perhaps the most hilarious item ever to appear in the paper–detailing a deposition Sharpton gave to the lawyers of the prosecutor he defamed in the Tawana Brawley case:

The company, he says, pays part of his rent and all of his utilities for the family home on Ditmas Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn. It bought some of his furniture and a couple of his business suits. It pays for most of his telephone calls. He says it now pays the $15,000 tuition for each of his two young daughters who attend the prestigious Brooklyn private school Poly Prep Country Day School. . . .
Mr. Bolnick wanted to know if Rev. Als Productions maintained an office in Mr. Sharpton’s home. Mr. Sharpton said it did.

”A separate entrance?” Mr. Bolnick asked.

”We use the front entrance for Rev. Als,” Mr. Sharpton said. ”The back entrance is what we use for the family and guests.”

Mr. Bolnick seemed a bit confused. ”But when I walk in the front door to visit, to make a business meeting with Rev. Als, I walk through your personal residence?”

Not exactly, Mr. Sharpton said. ”We consider it our personal residence, one part of the house, one that you would not walk through.”

The answer was still not getting through to Mr. Bolnick. He asked again, ”So I can go through the front door to Rev. Als without going through your personal residence?”

Mr. Sharpton then explained how his entertainment business related to his floor plan: ”We consider the living room and dining room part of Rev. Als. We entertain people for speaking engagements — hopefully the artist will sign with us. That’s all part of doing the business.”

”If I have Artist A at 1902 Ditmas and they eat in the dining room,” he said, ”that is a Rev. Als.”

The exchange ended with Mr. Bolnick noting that while he himself met clients in his living room, that did not make it an office.

”There is an office there,” Mr. Sharpton said of his house. ”But when you walk in the door, you are not walking into the office. But nor are you walking into my living quarters, either.”

On second thought, any politician worth his salt ought to be consulting Sharpton, whose parsing and inability to answer a simple question prove him to be a valuable political consultant.

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Bookshelf

• I like shoptalk, even when I don’t completely understand it, and I like it best of all when the shop is the studio of a working artist. To be sure, a lifetime in journalism has taught me that some artists are incapable of talking about their work—or anything else—but it’s surprising how often a skillfully edited interview can shed useful light on the myriad mysteries of creation. Moreover, I’ve also discovered that I don’t necessarily have to like the work of the artist in question in order for me to take a respectful interest in his working methods. Whenever I teach a course in criticism, I tell my students, “Always treat artists with respect. Most of them know how to do something you can’t do.”

Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, has been interviewing artists ever since he was a graduate student, and now he’s spun 34 of those interviews into a book called 30 Years: Interviews and Outtakes. As an art collector, I have strong and well-defined tastes in painting and sculpture, and insofar as Auping’s choice of interview subjects reflects his own taste, I’d say we don’t have much in common. Only one of the artists represented in 30 Years, Martin Puryear, is also to be found on my own list of personal favorites, while several of the others make my teeth itch. Yet I still read 30 Years with close and consistent attention and learned much from it—though not all the lessons were intentional.

It didn’t exactly surprise me to find, for instance, that the conceptual and politically-oriented artists questioned by Auping are inclined as a rule to emit great clouds of blather (“The kind of art we have today is really just a throw-off of the maximized profit, a function of the capital which is poured into it”). Conversely, the most interesting artists are usually—though not always—the ones with the most interesting things to say. Asked about the art of Fernand Léger, Louise Bourgeois replied, “He was very rigid, very limited. But he could find emotion in that geometry. Léger could be hard and intimate at the same time.”

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• I like shoptalk, even when I don’t completely understand it, and I like it best of all when the shop is the studio of a working artist. To be sure, a lifetime in journalism has taught me that some artists are incapable of talking about their work—or anything else—but it’s surprising how often a skillfully edited interview can shed useful light on the myriad mysteries of creation. Moreover, I’ve also discovered that I don’t necessarily have to like the work of the artist in question in order for me to take a respectful interest in his working methods. Whenever I teach a course in criticism, I tell my students, “Always treat artists with respect. Most of them know how to do something you can’t do.”

Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, has been interviewing artists ever since he was a graduate student, and now he’s spun 34 of those interviews into a book called 30 Years: Interviews and Outtakes. As an art collector, I have strong and well-defined tastes in painting and sculpture, and insofar as Auping’s choice of interview subjects reflects his own taste, I’d say we don’t have much in common. Only one of the artists represented in 30 Years, Martin Puryear, is also to be found on my own list of personal favorites, while several of the others make my teeth itch. Yet I still read 30 Years with close and consistent attention and learned much from it—though not all the lessons were intentional.

