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  1. The Emperor Has No Clothes
  2. Free Views -- Cristina Aguilera
  3. Free Reads -- Dennis Lim and Todd Haynes
  4. Free Reads -- Perl on Modigliani
  5. Artchat Survival Guide -- Aesthetics
  6. Learning from Las Vegas
  7. Tacit Knowledge -- Sound Levels
  8. Continuing Ed: The Chaos of History
  9. Free Reads -- Steven Pinker

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Saturday, November 2, 2002

The Emperor Has No Clothes
Michael Thanks for putting me on to the most recent flap in British art, in which Culture Minister Kim Howells seems to have spoken his mind without pausing to edit it for popular consumption (something you've got to admire in any politician.) I really can't do better with this than just quoting the Reuters' story: Minister blasts Turner art as "bullshit" LONDON (Reuters) - Culture Minister Kim Howells has blasted the contenders for one of the art world's leading prizes as "conceptual bullshit." He accused the art establishment of being out of touch with public taste and urged a new generation of artists to step forward. Howells was reacting to the entries for the Turner Prize, on show at London's Tate Britain gallery. The prize, derided by its critics as a farce, has been won in the past by pickled sheep and elephant dung. Howells visited the exhibition and left a comment pinned to a gallery noticeboard. "If this is the best British artists can produce then British art is lost," the note read. "It is cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit." Plain Talking Culture Minister Our readers can read the entire story here. I'm going to be trying to follow how all this turns out. If any of our readers is more hip to the British art/political scene than I am, I would welcome their views and news. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at November 2, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Free Views -- Cristina Aguilera
Friedrich -- When you check into pop culture as seldom as I do, you lose track of where current pop things come from, as well as what any of it means to anyone. It's all a big, sparkly blur, like an evening of clubgoing spent on drugs and in the company of strangers. You wonder afterwards: What was that all about? Cristina 1: Not yet Dirrty enough As for teeny-porn pop ... Well, I wholeheartedly approve, just as I wholeheartedly cheer the parents and teachers who worry about its impact. What's pop culture without these ritual stresses? But what do I really know about teeny-porn pop? And what do I know about how to judge it? Today, for instance, I stumbled across a new Cristina Aguilera video called "Dirrty," which can be viewed here. Holy moly! "Dirrty" is a pop blur, all right -- of sexy kids strutting and striking poses, of flashing lights, of taunting self-caresses, and of more provocative, athletic hip-twitching than I've ever seen in my whole long life. (I worry about the future health of Cristina's lumbar region.) For most of it, Cristina is dressed in leather chaps and red panties, whose crotch she aims at you whenever possible. Music-wise, there was a lot of whompa-whompa, of course, and a lot of whooping, hollering and growling too. You could tell when it was a blonde girl's voice because it soared out of control; you could tell when it was a black guy's voice because it growled menacingly. As for the lyrics, I could pick out only a few words: "get me off," and "sweatin' till my clothes come off" (I think a rhyme was intended). The video is like an encyclopedia of everything anyone ever thought was sexy, set to strobe lights and jackhammers. My first thought was, Lordy! As though it wasn't difficult enough learning sexual self-control 35 years ago! Surrounded by this kind of thing, how do modern boys ever stop masturbating? My second thought was, When did singing become a matter of vocal gymnastics instead of carrying a tune? I may be wrong, but I'm guessing it was about the same time pop music stopped being about songs and started being about sonic-effects-set-to-beats. My third thought was: there comes a moment in a young female performer's life when she decides to declare herself no longer a child, and I guess that moment has arrived for Cristina. A young movie actress usually marks the passage to womanhood by doing her first nude scene; Cristina seems to have decided it was time to break out the chaps and panties. All of which means that she has decided that, in her previous incarnation, she wasn't being sexual enough. Cristina 2: A woman now But here's the question I have no way of answering, having lost whatever feel for pop I once had: Has Cristina gone too far? Will her fans follow her? I do wonder. Physically, she's lost a little of her adorable scrawniness, and seems... posted by Michael at November 2, 2002 | perma-link | (12) comments

Free Reads -- Dennis Lim and Todd Haynes
Friedrich -- If you ever needed confirmation that 1) you aren't a leftie, 2) you aren't gay, and 3) you didn't go to Brown and major in semiotics, here's a fast way to get it -- reading Dennis Lim's article about the filmmaker Todd Haynes in the Village Voice, here. Haynes is the director who made the new pseudo-Sirk melodrama "Far From Heaven," which I wrote about some postings ago, here. To be fair, it's a cheerful and informative article. But it's mostly to be enjoyed (so far as I'm concerned) for the density of the leftie-art-robot-speak on display. Sample passage from Lim: From the delirious palette to the prim, italicized performances, Haynes's meta-melodrama pays homage to German-born maestro Douglas Sirk. A Weimar stage director who emigrated to the States in 1940, Sirk went on to make a string of Brechtian soaps in Hollywood, wrapping up his film career as resident tearjerker at Universal Pictures. Resurrecting All That Heaven Allows (1955), Sirk's attack on bourgeois repression, and Imitation of Life (1959), his tempestuous saga of race and identity, Haynes revels in the ebullient artifice of the originals. Far From Heaven, pace Courtney Love, fakes it so fake it is beyond real. Phew! Sample passage from Haynes, who's talking about the performance artist John Kelly's legendary (between Canal and 14th St, anyway) impersonation of Joni Mitchell: He sounds just like Joni Mitchell, he imitates her stage banter, he's in drag and looks like a ghoulish version of the little pixie Joni Mitchell from the '60s. You're laughing, but you're laughing at yourself, at your own intensely serious investment in Joni Mitchell when you were in high school. But you're also crying, at the beauty of the music, and for that person in high school who loved those songs and who you feel rekindled. There's this freedom to go from one emotion to the next, neither one undermining the other....There's something about a beautiful surrogate that opens up this wealth of feeling that you wouldn't have with the real thing. And to me, the best kind of cinema is not about the real—it's about a distance that you fill in, participate in with your life experiences, your memories, and your associations. Double-phew! Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 2, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, November 1, 2002

Free Reads -- Perl on Modigliani
Friedrich -- Le Grand Nu, 1919 The Modigliani exhibition that's up in Buffalo right now is apparently the first such major retrospective of his work in this country in 40 years. The New Republic publishes a beautiful Jed Perl review of it, here. Sample passage: Everything in Modigliani's work is short cuts and telegraphed messages. When he paints people he gives us summaries. He is a mythologizer for a hurry-up generation, the perfect court painter for the fast-moving bohemia of Montparnasse ... To operate so much by instinct is to be a sort of gambler, and Modigliani's virtuosity sometimes suggests a wise guy's manipulative personality. His swelling, swerving contours are authoritative, singular, and also frequently superficial. And yet even when his work, in many of the portraits of blank-eyed beautiful women, is half-baked, it is not necessarily slapdash. He brings his own quickening authority to the gathering excitement of the modern movement. I'm very fond of Modigliani myself, even if vaguely aware how uncool that is. The iconic quality of his nudes and portraits seems gimmicky and too easily arrived at, yet I can't help enjoying and admiring his sensuality, his Classicizing instincts, and his ease. And the dream of Bohemia that his paintings conjure up ... Well, shameful and hick though it is to admit, that image is part of what lured me into the media-and-arts field. Would someone please tell me what became of that dream Bohemia? I'm here, but now it's gone. Buffalo's Albright-Knox Gallery, here, has put together a Flash presentation on Modigliani. The Artchive (here) has a good page of text, with links to many images. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 1, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Artchat Survival Guide -- Aesthetics
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- A shot at defining "aesthetics," a term some of our readers have expressed an interest in. "Aesthetics" is one of those words Americans get funny about. We balk at it; it seems to reek of refinement, English class, school ... The hell with all that, let's get on with the party! We're suspicious of aesthetics, and we all too often prefer to avoid the topic. When we do get interested, we look to Europe for guidance (Henry James was great on this theme), or to academics or gurus, and we find ourselves wanting. The problem with our suspiciousness about aesthetics is that it shuts off conversation. Aesthetic experience is hugely important; to avoid consideration of it is to deny ourselves the full experience of life's pleasures. (Our naivete also leaves us open to exploitation by "experts.") And what's the point of that? Technically, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the subject of beauty; the dictionary's opinion is that aesthetics has to do with a concern for, or appreciation of, beauty. Both of these definitions are fine, god knows. But there's another way to take the word that's more practical and more useful -- hey, values Americans like. In our confusion about the topic, we tend to picture aesthetics as something you do after you take care of everything else that's more important. We take aesthetics to be optional -- as the slice of cake we may or may not treat ourselves to after a hard day. In fact, it's part and parcel of, and inseparable from, how we experience life. We're always considering things and making decisions about them on grounds that are least semi-aesthetic. (The one exception: when the only value at stake is life or death.) Aesthetics is life considered from the point of view of beauty and pleasure. And nearly everything can be -- which isn't to say that, morally speaking, it should be -- discussed from the point of view of aesthetics. A long way of saying that whenever choice is available, aesthetics (taste and preference, pleasure and displeasure) plays a role. Say you're thirsty: do you pour yourself a glass of milk, or one of o.j.? What can drive people a little nuts about the arts is the way the aesthetic point of view is forever forming and re-forming itself, and operating on multiple levels. It's like my (admittedly pathetic) understanding of Zen -- you don't find enlightenment, you let yourself be the enlightened being you already are. How to do that? Quit trying to figure it out! It's all so indefinite -- but that doesn't make it less real. Here's how it works. I'll use the example of my walk to work this morning. I threw on some corduroy pants and a windbreaker (chilly outside!), got my tea at the deli rather than the usual fancy place, and angled up through Times Square rather than take the 5th Avenue route. Along the way, I... posted by Michael at October 31, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Learning from Las Vegas
