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  1. Genghis Khan, America, and "Fine Art"
  2. Web Surfing
  3. When will Lewis H. Lapham Learn to Count?
  4. Ignored no more
  5. Guest Posting -- Tim Hulsey on Western Novels
  6. Pic of the Day
  7. AK -- Your 15 minutes may be up
  8. Web Surfing
  9. Reading the West
  10. Policy Break--The Curious Death of Human Rights

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Saturday, March 22, 2003

Genghis Khan, America, and "Fine Art"
Friedrich -- The Wife and I recently saw the Genghis Khan art exhibit at the Met. (Here's a good Web representation of the show).) A dazzler, focusing on the impact of the Mongol invasions on Iranian art circa 1300. (Did you know that Mongols had made it to Iran? I certainly didn't.) Chinese and Islamic art all swirled up together, in a word. But, "art"? Well, this was the Met, so everything was under glass, in cases and on walls, and there were labels. Yet what was on display were combs, rugs, belt buckles, pages from books -- high end consumer goods, really. There wasn't an item of what we would today consider "fine art" to be seen. Yet there The Wife and I were, along with hundreds of other art fans, oohing and aahhing over these treasures. Mongol saddle circa 1300: Fine art? Or fancy saddle? Which makes me wonder why we modern Americans don't give our own high-end consumer goods as much respect. Is it because of the antiquity of the Mongol/Persian objects? I don't think that fully explains it. I think it also has something to do with our attachment to "fine art." An Audi or a fine meal at a chic restaurant are marvelous things, yet when pushed we're prone to say "But of course they aren't art." Art is that ... other thing. Higher. Hushed. More rewarding. High-art fan though I am, I can't help but suspect that many people use the "but it's not art" objection to make themselves feel, if not miserable, then perpetually spiritually hungry. It's something that almost never quite happens. We think, yeah, that may be nice, but it isn't art. To which I now reply: Hey, a swatch of Mongolian/Persian fabric isn't fine art either, yet there we Manhattanites were, oohing and ahhing at the Met over it. All of which got me thinking one of those thoughts-that-are-so-basic-you-can't-believe-you-never-had-it-before. This one's about that perennial "America and the fine arts" question: why are the fine arts always so embattled and imperiled in this country? Commercialism vs. ideals, the bad taste of New-World rubes vs the strivings of the cultured, etc etc. Is it because, as many fine-arts people like to believe, we're just a bunch of coarse, money-centric vulgarians? Or is it because, as many mainstream people feel, American fine artists so often carry on like a bunch of shrill adolescents? These battles go on and on throughout American art history with only the occasional break -- Beaux-Arts architecture, for instance, or the Arts and Crafts movement, a few moments when artists found a semi-popular groove and the public saw fit to spend a few extra bucks on aesthetic and quality-of-life items. Otherwise it's one wild mood swing after another. Here's the obvious thing that finally struck me: what's often forgotten is that part of what distinguishes America from Europe where art is concerned is that IN AMERICA FINE ART IS ALWAYS OPTIONAL. In Europe, this isn't the case. You're surrounded... posted by Michael at March 22, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Web Surfing
Friedrich -- James Q. Wilson, reviewing David Frum's new book about George W. for Commentary, here, and Richard Brookhiser, in a q&a about George W. with the Atlantic Online here, both have sensible things to say about brains and leadership. Has feminism destroyed a Frenchman's pleasure in being a Frenchman? Charles Bremner, writing for the London Times (here), suspects so. The Wife, looking disapprovingly over my shoulder, says that she for one is glad to hear that French male egos are being beaten down: "I wish I was a French feminist," she says. (Link thanks to View from the Right, here.) I'm coming to this late due to a media-free vacation, but it was good to catch up with Blair Kamin's report (here) in the Chicago Tribune (registration required) that the great Leon Krier will be the first recipient of the new Richard H. Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture. This is, IMHO, part of what the strategy of traditionalists should be -- not just to gripe about the lefty/modernist stranglehold on discussion about the arts, but also to set up their own, more sensible and appealing, universe of publicity, awards, and journalism. Readers wanting to learn more about Krier, a brilliant thinker and writer as well as a witty and provocative designer, can start here and here. The Teaching Company, whose ads you've probably semi-noticed in highbrow magazines, offers lecture series by mostly American profs on audio (tape or CD). Avid audiobook listener that I am, I've tried a number of their packages, and have hit about .250  -- not great, but a far better batting average than I managed at our Lousy Ivy College. Some of the Teaching Company profs I can recommend are Timothy Taylor on economics, Jeremy Shearmur on politics, Robert Greenberg on Western classical music, Robert Sapolsky on neurophysiology, and John Searle on the philosophy of mind. Hint: unless you have big bucks, never buy from the Teaching Company at list price -- they put all their courses on sale at least once or twice a year. Here's a page listing courses they currently offer on sale, and, at these prices, these courses are a steal. Er, deal. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 22, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Friday, March 21, 2003

When will Lewis H. Lapham Learn to Count?
