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July 13, 2004

Lunch Emails

Dear Vanessa --

Friedrich and I chose the "Dear Michael"/"Dear Friedrich," epistolary form we use on this blog for a simple reason: we're lazy. Since we were writing each other long, art-gaga emails anyway -- we've been doing this for years -- and since neither one of us can ever see the point of doing more work than is absolutely necessary, we looked at our emails and thought, What could be easier than copying and pasting? Well, OK, we always made an effort to pretty-up our thoughts and words. But we also genuinely did want to promote a conversational and informal tone. We felt it was important. Let the pros and the profs take care of the formal essays and from-on-high lectures. Our small contribution to the artchat world would be to be proprietors of a place where the kind of email and cafe gab we both love might flourish.

Friedrich is on hiatus from blogging, but he and I continue to swap emails as of old. Every now and then I persuade him to let me do the heavy labor of cutting and pasting. Here's a recent lunch-hour back-and-forth. I hope it's amusing.

Michael Blowhard: I got back from vacation thinking Iíve got to get more serious about my, ahem, creative work. Those dozens of stories and novels Iíve got laying around Ö maybe thereís a way to finish them up after all. Turns out there is, actually -- I hand them over to the Wife. I was always confident and happy dreaming up projects, laying them out, polishing them Ö but never at bringing the characters and situations to life. At that one stage, Iíd always feel my projects go dead on me, and I could never figure out why. It turns out my wife is great at that stage. So sheís helping -- as in taking over 99% of the work. Itís going great. What fun to be able to offload what I canít do onto someone whoís great at it. (Shhh: donít let anyone know! Because if you let this cat out of the bag, I'll have no literary reputation left whatsoever!) And look out, world: now I get to raise from the dead every lousy little fiction project I ever dreamed up and then abandoned. Luckily, I seem to be of a little use to The Wife with her writing projects too. I make a few suggestions about structure and plots, both of which, to my surprise, I seem to have a knack for. Whatís up with your creative side?

Friedrich von Blowhard: Iím thinking about doing some still life paintings. Iím also getting pretty serious about trying to write a book on art history that focuses on what paintings are really about. What were they intended to mean, at least in their original context? Iím thinking of a cultural history of art, with a fairly heavy emphasis on religion as the area of culture thatís most in tune with the visual arts. Obviously that means I have to actually figure out what was going on in a lot of historical eras, relate the general context to the specific paintings, and then boil the whole thing down into a fairly snappy presentation. I think there might be a pretty good general audience for that sort of thing, although Iím probably deluding myself. Anyway, all this is at least a good excuse for me to read a lot of cultural history. Paul Johnson, in his recent book summarizing the history of art, devotes his last chapter to the study of art history. He remarks that although contemporary art isnít in a very inspiring state (from his point of view, anyway), itís indisputable that art history as a discipline is at an all-time high point today. I suspect that cultural history generally is similarly enjoying a renaissance. And do be sure to send me any fiction you finish.

MB: Now that should be a fun challenge, and a great book to read, too. Howís the Paul Johnson? Crusty, vigorously-expressed, sensible, all that? The line on it has been that heís great until he gets to Modernism, which he doesnít understand at all. Of course, maybe he does get it, and maybe he just doesnít think much of it. Whatís wrong with a reactionary look at Modernism, anyhow? Couldnít we get something out of that? Thereís a kind of review I never understand. A book comes out, and the book makes an argument, and it either gets praised (because the reviewer agrees with the argument) or panned (because the reviewer disagrees with it). Whereís the reviewer who can say, "Well, I donít agree with him, but he made his case well and entertainingly, and I enjoyed wrestling with it? Damn fine book!" Whereís the reviewer with the guts and sense to give a positive review to a book he disagrees with? Lordy, all these people who have to choose one team or the other, as though anything really depends on it.