Michael, Wandering around Las Vegas last weekend I ended up spending quite a while walking through various casinos on my way somewhere else. As you may have guessed, I’m not a gambler and I generally don’t “get” the whole gambling scene. My wife asked me at one point if I wanted to bet on the World Series, and laughed at me when I explained that I had neither inside information on the two teams nor any control over their behavior, so, no, I didn’t want to bet. But during my visit, the dimly lit, entirely enclosed, weatherless spaces of the casinos--filled with the glow of slot machines--kept reminding me of something. Finally, it dawned on me what it was: I was remembering a photograph I had seen of the deep interior of the Egyptian temple Abu Simbel. Innermost Shrine Lit by Glowing Gods (Egypt) and Glowing Slot Machines (Vegas) The picture had been on the web site “Sacred Places” by Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe of Sweet Briar College, which I had looked at while writing a previous posting. When I got home, I went back online and reread his description of Abu Simbel. The actual interior of the temple is inside the cliff in the form of a man-made cave cut out of the living rock (cf. The Sacred Cave). It consists of a series of halls and rooms extending back a total of 185 feet from the entrance..[where one finds] the innermost shrine with seated statues of the gods Ptah, Amun-Ra, the deified Ramses II, and Re-Horakhte. The most remarkable feature of the site is that the temple is precisely oriented so that twice every year, on 22 February and 22 October, the first rays of the morning sun shine down the entire length of the temple-cave to illuminate the back wall of the innermost shrine and the statues of the four gods seated there… Following his link to the “sacred cave” I came across this: Caves are ambiguous spaces, offering both protection and shelter but can also trap and imprison. Because of its location within the earth, which many cultures have identified as female, the cave has been identified as the womb of Mother Earth, and associated with birth and regeneration… That sounded a lot like a Vegas casino, all right—womb and tomb all in one dimly lit location. Besides naturally occurring caves, artificial caves were dug into mountains…Often the mountain itself was also artificial. The pyramids in Egypt were man-made sacred mountains inside of which were created artificial caves… "Man-made sacred mountains" reminded me of Las Vegas’ Luxor casino, which is shaped like a pyramid, and which I had been walking past every day. Abu Simbel (Egypt) and Luxor Casino (Vegas) So let’s see if I can read the riddle of a Vegas casino: we’re talking about a sacred cave [the casino] in the middle of the desert, buried beneath an artificial sacred mountain [hotel], in which un-foreseeable units of good and bad fortune, of death and regeneration,... posted by Friedrich at October 31, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Tacit Knowledge -- Sound Levels
Friedrich -- About ten years ago I spent time talking with some movie sound editors and technicians. The issue of the day was the new audio systems that were being installed in movie theaters. One of the interesting bits of not-in-the-textbooks knowledge the sound guys (all guys, no women) passed along was that people have strong volume-level preferences, and that these preferences change predictably with age. For most young people, loud noises are enjoyable, even exciting -- young males are even more prone than young females to be excited by loud noise. It's sometime around the age of 30 that people start losing the taste for loudness. By the time they're in their 40s and 50s, most will actively dislike loud noise, finding it annoying or even painful. The sound guys were thrilled by their new toys, which offered possibilities for wonderful sonic detail and atmosphere. Yet what they were mostly being ordered to do was pump up the volume: to deliver shake-the-floor thunderclaps, rib-rattling explosions, thumpa-thumpa scores. The sound guys weren't surprised by the result -- which was that movie attendance was skewing ever-more-pronouncedly towards the young. Older people simply don't want to be knocked around by sound in that way. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 31, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Continuing Ed: The Chaos of History
Michael, While in Las Vegas, my wife and I were at the Venetian casino to buy some new shoes (don’t ask), when we stumbled across a local branch of the Guggenheim located in the building. The exhibit was 40 or 50 astonishingly high quality Old Master paintings from The Hermitage. (It included a Poussin unlike any I’ve ever seen, an early battle scene that rushes towards you in a nightmare of diagonally crossing action, combined with a wall-to-wall Mannerist phalanx of bodies—the impact is like standing in a theater exit watching a wall of people running towards you after someone has yelled “fire.”) My wife couldn't believe the average Vegas gambler cares for what I call HFOP (“high falutin’ oil paintings”) but I pointed out to her that the Guggenheim doesn’t need everyone to come, just enough people to come. My estimate is that fifty people went through the mini-museum during there in the half-hour I was wandering around, which translates into maybe a thousand customers a day @ $15 a head--$105 thousand a week! Over $5 million a year! You know, they may actually have a business for themselves there. Especially since the Guggenheimers probably “borrowed” the Hermitage’s art for peanuts! Ah, the "art spirit"! In the Guggenheim’s bookstore, which is about as big as the exhibit space, I came across a heck of a book—Robert Rosenblum’s, Maryanne Stevens’ and Ann Dumas’ “1900: Art at the Crossroads.” Starting from the art exhibited at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the authors selected samples and expanded their search through the years just prior to and following the turn of the last century. While an exhaustive review would be impossible, even a single volume shows the enormous variety of painting and sculpture gurgling away back in the “dark ages” before anyone even thought of the NEA. Views of the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris The more I’ve learned about art, the less the tidy summaries commonly presented in college courses or in hagiographic histories of “modern art” seem to accurately describe reality. In part, this problem is methodological—professors and authors attempt to make sense of the chaos by clinging to their linear “story line” while in reality, all sorts of artistic cross-breeding is going on, producing litters of lovely “dead-ends” which must be ignored for their lack of progeny! The other problem is the fact that artists’ rarely have a “starring role” in art history for more than a few years or so—but they have the awkward tendency to go on producing for decades on either side of that brilliant window. The result is, of course, that you find out that painters who were dealt with two chapters back (the original French Impressionists, say) are still hanging around doing significant work after the invention of Cubism! Will they never learn to gracefully leave the stage? While it may make hash out of neat scenarios, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to love the junky messiness of it all, and to find... posted by Friedrich at October 31, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Free Reads -- Steven Pinker