It didn’t exactly surprise me to find, for instance, that the conceptual and politically-oriented artists questioned by Auping are inclined as a rule to emit great clouds of blather (“The kind of art we have today is really just a throw-off of the maximized profit, a function of the capital which is poured into it”). Conversely, the most interesting artists are usually—though not always—the ones with the most interesting things to say. Asked about the art of Fernand Léger, Louise Bourgeois replied, “He was very rigid, very limited. But he could find emotion in that geometry. Léger could be hard and intimate at the same time.”

Nor was I greatly surprised to find that minimalists tend to be brief. Like, say, Ellsworth Kelly:

I will say that at a very early age I felt that I saw things abstractly. The more carefully I looked, the more abstract they became.

Again, not always: Agnes Martin’s reply when asked what she tells her students was both lengthy and worth quoting at length.

You have to be careful with the intellect as an artist. The intellectual struggles with the facts. That’s not inspirational. If you are an intellectual and you are going to buy a house, you would think about the cost, check on the taxes, look at the survey, and go through a whole list of things that make you feel better about buying the house. If you couldn’t rationalize it, you wouldn’t buy it. If the house genuinely inspired you, you wouldn’t worry about the list. You would find a way to buy it. You have to deal with the practical matters, but you wouldn’t worry about them because you would be involved with your inspiration. That’s what artists have to do. They have to stay involved with their inspiration. They can’t be constantly worried about the cost of paint.

As for Puryear, he mostly talks about matters of technique, and his comments are very specific. Asked about the genesis of Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1966), the best-known of his wooden sculptures, he tells you just what you want to know:

It was made from an ash sapling—a very tall, young ash tree that I cut on my property and brought into the studio. I kept it for quite a while and I knew I wanted to do something with it because it was such an interesting form. Most samplings that grow in the woods grow ramrod straight. This one had a lot of very interesting undulations in its stem . . . the undulations were fascinating to me, and I kept it for quite some time just in that shape, with a kind of broad trunk with the bark on it. Eventually I peeled the bark off, and began thinking about it in relation to the ladder.

You can see what he did next by going to the Museum of Modern Art’s Martin Puryear retrospective, which is up through January 14, after which it travels to Fort Worth, Washington’s National Gallery, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. If you can’t catch it in any of those places, pick up a copy of the catalogue. It contains, among other good things, a fine essay by Michael Auping, and the 165 illustrations will give you some idea of why I recently praised Puryear as “the American Brancusi, a master woodworker whose elegantly crafted creations, by turns playful and mysterious, allude subtly to political matters without once bowing to the tyranny of the idea.”

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Bookshelf

• I can’t think of an art critic whom I admire more, or read more attentively, than Karen Wilkin. Not only does she write about modern art with stylish, jargon-free clarity, but she is immune to the trendiness that is the driving force behind the “thinking” of so many American critics. Her essays and reviews invariably help me to see the painters about whom she writes with an enhanced clarity that owes nothing to the factitious charms of fashion. Her name figures prominently on the very short list of critics whose books I will buy and read regardless of their subject.

As it happens, Wilkin has just published two new books, though one of them is not “new” in the usual sense of the word. Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews (Ediciones Polígrafa, 160 pp., $45) is an exceedingly well-made folio based in substantial part on a Morandi monograph published by Wilkin nine years ago in Rizzoli’s Twentieth-Century Masters series. Not only has the text of the earlier volume been reprinted here without change, but so have most of the illustrations (I assume that the same plates were used). The main difference is that the new book also includes a selection of the Italian painter’s writings, including four letters, two interviews and a 1928 autobiographical statement, all of which shed much light on his artistic thinking:

I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.

I’m sorry that Wilkin was (apparently) not given the opportunity to update what she wrote about Morandi in light of the important revelations about his life in wartime Italy included in Janet Abramowicz’s Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, which was published virtually without notice three years ago. Nevertheless, her 1998 essay remains the most perceptive criticism of Morandi to have appeared in English, and those who don’t already own the Rizzoli volume in which it was originally published will want to acquire it in this format in order to have access to Morandi’s own writings. Though his work is comparatively little known in the United States, he is an artist of near-inscrutable power whose still lifes have the power to silence the grinding racket of everyday urban life and spirit the harried viewer away to a place of intense stillness. Wilkin has done more than any other American critic to spread the word about Morandi in this country, and I hope that Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews will do still more to advance his cause.