FvB: I scanned Johnsonís book in the book store, didnít actually buy it because Iíve been buying too many books lately. So I canít pose as an expert, but I suspect the reason people didnít like his discussion of Modern art is because his chapter on 20th Century painting is called something like ďArt as FashionĒ or ďFashion Art.Ē He takes the line that artists, beginning with Picasso, have adopted the mentality of fashion designers, forever bringing out a new Spring line, usually pasted together from bits and pieces of their or someone elseís previous lines. Iíve run across the comparison between art and fashion in social science before, but I canít remember anyone discussing it in a serious ďartĒ forum. I think members of the art world donít want to engage such a heretical idea, because even refuting it (if they could) would make them think unpleasant and disturbing thoughts. Of course, if we do take the position that art works like fashion, I could trot out my old evo-bio theory about the role of fashion and apply it to the art world. As you may recall, I hypothesized that fashion works like a peacockís tail, as a handicap to show how reproductively fit you are (because you can bear up under the added strain). High fashion actually functions by making it more, not less, difficult to project feminine allureóand thus proves that youíve really got your sex mojo working. Applying this to art, my theory would suggest that in a world where undergraduates have posters of Cezanneís paintings in their dorm rooms, if you want to show how stud-ly you are, youíd need to buy yourself something thatís really tough to loveólike Xeroxed documentation of conceptual art pieces. Hey, itís a thought, anyway. See any movies lately?

MB: Nothing on a movie screen in months excepting ďSpidey 2,Ē which I saw at a screening early on, when much of the computer work hadnít been finished yet. I liked the movie OK. Itís the middle of a trilogy, so it suffers from the fact that the first act has to be spent recapping the last movie and a big part of the last act has to be spent setting up the next movie. Itís also reversed the formula of the first movie, which I took to be ďaction plus a surprising amount of character.Ē This one is ďtons and tons of character, along with some action.Ē But the character stuff is well-written and has some oomph. (Alvin Sargent wrote the movie. Remember him? Very big in the Ď60s and Ď70s.) Hey, does Toby Maguire do anything for you? His appeal eludes me entirely. That dewy-eyed, blank-faced, trying-to-keep-his-hopes-up-in-an-insane-world thing he does I guess speaks to the oversensitive, eternal 9-year-old in us, but it seems to be all he does. Otherwise, we watched a few DVDs in St. Barth. We caught up with ďJackie Brown,Ē which I liked okay too. I mainly enjoyed the way Tarantino gave the film over to his actors. Iíd much rather see Tarantino do that than try to be a dazzling badass superfly director, though I wish the acting had been up to the attention he lavished on it. (Robert Forster was great, though.) But itís a sweet, easygoing movie, and a nice tribute to the genius of Elmore Leonard. Mostly, though, I enjoyed being away from the news and the media. I was so far away from the media that it took me a few days back before I stumbled across word that Brando had died. Lordy, that whole generation is going fast. Kubrickís gone, Woody Allenís creaky, Altman turns 80 soon, Clintís in his 70ís, Nicholson and Beatty have gotta be around there somewhere. Ossie Davis, Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, Mailer, Roth, Bellow, Updike. (I wonder why the older womenís names arenít occurring to me as quickly. Hmm.) Ö The cultural landscape wonít be the same place once theyíve gone. I keep wondering whatís going to happen politically once the generation raised on Civil Rights and Vietnam leaves us. Me, by that time, I hope to be in St. Barth doing yoga.

FvB: Oh, by the way, Iím sorry I never thanked you and your lovely wife for sending me that biography of Philip K. Dick. Itís an enjoyable book, but somehow it made me think less of Phil. As Iíve gotten older Iíve become less impressed by people who abandon their families, even if they are wildly talented writers.

MB: Itís always tough reading about artists whose work you love, isn't it? So few of them lived admirable lives. Brando, for instance, loved complaining about the miseries of his upbringing (which, of course, was much more middleclass than he wanted anyone to know). Yet who could have been a worse father than he was? I read somewhere that he had kids he never met or recognized as his own.

FvB: Remind me to quit complaining about my old man. Oh, there was one other thing I was impressed by in Paul Johnsonís book. At least I think it must be in there, based on some comments in a later chapter. Which is that I strongly suspect he puts at least some of the responsibility for the dreariness of the contemporary art scene on the capitalist art business, which is fairly bold coming from a guy who clearly sits on the Right side of the aisle. It reminded me of one of our common themes ó the conflict between admiring the energy and freedom of capitalism, markets and private property, while having to note rather sadly the impact on at least certain forms of culture.

MB: Yeah, it seems to me that the key is balance. Youíve got to have some kind of economically-liberal arrangement in the commercial sphere of life, otherwise thereís no opportunity and there's no increasing wealth. But youíve also got to have an actual culture too, and some real cultural confidence to go with it. It seems to me thatís what we lack as a nation. Weíre entirely commercial, weíre a little clueless, we dream about getting richer and little else Ö and so, almost while we aren't looking, commercial values overrun all others. Since thereís no turning America into a commercial-free zone (not that Iíd want to), my hope is that we can make the commercial world serve peopleís personal-aesthetic-spiritual needs and desires rather than vice versa.Thatís the New Urbanist and Slow Food thing: accept that the worldís a hugely commercialized place, but make the commercial stuff live up to your demands. We need to create a market of high-class and tasteful consumers who will demand that business behave if it wants their custom. Which is why itís sad that many Americans are so uncertain of their tastes and are so easily swayed. They seem to lurch around, looking for bargains, buying the most square footage they can afford, and seeing the most heavily-advertised movie because they just don't want to miss out. I think one of the great things about the cultureblogging world is that itís given grownups who have maintained artistic and intellectual interests a chance to find each other, swap tips, and generally feel a little less stranded and alone. This is one area, I think, where the French have an advantage over us Americans, happy though I am to razz the French on many other grounds. The French think the market exists to serve life and pleasure, and their emphasis on personal style and on the importance of aesthetics is a way of asserting that their tastes and their pleasures are more important than some corporationís convenience.

FvB: Speaking as a thoroughly mongrelized American, donít you think the whole immigrant-nation thing has put America in a rather different box than France? We have too many traditions jostling each other for the average Joe to have a simple, clear idea of what heís hoping to emulate. The commercial world, and commercially-pushed art forms, like rap music, are our only unifying factors. I donít think weíre going to see our mix-master heritage blended smooth in our lifetimes. Also, weíre much bigger on the whole notion of individualism. The French people Iíve known seem to fit into a set of social roles that function like Platonic Ideals ó you know, the hot young babe, the middle-aged professional man, the burly farmer, the intellectual author, etc. French celebrities seem to be famous not for being wacky one-offs, but for being exemplars of their type, so to speak. I suspect at least some of that is the result of a lack of competing cultural traditions, a fairly homogenous population, and the lingering effects of feudalism, where 0.5% of the population established all the styles and set all the rules and everyone else followed along.

MB: Iím sure youíre right. The French do have a very set number of archetypes, and a set number of ways of doing things. But I think they think of themselves, if only in their own minds, as distinctive and unique, each and every one of them. It may not be objectively true, but thatís how they view themselves. Added to their relatively stable culture and cultural values ó thereís fairly little churn regarding these in Franceóthis attitude has done a pretty good job of keeping market values from overrunning absolutely every aspect of life. Which is something Americans, I think, could benefit from. I donít know about you, but I have trouble creating or even enjoying anything at all in the midst of the careerist-commercial whirlwind. Itís all I can do to grit my teeth and hold on. And I donít think itís just me. I canít tell you the number of talented people Iíve known who have left the art-and-culture worlds just because they found it too highstrung, too high-pressure, and too nuts.

FvB: Well, on that note, I have to confess that Iíve got to get back to work. Say hi to Vanessa for me.

This what FvB calls "taking a break from blogging," snicker snicker. By the way, did anyone catch the reference to Frank O'Hara in this posting's title? Er, headline. Er, what are those things called when they're on a blog posting anyway?



posted by Michael at July 13, 2004


Um... Spiderman trilogy? Since when? I know a third film is in the works, but this is the first I've heard it referred to as a trilogy per se. Apart from which, I'm sure I've read they're tentatively planning anywhere up to six films for the series. Quite possibly even more.

Meanwhile the Police Academy franchise is about to mark its eighth installment. Just thought I'd mention that in case you feel a need to vomit at some point but need something to actually induce it...

Posted by: James Russell on July 13, 2004 04:21 AM

As far as "cultural history" goes, what do you think of Jacques Barzun? His "From Dawn To Decadence" belongs on every freethinking booklover's library, IMHO!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on July 13, 2004 02:03 PM

Loved this topic and discourse. One of the big things I try to do as a consumer is get a ROI on whatever I do. I learned this from father who loves to eat European style. Our typical family dinners when we go out usually last a minimum of 2 hours. He wants to truly savor the food, atmosphere, and experience of eating out. Of course, this costs more, but the ROI is tremendous sometimes.

As a 20 something, I stand out from my peers in that I'd rather pay good morning to eat good food and beer, rather than go for the cheap margarita special. I'd rather pay a lot more for something and truly enjoy my purchase and take care of it, then go cheap and have to buy something new two weeks later.

Part of the issue is also financial in that very few people save money. At colleges now, the credit card companies spend tons of money to get kids hook on the card and get them use to paying with that. I always made sure to pay with cash that way I'd feel the transaction and understand that I am giving up something in return to getting something else.

With credit cards, you don't feel anything sometimes. It's all invisible and it doesn't really matter. To me, there's nothing nicer than buying something and paying cash, because it strengthens my committment to it. It becomes a real purchase whether it's art or dinner, or even a movie or dvd.

It's tough to value culture if you can easily get it or replace it.

Posted by: khh on July 13, 2004 02:46 PM

Mr. Serafin:

I took a quick look at "From Dawn to Decadence" (great title) on the same trip to the bookstore that I checked out Paul Johnson's survey-of-art-history book. Unfortunately, in the brief section I read, I fairly strongly disagreed with some of Mr. Barzun's conclusions (it was an area I knew something about already), so I put the book back down. I grant you that might not have constituted the most serious evaluation imaginable. On your recommendation I'll take another, more lengthy look.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 13, 2004 03:13 PM

Hey Friedrich, what happened to not reviewing a book on the basis of your agreement with the author? Of course that was Michael talking, and you did say you'd give the Barzun book another look, but still...

Barzun is often wrong in From Dawn to Decadence but never unenlightening. The way he gives the bibliography (scattering parenthetical "the book to read on X is Y" throughout the text) is by itself worth the purchase price.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on July 13, 2004 08:34 PM


Why don't you allow TrackBacks? I'm going to have a Quote of the Day tomorrow from this post -- a perfect time for a TrackBack.


Posted by: john massengale on July 13, 2004 10:25 PM

Fess up, "Michael."

There never was a "Friedrich von Blowhard," was there?

And now, "Vanessa"?

It's called Multiple Blogger Syndrome, "Micheal."

With the help of your "friends," and possibly electroshock, you, too, can be cured.

Posted by: gnotalex on July 14, 2004 02:01 AM

I read around in Johnson's ART, and was rather shocked at his total dismissal of modern (20th century) art. One can look at a great deal of, say, Picasso's output, and see that basically he was doodling much of the time; yet still recognize that when genuinely invested in a painting or sculpture he could rise to the occasion. Johnson will have none of it. This is surprising in that Johnson admits to the shortcomings of some of his favorites. He acknowledges for example that Turner could barely manage the human figures in his landscapes but accepts this as a minor fault in the context of Turner's genius at capturing the effects of light.