Friedrich -- The indispensable Steve Sailer does a q&a with Steven Pinker, author of the remarkable new "The Blank Slate," here. Sample passage: Q: You argue that the modernist high culture and post-modernist criticism have, on the whole, failed to engage humanity's interest because they ideologically rejected basic truths about human nature. What are some of modern art's flaws? A: My quarrel isn't with Modernism itself, but with the dogmatic versions that came to dominate the elite arts and bred the even more extreme doctrines of postmodernism. These movements were based on a militant denial of human nature, especially the idea that people are born with a capacity to experience aesthetic pleasure. Beauty in art, narrative in fiction, melody in music, meter and rhyme in poetry, ornament and green space in architecture, were considered bourgeois and lightweight, or products of mass-marketing. Instead, modernist and postmodernist art was intended to raise our consciousnesses, illustrate a theory, or shock us out of our middle-class stupor. Q: Why, in contrast, did popular culture become so much more, well, popular? A: Popular culture, to become popular, had to please people, and (at least at its best) it perfected engrossing plots, catchy rhythms and melodies and gorgeous fashions and faces. Huzzah to that. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 31, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Michael We got an interesting and thoughtful comment the other day, which I thought deserved a bit more prominence than our format generally offers. It was from Mike Kelly in response to my posting "Getty vs. Acropolis." I've not been to the Getty, so I can speak only of the photographs I've seen, including those on your web page. Based on those, however, I'd score the comparison between it and the Acropolis slightly differently. On the second point, for instance, where you see lumpishness and illogic, I see interesting variation, which is not nearly so obviously inferior as you suggest to the Parthenon's "Masses [that are] cleanly and clearly articulated". But the main point I wish to make is that the comparison, though not irrelevant, is absurdly unfair. The Acropolis is nearly universally recognised as one of the great works, if not the greatest work, of collective architecture in the history of Europe, if not the world. You seem to be trying to pass off the comparison as a condemnation of the Getty. That's like trying to show that Long Day's Journey into Night is lousy because it fails in a comparison, on some arbitrarily chosen points, with, say, King Lear. Also, you point out that the Parthenon took less time to build than the Getty, but the relevant comparison would be between the entire Acropolis complex--which had been the object of comparison up until this point--and the Getty, would it not? First, I want to make it absolutely clear that I appreciate Mike (and the rest of our readership) taking the time to read my stuff and comment on it at all, whether or not you agree with my point of view. As for the actual design issues Mike raises, I look very, very often at the exact view shown below of the Getty as I wind my way from Los Angeles' West Side to the Valley. Not my favorite view Looking at this view (at length, usually in slow traffic) I find that the Getty's design suffers from a fundamental problem of scale. The large masses are very large, and yet really don't "articulate" well to each other: they don't create either a rhythmic or a structural pattern. The modernist "detailing" glued on the outside of the major masses does link the large masses and (modestly) articulate them, but is too small and insufficiently muscular to work visually from a distance. Ergo, the design can only hope to work fairly close up, and this building can be seen from at least 10 miles down the 405 freeway! I'm not the only person who thinks there's something wrong here, either; a friend mentioned that an architect of his acquaintance (who likes the complex as a whole) considers the "freeway" views of the Getty to be closely akin to what you see when a fat repairman with baggy pants bends over to pick up a tool (his words, not mine)--in short, the building was designed to be seen from the... posted by Friedrich at October 30, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Free Looks -- high-end digicams
Friedrich -- While digital movie images strain to approximate the quality of traditional film imagery, these days digital still photos have a gleam -- and they're getting denser and tighter by the month. Already, many of the photos you see in magazines, especially those with short schedules, come from digital cameras. The latest high-end digi-still cameras have 6 million pixels, and take photos so sharp they almost hurt. You can sample what they look like here. Be prepared for how scarily detailed the facial closeups are. Pretty models, attractively made-up -- and their skin, if you stare at it long enough, looks like Verdun, the morning after. Any more pixels, and the resulting photos will be drilling down past the bumps and follices to the sub-pore level. We'll be looking and staring, and finding ourselves being stared back at by sebaceous glands. As we move into a world where most imagery is generated digitally, one job-market prediction seems safe: the better makeup artists and lighting designers are going to find their services in urgent demand. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 30, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Public Art--for the Public?
Michael I just got back from a few days with my wife in Las Vegas. While there, I read the very interesting “Art Lessons,” by Alice Goldfarb Marquis, a book on arts funding centered largely on the National Endowment for the Arts. In one chapter she discusses public sculpture funded by the NEA. According to Ms. Marquis: While the NEA strenuously insisted that it was interested only in “excellence” and had no aesthetic or cultural agenda, the internal communications described by [Mary Eleanor] McCombie reveal a bias for certain artists and styles and a…belief in the redemptive powers of modern sculpture. When Northern Kentucky State University selected Red Grooms and Donald Judd to create 100,000 dollars’ worth of monuments for its campus, Ira Licht, the endowment’s public art coordinator, rejoiced at the selection of “excellent artists whom we’ve had difficulty placing.” I was intrigued to see for myself how credible the NEA’s claim of possessing no aesthetic or cultural agenda was, so I looked up pictures of artworks cited by Ms. Marquis. Regrettably, I couldn’t always find pictures of the actual piece funded by the NEA, so I have included several pictures of similar art by the same artist. Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, MI --$45,000 (1969 dollars) in NEA money Jose Rivera’s Construction #105 —resembles Construction #150in Lansing, MI --$45,000 in NEA money Donald Judd’s Untitled 1969 --resembles Dropped Plane at Northern Kentucky State University Carl Andre’s Stone Field Sculpture in Hartford CT --$50,000 in NEA money Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in Manhattan Just to provide some context for my reading, I was spending most of my time wandering up and down the Las Vegas Strip (only occasionally in a drunken stupor), looking at the profilic public art on display: Fountain at Caesars' Palace Hall at the Venetian Viewed from Las Vegas, the idea that the NEA was without a cultural agenda is risible. The NEA had obviously equated "excellence" with a variety of academically-sanctioned art movements of the era such as Minimalism, Earth Art, etc. Although probably not giving what they were doing a second's thought, the NEA's agenda had the effect of validating academically-sanctioned art, and thus validating the role of the academy itself in the cultureverse. Don't get me wrong, I love public art, and would like to see more of it. I just think that public art should actually connect with the public, not talk down to it. Cheers, Friedrich P.S. As a thought experiment, try imagining that placing boulders in lines on empty lots (essentially, the formula of Carl Andre's Stone Field Sculpture) was a thriving rural tradition, usually performed inebriated, and imagine how eager the NEA would have been to fork over $50 grand to some drunken rube then. No, it helped Mr. Andre a lot to be a college graduate doing something that could be construed as lecturing the suburban public about its relationship with the environment.... posted by Friedrich at October 30, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tacit Knowledge -- Genre Writers vs. Literary Writers
MIchael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Another entry in our ongoing attempt to put into words the things people know but that don't make it into the official sources... In a general sense, there are real group differences between American literary-fiction writers and American writers of genre fiction (horror, romance, mysteries, erotica, graphic novels, etc). It breaks down this way: Literary writers tend to feel that what they do is a vocation -- ie., a religious calling. Genre writers tend to view what they do as something that's fun -- which doesn't mean that they aren't committed to what they do, or don't fundamentally take it seriously. Lit-fict writers tend to feel harshly conflicted (a word we New Yorkers love) about money and careers. How could they not? Trust funds make people feel guilty, jobs take up too much time. Everyone hopes to be touched by the magic wand -- to win the respect of the bigtime, and to earn enough money from the writing to pay the bills. Yet nearly everyone winds up next-to-unread, and chasing academic jobs and grants. And isn't it kind of anti-artistic to fret over money and prestige anyway? So pretences and rivalries abound. Genre writers tend to experience no conflicts at all about money and career. Most seem to know that writing fiction-between-covers is an absurd field, but hope to win readers and make money at it anyway. They're straightforwardly happy when and if they do. Self-serious creatures on an artistic crusade, dependent on a sense of mission and destiny that's forever in need of recharging, lit-fict writers tend to be serious and touchy people -- and difficult on the personal level, to say the least. (Depression, jealousy and resentment are common ailments.) Lugging around egos that are both big and fragile, they make high-maintenance friends and acquaintances. Genre-fict writers tend on the personal level to be easy friends and colleagues. They've got a sense of perspective -- they're doing the absurd thing they do because they dig it, after all. They wish each other well; when someone in the field succeeds, it makes the others happy. American lit-fict writers: monks and nuns of art, intent on overcoming suffering and achieving redemption through art. American genre-fict writers: on the one hand, happy amateurs, like kids in a garage band; on the other, cheerful professionals who get a kick out of their loony field. Amazing numbers of exceptions allowed for, of course -- I've found that southern lit-fict writers are often quite cheery and companionable, for example. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 30, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Righties, Lefties, Art and Pleasure