Michael: I just don’t know how Lewis H. Lapham does it. By “it,” I mean, act as the editor of a magazine. Let me give some small examples from his latest screed, um, essay in the April 2003 issue of Harper’s Magazine: His essay is entitled “Cause for Dissent: Ten Questions for the Bush Regime [emphasis added.]” It has ten numbered sections. Oddly, however, at least three of the sections contain no questions. As best I can tell, having gone over the essay roughly four times, there are only eight questions in the text, one section having two. Still, it ain’t ten. The essay is advertised to page-flipping readers via large type excerpts. These excerpts turn out not to be excerpts, exactly. The differences are telling: Large Type Excerpt: Tyranny never has much trouble drumming up prompt agreement. Democracy stands in need of as many questions as its citizens can ask. Actual Copy: Tyranny never has much troubled drumming up the smiles of prompt agreement, but a democracy stands in need of as many questions as its citizens can ask of their own stupidity and fear. [emphasis added] Did some vestigal commercial sense persuade Mr. Lapham to shift the wording to avoid alienating the legions of the stupid and fearful who actually shell out for his magazine? Or was he—gasp—edited by someone else? The essay is utterly without a central thought, other than Mr. Lapham’s constant whine that he knows better than the Bush Administration, goddammit, and if the American people were so f---ing stupid as to elect George W. Bush then they should get smarter and vote for Lewis H. Lapham next time around. His individual points are, however, as follows: Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to fall for Bush Administration agitprop about the risk posed by Saddam Hussein. Secretary of State Powell can wave little jars of pseudo-anthrax around all he wants to, but Lewis H. Lapham is not going to accept any proof of Saddam’s bad intentions short of, one presumes, a video tape of Saddam personally infecting Americans with anthrax. Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to believe Bush Administration rhetoric about its own “moral clarity” and “principled resolve.” He noticed right away that the Bush Administration does not appear to be ready to invade North Korea, explaining this failure of moral courage on the fact that Pyongyang has 3 nuclear weapons and Baghdad none (hopefully). Living, as he does, in a wonderful world untroubled by practicality, Lewis H. Lapham can spot a moral evasion like the “Koren Exception” when he sees one, by God, and he’s not going to pass over it in silence. Lewis H. Lapham is too smart to take seriously the Bush Administration’s public resolve to not live in fear. He notes that the Bush Administration has issued many warnings of terrorism—which Lewis H. Lapham is smart enough to realize, could make people afraid. Obviously, according to Citizen Lapham, the real purpose of these warnings is to prevent smart guys like... posted by Friedrich at March 21, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Ignored no more
Michael: In 2blowhard’s eternal quest to poke into the nooks and corners of the arts, fearlessly setting aside blinkered prejudice and received dogma, I would like to announce the first public recognition of an entirely (heretofore) ignored genre of painting: the art-instruction-book illustration. As you know, these proletarian products of the art publishing industry are ubiquitous. Just about anywhere books on art are sold, books on the technique of art crop up. They crowd the shelves of book stores, libraries and art supply shops. And yet, to date, they have been the Rodney Dangerfield of the art world, getting no respect. Well, by God, I’m here to change that. Granted, their careful, step-by-step illustrations often look better at step #2 (the rough blocking-in) than at step #6 (the finished composition, with all the wood-grain of barns, trees or tabletops fetishistically rendered). Granted, they often have strange ellipses from one step to another in which simple egg-shaped heads miraculously transform themselves into recognizable likenesses. Granted, even the more accomplished artists in this tradition have generally worked up their way through the history of art no farther than a sort of shadowy Baroque Realism (with a heavy emphasis on dark brown backgrounds) or to a sort of relaxed Impressionism. Nonetheless, at times the illustrations have a genuine charm, or at least oddity, that makes them worth looking at. For example, Joseph Sheppard manages to highlight the spatial contradictions of the “free floating” or context-less nude in a demonstration from his book, “How to Paint Like the Old Masters.” J. Sheppard, How to Paint Like The Old Masters, 1983 While the rather silvery young lady in his illustration appears, at first glance, as a sort of bas-relief against the picture plane, closer inspection reveals that she’s not “glued on” to a horizontal background but rather slightly “sunk into” a substance below her, even though I can’t make myself read the orange-brown background as a receding horizontal plane. So an intellectual food fight occurs, in which part of my brain says “no, the background is perpendicular to my line of sight and thus vertical” and in which another part of my brain says “it must be horizontal because it’s holding up her obviously