On the other hand Johnson's categorization of modern art as primarily "fashion art" seems to me to be on the mark. Why this has become the case is a complex story. But a great deal of it can be laid at the feet of the relentless assault on high seriousness that has been waged by intellectuals post WW I (Duchampes(sp?) springs to mind).
In a way the whole movement of the 20th and especially late 20th and now 21st centuries has been away from high seriousness about "the eternal central questions" and into a complete absorbtion in technology as "the answer." Sequeing into Barzun: this is one of the main themes of Dawn To Decadence.

Hope the above doesn't come across as pompous windbaggery. :-(

Posted by: ricpic on July 14, 2004 09:55 AM

James -- I was surprised too, but that's how the publicist at the screening intro'd the movie, as the middle part of a trilogy. Was she misleading us? In any case, the film does wrestle with the problems of being a transitional episode, one great big long Act 2, so to speak. But fairly successfully I thought. How'd you react?

Michael -- I really should read the Barzun, shouldn't I. Yet another big gap in my cultural education. Thanks for the nudge.

KHH -- That's fascinating to learn about you and your classmates. It can be awfully hard to keep some sense of poise and balance in the midst of all the gettin'-and-spendin' clamor, and I'd imagine that right now it'd be particularly hard. It isn't as though many alternatives are on public display. Interesting to learn as well about your dad's dinners. It ain't a minor point -- there are thinkers who argue that the ritual sharing of food in a civilized way is one of the bases of civilized life. And there are sociologists who have noticed that one thing many people (and criminals) with particularly disordered lives share is that they've never had the experience of social eating -- their whole lives, they've just reached, grabbed, stuffed, and done it on their own.

John -- I confess I don't understand this "trackback" thing, what it is let alone how it's enabled. Would you mind enlightening?

Gnotalex -- I do go on a bit, don't I. Maybe it's time to reduce the caffeine consumption.

Ricpic -- Hey, 2Blowhards is the home of windbaggery. Or maybe that's a little grandiose. In any case, there's no shying from windbaggery around here. I think among other things you've hit on an important point, which is that it's possible to see, say, much of Modernism as a tragic dead-end, yet still adore and get a great deal out of some of its products. Atonal music's a great example, IMHO. An interesting experiment, but a self-destructive mistake in the larger sense -- championed by intellectuals as the only "real" music, its real achievement seems to have been to alienate many, many people from high-art-type new music. Yet, what the heck, why not enjoy some of the individual works? (I like a fair amount of Varese, Messaiean and Boulez myself, and get a kick out of reading John Cage.) How's Johnson on the rest of Western art history?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 14, 2004 11:19 AM

"How's Johnson on the rest of Western art history."

Although I agree with his assessments (to be honest can't remember the particulars off hand) Johnson has one annoying trait. If he likes an artists character, that helps in the artists ranking. If he doesn't it is almost damning for the artist. Example: he ranks Turner very high -- perfectly understandable. But a lot of that rating relates to his liking for Turner: Turner was industrious; he was clubbable; he was a good businessman-as-artist; etcetera. Constable on the other hand is ranked lower to some extent because Constable wasn't (in Johnson's opinion) such a great guy: loner; touchy and combative; lousy social skills; so on and so on.
In another book of his (can't think of the title) he does a hatchet job on Beethoven! because of the Bee's admittedly lousy temperament (the impossible genius bit).
I mean you can not like a guy and still admit (reluctantly) to his worth, can't you? I know I can. But then...I'm perfect.

Posted by: ricpic on July 14, 2004 12:13 PM

Thanks for the comments Michael. Saving money is a tough concept for people to learn. Heck, even my brother and sister have had problems doing so.

In terms of social dinner, it was prerequisite that we eat as a family even when my Dad was commuting an hour to work. Of course, that does mean there were no fights or anything; in fact there seem to be more because of it. However, a great deal of my peers who had divorced and split families rarely if ever ate together as a family. Or if they did, it wouldn't be till 7 or 8pm and it would be a quick 10 minute one.

As far as the sociology behind it I agree. In fact, if I ever get time, I'd love to study dessert patterns and family dynamics. People really react differently when it comes time to order dessert. A strange event I believe.

Posted by: khh on July 14, 2004 04:42 PM

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