Friedrich -- Laurel Panella has been following our discussions about righties, lefties and pleasure from her home in eastern Tennessee. She had these lovely thoughts and observations to pass along: I live in the middle of the conservative, small town South. (Diverse, within its narrow boundaries.) What I find is that the right defends a positive interpretation of status quo living. They won't be entering any debates on beauty and the arts, except to comment on the changing leaves in the Smokies, or the latest football victory. The right here is so grounded; they have a strong sense of identity from their deep home and community roots. From my perspective, they honestly need only a drop of novelty. The concept of beauty and pleasure doesn't seem to be an interesting topic of discussion to them. When they do discuss it, they go back to the Renaissance, when art was art, or quote from Southern Living Magazine, with its "gourmet" recipes. Sometimes I think it's the job of the right to balance out the left. The right doesn't defend cutting edge art, they defend the status quo -- in whatever package it comes. I tend to think this serves a valuable societal purpose. With the left, they’re adventurers, paving the way, so to speak, for the right. The right provides a sense of societal stability that gives the left its courage and footing, to stretch and question boundaries. I have a lovely group of friends that often debates the ideas you have presented. They of course are all lefties. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of learning from both perspectives without the desire to make one more like the other. The conservative right has so much to offer. But I don't think they'll ever play ball in the world of pleasure and beauty the way some would like. I tried suggesting that "status quo" pleasures are as legit as cutting-edge pleasures; that football games, changing autumn leaves and "gourmet" recipes represent a perfectly valid aesthetic; that there's no reason to let the left get away with defining art as being necessarily adventurous, or necessarily about questioning boundaries... But Laurel, who I suspect knows a fancy big-city move when she spots one, was having none of it. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 30, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Media Surplus redux
Friedrich -- Dave Trowbridge (here) takes my earlier posting comparing food and media surpluses and has himself a whole lot of fun with it. Don't miss the Scientific American article about TV addiction that Dave provides a link to. Oh, heck, I'll pass it along myself: here it is. Sample Trowbridge passage: Michael's metaphor of media obesity can be spun even further if one equates the body's insulin response to carbohydrates, which many believe to be the key to modern obesity, and the orienting response to visual and aural stimuli, which is the key to media overconsumption. Life under conditions of surplus... Many of us, I suspect, have little eating regimens that keep us from packing on too much weight. I certainly do. One element of it is, for instance, that I simply will not eat desserts. Period. (Exceptions made only out of respect for such events as birthdays.) I've found that it's far easier to follow that simple rule religiously than it is to decide whether or not to indulge on a one-dessert-at-a-time basis. I suspect many of us have similar pop-culture regimens. I do. Do you? One element of mine: I watch TV, but only on videotape. In other words, I never simply sit down and turn on the set on to see what's there. I force myself to choose what I want to watch (by deciding in advance what to tape), and then, by watching only what I've gone to the trouble of taping, render my TV time finite -- a tape will come to an end, where "TV" per se never does. Thanks to this agreement with myself, it's been years since I grogged out in front of the tube. I'm eager to know how you regulate your exposure to junk culture. Do you limit the number of magazines you subscribe to? Do you refuse to admit the Sunday Times into the house? And what regulating-junk-culture secrets can our readers share with us? (How embarrassing this question will prove to be if no one leaves a comment...) Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 30, 2002 | perma-link | (3) comments

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Continuing Ed 1 -- evo bio and aesthetics
Friedrich -- Another new rubric! I'm always impressed by how many people maintain intellectual and artistic interests despite the hecticness of daily life. Yet, after high school or college, these people often become frustrated; they're busy and distracted, and don't have the chance to turn up the kinds of gems of thought and information that you and I, geeks both, are passionate about finding. But why, in the age of the web, should anyone settle for the crap they were given at school, and the crap that journalists and the popular culture pass along? And why shouldn't geeks like us pass along a little of what we know? So, herewith the inaugural posting of a new 2blowhards department: tips for those interested in keeping their brains alive. Topic for today: evolutionary biology and its impact on thinking about pleasure, art and aesthetics. The politicized, Frenchy-and-Marx derived ways of thinking about art that have done such damage over the last 20 years have pretty much played themselves out -- about time, and cause for celebration. As Harold Bloom once observed, the decon people who moved into the college and foundation lit-and-art departments don't like art; if they did they wouldn't be so devoted to dismantling them. What they really like is politics. I'm guessing, from the standpoint of having followed writing and publishing for a few decades, that what we'll start seeing a lot of soon is evo-bio-derived ways of thinking about art. And hallelujah for that. Unlike the decon/structuralist rape of the arts, which leaves idiocy and devastation in its wake, evo-bio approaches respect the existence and nature of the arts. Does evo-bio answer every question one might raise about art? No, but what does? Is it timely, provocative and helpful? You bet. The best quick-and-easy place to start is the chapter on art in Steven Pinker's new The Blank Slate (buyable here) -- 15 or 20 pages that do a heroic job of laying the approach out and giving tips for further reading and thinking. The book is well worth reading in its entirety for many other reasons. Denis Dutton's great Arts & Letters Daily website (after a brief hiccup, it's back again here) does a fabulous job of keeping readers up to date on the latest evo-bio observations, theories and ideas. It'll also give you a sense of how lively the field is. Of all the books devoted entirely to the topic (I'm a buff), the one that seems to me the most helpful for someone dipping a toe in the water is Ellen Dissanayake's Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (buyable here). Dissanayake: Art has its roots in human nature I can't do a better job of summarizing the book's thesis than Publishers Weekly did: "Dissanayake argues that art was central to human evolutionary adaptation and that the aesthetic faculty is a basic psychological component of every human being. In her view, art is intimately linked to the origins of religious practices and to ceremonies... posted by Michael at October 29, 2002 | perma-link | (2) comments

Monday, October 28, 2002

TV Alert
Friedrich -- I’m limiting my list of tips to the week on TV to two resources, the E! Channel’s showbiz documentary series "The True Hollywood Story,” and Turner Classic Movies. “The E! True Hollywood Story” is a glitzy, tabloid-style series that the Wife is addicted to and that I’ve also come to be a fan of -- imagine People magazine cover stories done as TV shows. But the shows seem responsibly researched, the producers are tenacious and successful in getting key sources to talk, and, as for the brassy style... Well, do you really want to watch something sober on a topic like Divine? It runs and repeats itself numerous times during the week. Here are a few of this week’s highlights: On the E! True Hollywood Story Friday 10 a.m.: Marlon Brando Friday 8 p.m.: Divine Monday at 8 pm, Tuesday at 9 am: Liza Minelli Thursday 9 am: Alfred Hitchcock Thursday 1:30 pm: Jaws Back in college, I had the film-history bug bad; I attended screenings of old movies nearly every afternoon and evening and ran a film series of my own for a few years. I’m told that old movies are now in short supply on most campuses. When I moved to New York in the late ‘70s, the city had a half-dozen repertory theaters where buffs could find old movies to watch. Nearly all are now closed. Where’s a film-history buff -- or an eager film-history neophyte -- to turn? The video store, of course. But Turner Classic Movies too. Better prints than you’ll see on video rental tapes (better prints, in fact, than the ones that used to be shown in specialized movie theaters), imaginative programming, the occasional good documentary about film history. It’s an amazing resource, a movie rep house available at home 24/7. Here’s just some of what’s on this week. On Turner Classic Movies Monday at 10 pm, Rebecca. Hitchcock does Daphne du Maurier -- Hollywood Gothic romance at its most luscious. Wednesday at 1:30 am, Notorious. Primo romantic suspense: one of Hitchcock’s best, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman showing what star power really is. Shhhh -- I’ll never be caught saying this in public (too pretentious!), but I think it’s a masterpiece, and one of the greatest studio entertainments ever made. Now let's pretend I didn’t say that. Wednesday at 3:30 am, The Stranger. Early Orson Welles suspense, far more trim and fast than his more famous films, but every bit as stylized. Wednesday at 2 pm, Lord Love a Duck. George Axelrod’s frenetic Southern-California-in-the-’60s satire is hilarious, almost exhaustingly inventive, and a legend among comedy professionals. It also means a lot to people who grew up in Southern California -- it does a likably wonderful job of capturing the cheerful, heaven-on-earth inanity of the place. Wednesday at 4 pm, Holiday. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in a George Cukor adaptation of Philip Barry’s classy romantic comedy. Wednesday at 11 pm, Duel in the Sun. Overheated King Vidor-directed camp classic.... posted by Michael at October 28, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments

Sunday, October 27, 2002

Free Reads -- no, that's free looks