Another of Wilkin’s critical causes is the “color-field” abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and their contemporaries and followers, which was widely admired in the days of Clement Greenberg’s ascendancy but has long since come to be regarded as passé. Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 (Yale, 128 pp., $45) is the catalogue of a retrospective curated by Wilkin that just opened at the Denver Art Museum (it closes on Feb. 3) and will travel from there to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Feb. 29-May 26) and Nashville’s Frist Center for Visual Arts (June 20-Sept. 21). Rarely has a catalogue made a more powerful case for the revaluation of a now-disdained style, not least because of Wilkin’s pithy, characteristically straight-talking introductory essay:

Modish critics and art historians, reared on a diet of art that insists on elaborate verbal explication, and deeply mistrustful of anything that doesn’t come fully bolstered with words, have decried Color Field painting as merely decorative . . . Unfortunately, the minds of many spectators, who include makers of art, as well as art historians, critics, and curators, have been carried so far into regions so purely literary that they seem to have forgotten that the visual is as much a cerebral function as the verbal.

I can’t wait to see the show.

• I can’t think of an art critic whom I admire more, or read more attentively, than Karen Wilkin. Not only does she write about modern art with stylish, jargon-free clarity, but she is immune to the trendiness that is the driving force behind the “thinking” of so many American critics. Her essays and reviews invariably help me to see the painters about whom she writes with an enhanced clarity that owes nothing to the factitious charms of fashion. Her name figures prominently on the very short list of critics whose books I will buy and read regardless of their subject.

As it happens, Wilkin has just published two new books, though one of them is not “new” in the usual sense of the word. Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews (Ediciones Polígrafa, 160 pp., $45) is an exceedingly well-made folio based in substantial part on a Morandi monograph published by Wilkin nine years ago in Rizzoli’s Twentieth-Century Masters series. Not only has the text of the earlier volume been reprinted here without change, but so have most of the illustrations (I assume that the same plates were used). The main difference is that the new book also includes a selection of the Italian painter’s writings, including four letters, two interviews and a 1928 autobiographical statement, all of which shed much light on his artistic thinking:

I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.

I’m sorry that Wilkin was (apparently) not given the opportunity to update what she wrote about Morandi in light of the important revelations about his life in wartime Italy included in Janet Abramowicz’s Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, which was published virtually without notice three years ago. Nevertheless, her 1998 essay remains the most perceptive criticism of Morandi to have appeared in English, and those who don’t already own the Rizzoli volume in which it was originally published will want to acquire it in this format in order to have access to Morandi’s own writings. Though his work is comparatively little known in the United States, he is an artist of near-inscrutable power whose still lifes have the power to silence the grinding racket of everyday urban life and spirit the harried viewer away to a place of intense stillness. Wilkin has done more than any other American critic to spread the word about Morandi in this country, and I hope that Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews will do still more to advance his cause.

Another of Wilkin’s critical causes is the “color-field” abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and their contemporaries and followers, which was widely admired in the days of Clement Greenberg’s ascendancy but has long since come to be regarded as passé. Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 (Yale, 128 pp., $45) is the catalogue of a retrospective curated by Wilkin that just opened at the Denver Art Museum (it closes on Feb. 3) and will travel from there to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Feb. 29-May 26) and Nashville’s Frist Center for Visual Arts (June 20-Sept. 21). Rarely has a catalogue made a more powerful case for the revaluation of a now-disdained style, not least because of Wilkin’s pithy, characteristically straight-talking introductory essay:

Modish critics and art historians, reared on a diet of art that insists on elaborate verbal explication, and deeply mistrustful of anything that doesn’t come fully bolstered with words, have decried Color Field painting as merely decorative . . . Unfortunately, the minds of many spectators, who include makers of art, as well as art historians, critics, and curators, have been carried so far into regions so purely literary that they seem to have forgotten that the visual is as much a cerebral function as the verbal.

I can’t wait to see the show.

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Norman Mailer, Architecture Critic?

What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?

There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.

Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

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What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?

There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.

Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

What Mailer proposed as an alternative to modernism was not made clear, and one was not sure what to make of his perverse praise for the “Gothic knots and Romanesque oppressions” of his childhood schoolhouses. But it scarcely mattered; the essay drew a storm of public attention and was reprinted in both the Architectural Forum and the Village Voice. For a rebuttal, the Forum enlisted Scully, a historian of unusual eloquence, who took Mailer to task for his “lazy, potboiling paragraphs.” Scully pointed out that modern architecture invariably was opposed to totalitarianism, that both the Soviet and the Nazi state suppressed it, and that Mailer himself was suffering from a vestigial affection for “representationalist” architecture.

Mailer’s rejoinder was memorable. It was not political totalitarianism that he meant but the cultural totalitarianism that arises when architects subordinate the visual character of neighborhoods and cities to their own insatiable egos:

modern architecture . . . tends to excite the Faustian and empty appetites of the architect’s ego rather than reveal an artist’s vision of our collective desire for shelter which is pleasurable, substantial, intricate, intimate, delicate, detailed, foibled, rich in gargoyle, guignol, false closet, secret stair, witch’s hearth, attic, grandeur, kitsch, a world of buildings as diverse as the need within the eye for stimulus and variation. For beware: the ultimate promise of modern architecture is collective sightlessness for the species. Blindness is the fruit of your design.

Such a sentiment is now a commonplace. But in 1964 it was rather unusual, even prescient. For a brief moment, Mailer perceived with clarity (and a surfeit of passion) that something had gone awry with modernism, and he expressed it with extraordinary force.

Mailer’s foray into criticism would be a one-shot affair, not a serious endeavor but simply an opportunity to play the Bad Boy in yet another sphere of human activity. More’s the pity; for Mailer—to judge from this one exchange—clearly had more natural ability as an architecture critic than a boxer.

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Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

Norman Mailer died early this morning. Mailer had a six-decade career as a novelist, opening with his best-selling debut The Naked and the Dead and closing with The Castle in the Forest, his meditation on the life of Adolph Hitler, and producing influential works in the emergent genre of “New Journalism”—The Executioner’s Song, Miami and the Siege of Chicago—along the way. Whatever his faults as an artist may have been, he remained an enduringly provocative figure throughout his lifetime. Below, you can read a free selection of writings on Mailer’s work, along with pieces from his own hand, from the pages of COMMENTARY.

John Gross on The Castle in the Forest (March 2007)

Thomas L. Jeffers on The Spooky Art (April 2003)

Peter Shaw on Miami and the Siege of Chicago (December 1968)

Richard Poirier on An American Dream (June 1965)

Midge Decter on The Presidential Papers (February 1964)

William Barrett on Barbary Shore (June 1951)

Raymond Rosenthal on The Naked and the Dead (July 1948)

By Mailer:

The Battle of the Pentagon” (April 1968)

Modes and Mutations: Quick Comments on the Modern American Novel” (March 1966)

Norman Mailer died early this morning. Mailer had a six-decade career as a novelist, opening with his best-selling debut The Naked and the Dead and closing with The Castle in the Forest, his meditation on the life of Adolph Hitler, and producing influential works in the emergent genre of “New Journalism”—The Executioner’s Song, Miami and the Siege of Chicago—along the way. Whatever his faults as an artist may have been, he remained an enduringly provocative figure throughout his lifetime. Below, you can read a free selection of writings on Mailer’s work, along with pieces from his own hand, from the pages of COMMENTARY.

John Gross on The Castle in the Forest (March 2007)

Thomas L. Jeffers on The Spooky Art (April 2003)

Peter Shaw on Miami and the Siege of Chicago (December 1968)

Richard Poirier on An American Dream (June 1965)

Midge Decter on The Presidential Papers (February 1964)

William Barrett on Barbary Shore (June 1951)

Raymond Rosenthal on The Naked and the Dead (July 1948)

By Mailer:

The Battle of the Pentagon” (April 1968)

Modes and Mutations: Quick Comments on the Modern American Novel” (March 1966)

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Remembering Kitaj

The Cleveland-born artist Ronald Brooks (R.B.) Kitaj (1932-2007), who died on October 21, has a new book out from Yale University Press, The Second Diasporist Manifesto. Kitaj’s 1989 First Diasporist Manifesto preceded it as a collection of scattered fragmentary musings about being a Jewish man and artist. Both books declare the author’s principles, as any manifesto should, but neither is a poem, as Kitaj alleges.

The Second Diasporist Manifesto contains 615 numbered observations, which Yale University Press describes as “deliberately echo[ing] the Commandments of Jewish Law.” Of course, 613 and not 615 is the traditional number of commandments in the Torah. Like the Torah’s commandments, Kitaj’s book may be divided into “positive commandments,” about reading authors like Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Benjamin Fondane, and Lev Shestov, and “negative commandments” about those he loathes, like the anti-Semitic T. S. Eliot. There is also the occasional unexpected juxtaposition, such as when it is pointed out that the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (who founded the Hasidic movement), was a contemporary of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the fashionable British portrait painter.