volumetric mass” and another says “I wonder if I could get my wife to look into silvery body makeup for special occasions.” And as we all know, such unresolved contradictions are the heart and soul of the true artistic experience. In another example, Charles Sovek in his book, “Catching Light in Your Paintings” wins my plaudits for his still life illustrating the impact of reflected light off of highly colored substances. C. Sovek, Catching Light In Your Paintings, 1984 First, Mr. Sovek rather wittily points out the significant stylistic continuities between Impressionism and Rococo painting (and does so while managing an overall cool color scheme, always one of my favorites.) Second, his bravura brush treatment adds to the spatial ambiguities of the right-hand portion of the picture, in which the red... posted by Friedrich at March 21, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Guest Posting -- Tim Hulsey on Western Novels
Friedrich -- Once again we're (or at least I'm) being humbled, upstaged and enlightened by one of our visitors, and, as usual, what a pleasure that is. Tim Hulsey -- reluctant commenter, virtuoso Amazon consumer-reviewer, and all-around arts fan -- sent me an email after looking at my recent posting about Western novels. Here's what he had to say: I used to teach a course on the American West in literature, called "How the West Was Written." I tended to stop the course at WWII, because that's where my sense of literary history sort of falls off -- and also when writing about the West became more a case of nostalgia (or anti-nostalgia, in the case of the revisionist Western) than a contemporaneous event. At any rate, what constitutes a Western? As classifications go, this one is pretty easy; it's certainly easier to define a Western than it is to define a Novel (although most Westerns in print are Novels, too). I'd tend to define the subgenre of Western primarily by theme and setting -- although in the case of a Western, the two are so closely related as to make their separation more useful for critics than readers. The setting of the Western is, on some level, the frontier -- and I mean that as the "edge of settlement," in the classic Frederick Jackson Turner mode. The central theme of the Western usually involves a sense of human beings having to carve out their place within the immensity of this setting, a setting where civilization has just begun, however tentatively, to establish itself. It is a situation in which, Western writers usually claim, human nature is revealed in its barest form; it is certainly a situation in which governmental intrusion is minimized (the Law being either absent or ineffective), and individuals must thus resolve conflicts on their own. Reading a Western can often feel like reading Conrad -- there is the same sense of European Man overwhelmed by the immense void of frontier wilderness, and trying to work out a reasonable coexistence with it. Of course, unlike Conrad, the Western tends to record success rather than failure: Conrad's stories deal with individuals who try to conquer the Heart of Darkness and fail, but Westerns offer at least the promise of success, at least for those willing to make compromises and adapt to their land. Westerns may not look to Europe very much -- and the West Coast doesn't seem to look so much to Europe now. (If anything, it looks the other way, to China and Japan.) The historical West, however, looked to Europe very closely, so that colonists from the Eastern United States could preserve what remnants of that culture they could. If you ever tour Western homes, you'll be amazed at how many of them have the Complete Works of Charles Dickens lined up on the bookshelves. Not until fairly late in the nineteenth century did Westerners start to value artifacts of their regional culture -- which... posted by Michael at March 20, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Pic of the Day
Michael: In researching material for my series of postings on Impressionism, I must say that French painting of the second half of the 19th century is truly remarkable stuff. Yes, it was made up of various rather politicized and contending schools, but I'll let you in on a little secret--more or less every approach (hyper innovative to ultra-conservative) yielded its share of pretty fantastic imagery. Today's image is by a painter--Henri Fantin-Latour--who is by no means unrepresented in art museums. Still, he always feels a bit marginalized in curatorial presentation. His work is not in step with the radical experiments of his friends the New Painters (whose works are always the real point of the rooms in which his paintings hang.) Still lifes and portraits by Fantin-Latour lack any of the blunt, manifesto-like quality so highly valued by the museum mandarinate. They hang back, full of modesty and unobtrusive good taste, like well-bred guests. They are almost nothing but exhilations of aesthetic sensibility, offered with no armor plating of significance or theory. And yet, how terrific they are. H. Fantin-Latour, Still Life with Flowers, 1881 I cannot resist including a small anecdote about the painter. To appreciate it, you must understand that Fantin-Latour hung out as a student at the Cafe Moliere with a crew of exiled Irish Nationalists in the 1850s, attended the Lesjosnes Salon with its marked republican atmosphere in the 1860s, was an intimate of the most famous bohemians of his day, including Rimbaud and Verlaine, in the 1870s, and a supporter of Dreyfus in the 1890s--in short, someone with a full artistic and political life. Nonetheless, after witnessing a discussion between Manet and Felix Bracquemond on the relationship between art and politics, he wrote to a friend: I share none of these ideas and I say that Art has nothing to do with such matters. Perhaps we should enlist him in your legion of not-primarily-political individuals. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 20, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