Friedrich -- Sometimes I wonder why artists/writers/whatever don't make more creative use of the web, and sometimes I marvel at the inspired ways artists/writers/whatever are making use of the web. Today belongs in the latter category, now that I've stumbled across a page of links (here) devoted to sites where photographers are keeping one-photo-a-day photodiaries. Some amazingly snazzy photos and some very chic sites. I especially liked an Italian site that features nothing but the day's one photograph and the words (my shakey translation) "no archives, no gallery, no links." What a terrific form the online photodiary is. I'd try one myself if only I weren't such a bad photographer. People scatter whenever I pull out my Nikon. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 27, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Why We Love Performers, part 4
Friedrich -- Shakira: It's hormonal The feminist journalist vs. the sexy pop star, from the recent Rolling Stone "Women in Rock" issue. Mim Udovitch interviews Shakira: Udovitch: Do you think that when you write, you write from a female perspective? Shakira: No. I write from my perspective. I'm not a feminist. Maybe a few centuries ago, I would have been a feminist. But now I think women who don't fight for their place in society, I just think that they don't want it. Udovitch: It depends. There is a big difference between rich and poor, and that creates more oppressive circumstances for a woman, or for anyone, than simply the fact of being male or female by itself. Shakira: Yes. The differences are more between classes than even between races. Especially in Latin America. Where I come from if you are born poor and without an important last name, then you will die poor. But here in New York, the people who are considered to be the richest men in the country, they could have come from zero. In Latin America, forget about it if you are not rich. Udovitch: What do you think are the differences between Latin American women and North American women? Shakira: I think at the end we are all the same -- we are just rolling trouble. We basically are, it's just an excess of hormones that makes us so conflicted, you know? Our hormones play a big role in it, I think. And sometimes I consider men, and I feel sorry for them about what they have to deal with every day. Udovitch: Oh, I don't know. They have a few advantages. Shakira: Yes. They get a lot of love. They get a lot of love, but a lot of trouble. Udovitch then changes the subject. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 27, 2002 | perma-link | (0) comments

Getty vs. Acropolis redux
Michael, In a previous posting I recounted how disappointed I was in the Getty Museum complex, given the virtually limitless financial resources of its sponsors, comparing it to its disadvantage with the Acropolis in Athens. Mentally I put the disparity down, in large part, to the inferior performance of Richard Meier, the Getty’s International Style-mannerist architect, in contrast to what the Athenian trio of Iktinos, Kallikrates and Mnesikles had delivered working within the much tighter stylistic and technological constraints of classical architecture. Acropolis Temple Complex by Iktinos, Kallikrates and Mnesikles When I discussed the subject with a friend, his grimace when I made the comparison clearly indicated that he thought I was being unfair to Meier, or possibly any modern architect—would his name even be remembered 2500 years from now? Getty Museum Complex by Richard Meier I pondered my friend’s reaction later, thinking about the various alternate explanations that might have unfairly advantaged the Athenians over the Los Angelians. The first such advantage was undoubtedly political. After the Battle of Marathon, where the Athenians and their allies had defeated the Persians, the Athenians planned a series of new temples on the Acropolis in celebration. The first of these was in construction when the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BC. The next year, the Greeks defeated the Persians at Plataea, but the building plans for the Acropolis were shelved for nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, the Delian League, led by the Athenian fleet, pried the Greek city-states of the Aegean loose from the grip of the Persian Empire. Athenian power and wealth grew with the success of the League, until, under the “democratic” leadership of Pericles, it was effectively converted into the Athenian empire. To symbolize this new era, Pericles returned to the abandoned project of rebuilding the Acropolis, although making it grander to emphasize Athens’ greatly expanded financial resources. This program carried a huge weight of political and patriotic symbolism that elevated its emotional significance for the Athenians. The Getty represented nothing comparably meaningful to the people of Los Angeles. The performance of architects—like most artists—tends to rise to the level expected from them by their patrons, and Meier’s performance could not have been elevated by Los Angeles’s tepid interest in his efforts. But the larger advantage of the Athenians was religious. Looking for pictures of the Acropolis and its buildings, I visited quite a few websites, and in the process stumbled across one called “Sacred Places” by Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe of Sweet Briar College (you can visit it here.) This site, although still under construction, intends to be—in its own words—an “exploration of how and why places become invested with sacredness and how the sacred is embodied or made manifest through art and architecture.” Professor Witcombe’s thesis is that such loci (including Lascaux, Newgrange, Stonehenge, Abu Simbel, Giza, Teotihuacán, Chartres, etc.) achieved a quality of ‘sacredness’ first and that famous buildings or artwork present at each site followed on afterwards, intended to showcase or highlight that sacred quality. Moreover, many... posted by Friedrich at October 27, 2002 | perma-link | (1) comments