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The Cleveland-born artist Ronald Brooks (R.B.) Kitaj (1932-2007), who died on October 21, has a new book out from Yale University Press, The Second Diasporist Manifesto. Kitaj’s 1989 First Diasporist Manifesto preceded it as a collection of scattered fragmentary musings about being a Jewish man and artist. Both books declare the author’s principles, as any manifesto should, but neither is a poem, as Kitaj alleges.

The Second Diasporist Manifesto contains 615 numbered observations, which Yale University Press describes as “deliberately echo[ing] the Commandments of Jewish Law.” Of course, 613 and not 615 is the traditional number of commandments in the Torah. Like the Torah’s commandments, Kitaj’s book may be divided into “positive commandments,” about reading authors like Kafka, Gershom Scholem, Benjamin Fondane, and Lev Shestov, and “negative commandments” about those he loathes, like the anti-Semitic T. S. Eliot. There is also the occasional unexpected juxtaposition, such as when it is pointed out that the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (who founded the Hasidic movement), was a contemporary of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the fashionable British portrait painter.

Kitaj himself, as a figurative artist whose images are chock-full of historical and literary content, depicting celebrities from Einstein to Philip Roth, was defiantly unfashionable. Although he was honored with major retrospectives in London and New York, these sparked controversy when critics reacted vituperatively. A 1994 Tate Gallery show enraged the London press, which the artist himself attributed to English “low-octane anti-Semitism.”

Yet Kitaj could appreciate some art critics, like Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro. When the show traveled to the Metropolitan Museum a year later, the New York Times was equally condescending, calling Kitaj a “painter whose ambitions outstrip his art . . . his paintings can sometimes be abstruse and pretentious, and there are too many weak recent pictures on view to come out of the Metropolitan with more than mixed feelings.” As recently as 2005, the Times arts section was still scolding Kitaj, telling him to “calm down and do nothing but paint still-lifes for a while.”

In Kitaj’s art and manifestos, content is hugely important, especially when compared to the work of his friend and colleague David Hockney. Kitaj admired still lifes by his idol Cézanne or the modern Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, but his mission was to express Jewish culture and history in images. As he told one interviewer, “I’d like to do for Jews what Morandi did for jars.” Critics who bash Kitaj because of his content are forgetting E. H. Gombrich’s dictum, “There is no wrong reason for liking a work of art, only for disliking it.” The death of Kitaj’s wife Sandra Fisher (1947-1994), whom he had married at London’s venerable Bevis Marks Synagogue, a Sephardic landmark, was a permanent loss. Also a gifted painter, Fisher was honored last year with an exhibition at the New York Studio School. Whatever critical bile has flowed in the past, the art of Kitaj and Fisher surely will be admired by posterity.

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Paris Art Woes

An old saying in Europe goes that British people “take their pleasures sadly”; an update might add that the French take theirs violently. On the night of October 6, known locally as the “Nuit Blanche” (Sleepless Night) Festival, during which musical and artistic events are presented all night long, five vandals broke into the Musée d’Orsay (Paris’s treasure trove of 19th century art) and punched a four-inch hole in an 1874 canvas by the Impressionist Claude Monet, Le Pont d’Argenteuil. Security cameras captured images of five visibly drunk Parisian teenagers forcing open a door to the museum just before midnight. After smoking cigarettes and urinating on the museum’s floor, they were scared away by the rather belated sound of an alarm. Patrick Bloche, a deputy in France’s National Assembly, reasonably inquired whether the embattled Minister of Culture Christine Albanel intends to wait until a four-inch tear is also made in the Mona Lisa, before having the locks on national museums double-checked.

The damage to the Monet painting (showing idyllic boats on the Seine River in a happier time) is less dramatic than a near-tragic episode during Paris’s “Nuit Blanche” in 2002, when the city’s openly gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, was stabbed in the abdomen in the City Hall in the early hours of the morning. The assailant, who almost killed the mayor, claimed to be a “devout Muslim” who “does not like politicians and in particular does not like homosexuals.”

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An old saying in Europe goes that British people “take their pleasures sadly”; an update might add that the French take theirs violently. On the night of October 6, known locally as the “Nuit Blanche” (Sleepless Night) Festival, during which musical and artistic events are presented all night long, five vandals broke into the Musée d’Orsay (Paris’s treasure trove of 19th century art) and punched a four-inch hole in an 1874 canvas by the Impressionist Claude Monet, Le Pont d’Argenteuil. Security cameras captured images of five visibly drunk Parisian teenagers forcing open a door to the museum just before midnight. After smoking cigarettes and urinating on the museum’s floor, they were scared away by the rather belated sound of an alarm. Patrick Bloche, a deputy in France’s National Assembly, reasonably inquired whether the embattled Minister of Culture Christine Albanel intends to wait until a four-inch tear is also made in the Mona Lisa, before having the locks on national museums double-checked.

The damage to the Monet painting (showing idyllic boats on the Seine River in a happier time) is less dramatic than a near-tragic episode during Paris’s “Nuit Blanche” in 2002, when the city’s openly gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, was stabbed in the abdomen in the City Hall in the early hours of the morning. The assailant, who almost killed the mayor, claimed to be a “devout Muslim” who “does not like politicians and in particular does not like homosexuals.”

Even when such Parisian denizens of the night are not doing their worst, one wonders whether the level of urban violence in today’s Paris is really conducive to institutionalized all-night hilarity. Even in plain daylight, the French cannot be trusted with their cultural treasures. On November 16, a verdict will be handed down in the much-publicized trial of Rindy Sam, a Frenchwoman who identifies herself as an artist. Last July, Ms. Sam kissed a painting by American modernist Cy Twombly, which resides in a special collection at Avignon’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Ms. Sam smeared the white canvas with lipstick. Since her oral tribute, museum technicians have been unable to remove the lipstick stain from the canvas, previously valued at $2.8 million. Ms. Sam has explained that all she did was offer a kiss as a “gesture of love.” The museum and the collector who retains ownership of the painting are not endeared, demanding compensation to the tune of over 30,000 and 2 million euros respectively. Additionally, a prosecutor wants to fine Ms. Sam 4,500 euros for her action. Only Twombly himself, who lives in Lexington, Virginia and Italy, has kept his compensation demand to the scale of a state fair kissing booth, asking for just a single euro as “symbolic” reparation.

Since its arts collections are the mainspring of France’s tourism-based economy, and one of the main reasons why foreign visitors bother to put up with Parisian nastiness, it behooves the country to act vigorously to prevent these kinds of absurdities.

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Mind the Gap

According to the London Times, “Shibboleth,” the Tate Modern’s new installation, has already claimed its first victims. Last week, three visitors fell into the work, a 548-foot-long crack that runs through the floor of the former power plant like an earthquake fissure. Since the visitors were not injured (unlike a young lawyer who fell to his death at the Tate earlier this year), the British press treated the incident light-heartedly. “Mind the gap,” joked the Guardian, invoking the loudspeaker warning at London underground stops. But if the press has been light-hearted, “Shibboleth” is anything but.

“Shibboleth” is the creation of Doris Salcedo, who was born in Colombia and studied at New York University, and whose work invariably is political. She first won international attention five years ago, when she encrusted Bogota’s Palace of Justice with a mantle of wooden chairs, her memorial to the violent coup attempt of 1985. Her new work aspires to more universal symbolism. As the Tate proclaims, it depicts the

long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. A ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.

It is hardly novel for an artist to mutilate, disfigure, or otherwise violate an object in order to represent violence; on the contrary, one might call it art school vernacular. It is the atrophied symbolism of the political poster, the absolute literalism of graphic art, rather than the imaginative language of allegory. But what is novel about Salcedo’s project is that the artist was able to persuade one of Britain’s most prestigious art institutions to mutilate itself, as it were, and at considerable expense.

Of course it is possible, as the Independent points out, to enjoy the spectacle without subscribing to its ponderous theoretical program. Perhaps this is why the British press has been generally respectful about the exhibition (apart from waggish comments about “Doris’s crack”). Only the Times brought a refreshing skepticism to the spacious claims made on behalf of Shibboleth. Its review concludes with this gem of British dryness:

According to Salcedo, the fissure is “bottomless . . . as deep as humanity.” However, it appears to be around three feet at its deepest point.

When artists practice such blatant literalism as Salcedo does, they can hardly blame their critics for doing the same.

According to the London Times, “Shibboleth,” the Tate Modern’s new installation, has already claimed its first victims. Last week, three visitors fell into the work, a 548-foot-long crack that runs through the floor of the former power plant like an earthquake fissure. Since the visitors were not injured (unlike a young lawyer who fell to his death at the Tate earlier this year), the British press treated the incident light-heartedly. “Mind the gap,” joked the Guardian, invoking the loudspeaker warning at London underground stops. But if the press has been light-hearted, “Shibboleth” is anything but.