AK -- Your 15 minutes may be up
Friedrich -- Hey, isn't that Martina's old doubles partner? Is it only me, or did the world just this minute lose interest in Anna Kournikova? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 20, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Web Surfing
Friedrich -- John Zmirak, an inspired conservative/reactionary, has started a new blog here. He’s using it mainly as a portal to his professional writing, and it’s a good way to sample a very interesting mind. (Link thanks to Steve Sailer, here.) Robert Birnbaum interviews the novelist and screenwriter (and very amusing interviewee) Richard Price here. I’ve just discovered that Tim Hulsey -- a topflight arts buff and occasional visitor to 2Blowhards -- is an avid consumer-reviewer of books, CDs and DVDs at Amazon. (Beware the reach of the Blowhards.) Find out whether that new DVD of “Metropolis” is really worth owning. Tim has a couple of hundred reviews to explore here. In his new book “Diversity: The Invention of a Concept,” Peter Wood argues that -- almost without anyone looking -- “diversity” has become a fullblown ideology, although one with little actual meaning. I haven’t read the book, but Stanley Kurtz’s review at National Review Online (here) and John Derbyshire’s at the New Criterion (here) make it sound like a gem. Felicity McCarthy, the hostess of the wonderfully freewheeling blog Goliard Dream (here), has put up a couple of short postings about how working as a professional musician affected her pleasure in attending concerts. (Hint: not for the better.) The postings are here and here. "The process of severe self-examination in the pursuit of one's art serves also to burn away one's innocent love -- probably the very same love that brought one to the field in the first place," Felicity writes, and has it ever been put better? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at March 19, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Reading the West
Friedrich -- As you know, I'm just back East after a couple of weeks in Arizona and California. Visiting the West always makes me feel freed but ashamed at the same time. Why freed? Because the West is its own culture (or many cultures, really), and because it doesn't look to Europe -- what a relief. Why ashamed? Because I know so little about the West. Given the couple of years I've spent on the west coast and my marriage to a gorgeous, free-associating, horse-loving, rangy blonde 6-foot-tall Californian (they don't grow them like that on the east coast, at least they didn't in our generation), I know a lot more about the West than do most of my fellow northeasterners. But there's so much I don't know. Which is shameful but also wonderful. I also feel more than a bit of the usual indignation about the pathetic education (or "education") we got at our Lousy Ivy College. How can our lit classes have so completely overlooked the Western, for instance? I'm on semi-firm footing where movie Westerns are concerned, but (despite fancy Eng-lit degrees) I've only read a handful of Westerns, and know little about the form's history. Why do you suppose the poobahs of the East are so content to overlook the Western? Ignorance? Snobbery? It's not as though the Western is historically insignificant. I wonder if the poohbahs have even looked into the form -- its conventions, its influence, etc. Or perhaps they're simply content to sneer at it as trash without ever giving it a whirl. I suspect the latter explanation is the closest to the truth. Ah, the power of received opinion. I wish I had tons to report where the Western is concerned. Not much, alas. I once tried a couple of Louis L'Amours and couldn't get through them, but I can recommend Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star (innovative nonfiction about Custer and the Little Big Horn -- Connell's an amazing writer generally, by the way); and Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, an impressive and enjoyable piece of storytelling. (Here's a link to the Zane Grey Society, and here's Bill Hillman's Zane Grey Tribute site.) Did I ever pass along to you the amusing remark a book critic friend once made? He and I were talking about how great a book Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? is. Have you ever read it? Fab and essential, as taut, tense and compact as a good James M. Cain. And amazing in the way it nails once and for all a particular character type -- "Sammy Glick," the unprincipled, asslicking, domineering, will-do-anything-to-succeed Hollywood hustler. (Here's the official "What Makes Sammy Run?" site -- every great book should have its own site.) Once and for all: Budd Schulberg We were wondering why the book is seldom if ever taught in college lit classes. I came up with some unsatisfying possible explanations, then my friend came up with one that was much better. It... posted by Michael at March 19, 2003 | perma-link | (14) comments