“Shibboleth” is the creation of Doris Salcedo, who was born in Colombia and studied at New York University, and whose work invariably is political. She first won international attention five years ago, when she encrusted Bogota’s Palace of Justice with a mantle of wooden chairs, her memorial to the violent coup attempt of 1985. Her new work aspires to more universal symbolism. As the Tate proclaims, it depicts the

long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. A ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase, or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.

It is hardly novel for an artist to mutilate, disfigure, or otherwise violate an object in order to represent violence; on the contrary, one might call it art school vernacular. It is the atrophied symbolism of the political poster, the absolute literalism of graphic art, rather than the imaginative language of allegory. But what is novel about Salcedo’s project is that the artist was able to persuade one of Britain’s most prestigious art institutions to mutilate itself, as it were, and at considerable expense.

Of course it is possible, as the Independent points out, to enjoy the spectacle without subscribing to its ponderous theoretical program. Perhaps this is why the British press has been generally respectful about the exhibition (apart from waggish comments about “Doris’s crack”). Only the Times brought a refreshing skepticism to the spacious claims made on behalf of Shibboleth. Its review concludes with this gem of British dryness:

According to Salcedo, the fissure is “bottomless . . . as deep as humanity.” However, it appears to be around three feet at its deepest point.

When artists practice such blatant literalism as Salcedo does, they can hardly blame their critics for doing the same.

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The Poet and the Nazi

Today, the New York Times reports that five members of the board of the Poetry Society of America, including its president, have resigned. Their resignations stem from “accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.”

The blood went bad when, earlier this year, John Hollander, the poet, critic, and retired Yale professor, was awarded the Society’s Frost Medal, a kind of lifetime achievement award.

A rough time-line: Professor Hollander, in the past, made some remarks that were insensitive. For instance, according to the New York Times, Hollander noted on NPR that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.” Poetry Society board members balked when, a few years ago, Hollander was put up as a contender for the Frost Medal. When, earlier this year, Hollander was announced as the recipient of the medal, novelist Walter Mosley, a board member, resigned in protest. In response, PSA board president William Louis-Dreyfus, a commodities trader, accused Mosley of McCarthyism in using Hollander’s politics against him. Angered at Louis-Dreyfus’s reaction, three other board members, including well-regarded poets Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter, tendered their own resignations.

Mr. Mosley deemed Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s invocation of Senator Joe McCarthy “ridiculous hyperbole.” Unfortunately, in describing the events at the PSA, Motoko Rich, the reporter for the New York Times, has committed her own act of egregious exaggeration. In discussing whether one can praise an artist’s work while criticizing the artist as a human, Ms. Rich compares John Hollander to Günter Grass. The former is a Jewish professor who has displayed ignorance and tactlessness. Günter Grass is a German who was a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS.

If emotions on the PSA’s board run high, it seems that even reporting on the matter severely impairs one’s sense of proportion.

Today, the New York Times reports that five members of the board of the Poetry Society of America, including its president, have resigned. Their resignations stem from “accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.”

The blood went bad when, earlier this year, John Hollander, the poet, critic, and retired Yale professor, was awarded the Society’s Frost Medal, a kind of lifetime achievement award.

A rough time-line: Professor Hollander, in the past, made some remarks that were insensitive. For instance, according to the New York Times, Hollander noted on NPR that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.” Poetry Society board members balked when, a few years ago, Hollander was put up as a contender for the Frost Medal. When, earlier this year, Hollander was announced as the recipient of the medal, novelist Walter Mosley, a board member, resigned in protest. In response, PSA board president William Louis-Dreyfus, a commodities trader, accused Mosley of McCarthyism in using Hollander’s politics against him. Angered at Louis-Dreyfus’s reaction, three other board members, including well-regarded poets Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter, tendered their own resignations.

Mr. Mosley deemed Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s invocation of Senator Joe McCarthy “ridiculous hyperbole.” Unfortunately, in describing the events at the PSA, Motoko Rich, the reporter for the New York Times, has committed her own act of egregious exaggeration. In discussing whether one can praise an artist’s work while criticizing the artist as a human, Ms. Rich compares John Hollander to Günter Grass. The former is a Jewish professor who has displayed ignorance and tactlessness. Günter Grass is a German who was a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS.

If emotions on the PSA’s board run high, it seems that even reporting on the matter severely impairs one’s sense of proportion.

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A Büchel and a Peck

Can anybody explain the New York Times’s infatuation with Christoph Büchel, the Swiss artist now embroiled in a lawsuit with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (Mass MoCA)? Last Sunday Roberta Smith, the Times critic, wrote an 1800-word essay on the controversy that amounts to a journalistic billet-doux to Büchel.

A year ago, the artist was commissioned to create “Training Ground for Democracy,” a vast installation piece crammed with a 1930’s movie theater, a children’s merry-go-round, and a full size replica of Saddam Hussein’s spider hole—and much more. As I described in contentions, it did not turn out as planned. Costs mounted, and when Büchel insisted on one more item (one 737 jet fuselage, scorched), Mass MoCA balked. Having already spent more than double its $160,000 budget for the show, it covered the incomplete exhibition with yellow tarps and went to court. The case opens today in Springfield.

For many of us, a case like this raises a host of interesting issues—the role of the modern museum as impresario in the creation of art, for example, or whether it is salutary for an overindulged artist to be checked from time to time. But not for Ms. Smith. For her, the matter is open-and-shut: Mass MoCA “has broken faith with the artist, the public, and art itself.” Moreover, it “does damage to itself and to its reputation as a steward of art and as a conduit between living artists and the public.” In sum, it is “a meltdown [that] is sad for all concerned.”

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Can anybody explain the New York Times’s infatuation with Christoph Büchel, the Swiss artist now embroiled in a lawsuit with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts (Mass MoCA)? Last Sunday Roberta Smith, the Times critic, wrote an 1800-word essay on the controversy that amounts to a journalistic billet-doux to Büchel.

A year ago, the artist was commissioned to create “Training Ground for Democracy,” a vast installation piece crammed with a 1930’s movie theater, a children’s merry-go-round, and a full size replica of Saddam Hussein’s spider hole—and much more. As I described in contentions, it did not turn out as planned. Costs mounted, and when Büchel insisted on one more item (one 737 jet fuselage, scorched), Mass MoCA balked. Having already spent more than double its $160,000 budget for the show, it covered the incomplete exhibition with yellow tarps and went to court. The case opens today in Springfield.

For many of us, a case like this raises a host of interesting issues—the role of the modern museum as impresario in the creation of art, for example, or whether it is salutary for an overindulged artist to be checked from time to time. But not for Ms. Smith. For her, the matter is open-and-shut: Mass MoCA “has broken faith with the artist, the public, and art itself.” Moreover, it “does damage to itself and to its reputation as a steward of art and as a conduit between living artists and the public.” In sum, it is “a meltdown [that] is sad for all concerned.”

Smith’s understanding of how artists function is oddly naïve. She suggests that the Mass MoCA imbroglio is the result of simple envy:

Never underestimate the amount of resentment and hostility we harbor toward artists. It springs largely from envy. They can behave quite badly, but mainly they operate with a kind of freedom and courage that other people don’t risk or enjoy. And it can lead to wondrous things.

Her understanding of creativity is curiously pinched, even archaic. It is the romantic conception from the era of Goethe and Rousseau, in which inspiration can be only the sudden and divine inspiration of genius. Such a view fails to take into account that many forms of artistic endeavor, such as architecture and theater, are not solitary, but depend on the active agency of a patron. And often the interaction between patron and artist, the skillful negotiation of constraint and limitations, draws forth the highest efforts of the artist. The more powerful and involved the patron, in most cases, the better the work (think Lorenzo the Magnificent). And in the case of installation pieces—which are closer to architecture and theater than to traditional sculpture—the museum is in fact a player.

It is not surprising that Smith was unwilling or unable to discuss this. It is far easier to reduce complex cultural debates to a simple morality fable in which enlightened artists forever contend with benighted burghers and censors. (Smith even invokes the campaign against Robert Mapplethorpe, an irrelevant example that seeks only to link Mass MoCA unfairly with Senator Jesse Helms.)

What is surprising, however, is that the Times should turn so suddenly and vehemently against Mass MoCA. The paper once cheered on the plucky Mass MOCA, praising it for bringing life to the languishing mill town; now it’s expelled it from polite company. The explanation may be simple imitation. It was the Boston Globe that first took Mass MoCA to task, arguing that it was unfair to let the public see what was in effect an unfinished sketch by Büchel without his permission (as evidence for why this might be damaging to the artist’s reputation, my contentions posting is cited). Roberta Smith’s review, in the end, is a recapitulation of the Globe’s far more nuanced essay. It is often the case that a particularly vicious review, upon inspection, proves to be the escalation of another critic’s work, taken to an immoderate extreme—the bolder jackal bites first, but the second one bites deeper.

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