Policy Break--The Curious Death of Human Rights
Michael: One of the better things about crises is that they often clarify things intellectually. One such moment of clarity seems to have descended on the Left in recent months regarding the whole concept of human rights. To wit: when push comes to shove, the Left doesn’t care about ‘em. The plight of oppressed and terrorized Iraqis counts for, well, nothing, since their oppression doesn’t serve any left-wing political agenda. I quote the ad for Tom Paine on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times: Go ahead [and invade Iraq]. Saddam will quickly fall, but that won’t make the world safer or more secure. Hmmm. No discussion of average-Joe Iraqis at all. However, it’s only one ad, and they don’t have room for a lot of copy because they need a big picture of Osama Bin Laden pointing his finger at us like Uncle Sam. The ad, however suggests that one go to to read analyses and alternatives. Okey dokey. Well the first such analysis is by Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, entitled "Understanding The U.S.-Iraq Crisis: A Primer." In it Ms. Bennis admits that the Iraqi government has long been “brutally repressive towards its own people…” The primer even asks if the Bush administrations concerns over Iraq are valid, including Administration concerns over Iraq’s human rights violations. However, when you read it looking for an answer, it dawns on you that the primer palms this card without providing the obvious answer (an unequivocal “yes,”) and then quickly moves off this subject, never to return. (Rather ironically, the Institute for Policy Studies website has a page for the Letellier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards, which memorializes the murder of two of their staff members at the hands of Chile’s government in the 1970s). There is also a page about the Institute’s long running attempts to bring Augusto Pinochet to justice. The corresponding lack of interest in bringing Saddam Hussein to justice doesn’t appear to trouble the IPS. Jeeze, if I didn’t know better, I’d conclude that the only way to get yourself on the bad side of these guys—human rights-wise—is to actually bump off some of their staffers. While an understandable attitude, it seems to lack something as a moral principle.) Well, on to the next link provided by the folks at Tom Paine: "The Thirty-Year Itch," an article by Robert Dreyfuss in Mother Jones, March/April 2003. Perhaps I missed something in this article, devoted to the idea that war with Iraq is the culmination of a 30-year-old conspiracy to seize Middle Eastern oil, but the concerns of brutalized Iraqi citizens didn’t seem nearly as exciting to Mr. Dreyfuss as the machinations of the evil clique running the American (oops, sorry, the Amerikan) Empire. So I turned to "President Bush's February 26 Speech On The Future of Iraq: A Critique" by Stephen Zunes in Foreign Policy in Focus, March 7, 2003. Here the human rights concerns raised by President Bush are noted, but are rather cleverly sidestepped... posted by Friedrich at March 19, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Artistic Quote of the Day
Michael: As you recall, we were laughing at a statement by Degas yesterday during our West Coast Blowhards Seminar, conducted at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Given your enjoyment of Degas' cranky pith, I thought you'd get a kick out of an (apparently approving) remark he made in his 80s, regarding Cubism: ..[I]t seems even more difficult than painting. If I could be sure of finding such wit, I'd start my own damn salon. Cheers, Friedrich P.S.--Exclusive photo documentation of this great inaugural Blowhard Seminar will be forthcoming as soon as we Blowhards get our acts together. (Hey, we're working on it.)... posted by Friedrich at March 18, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Monday, March 17, 2003

Snob Quotient in Sports
Michael: On several occasions you’ve indicated that you are a women’s tennis fan. You share this interest with my wife, who is an avid tennis player and spectator. In fact, my wife takes her tennis so seriously that she just spent the weekend in Palm Springs watching a professional tournament and, weather permitting, attending a tennis camp with one of her girlfriends (leaving me with the kids for the weekend, but that’s another story.) Anyway, owing to the kindness of strangers, my wife, her girlfriend and my in-laws ended up watching the tournament from a “skybox.” While the physical environment was great, when she got home she had to share a dark secret. The tennis fans with whom she shared the skybox were not nice people. “Very snobby and snotty, if you know what I mean.” In your opinion, did my wife just have poor luck in running into some jerks, or is there something of a systematic phenomenon here? Which sports attract the nicest fans, and which ones the biggest losers? Is there a "likeability" gradient between the cheap seats and the expensive ones? Eager to get your input. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at March 17, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments