As the New Year approaches, we’ve had a sudden realization of just how much of the last one was spent binge-watching boxed sets of television series’ DVDs. An alternate world to day-to-day life, our escapist evenings provided a parallel universe of stresses belonging to wholly imaginary people.This past year we went through The Wire, Justified, The Good Wife and Deadwood — these added onto the more recent,The Knick, The Affair, The Leftovers , Mr. Robot, The Americans and House of Cards. One of the oddest parts of the whole experience was how the same set of actors would weave in an out of the various casts, so that there was something dreamlike about going from one teleplay to another.
These innumerable hours in front of the TV screen were full of political intrigue, sexual confusion, legal troubles, professional antagonisms and family tensions — all brought about in well-acted and well-dressed melodrama. But in the end we have to admit we perhaps most enjoyed it when such soap-opera scenarios were ludicrously placed into pseudo-historical or fantastic contexts, such as in Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful and Black Sails. It’s embarrassing to confess, but we found this last series (in which a neurotic pirate captain played by Toby Stephens struggles with the psychic responsibilities of colonial-era leadership) as emotionally compelling as anything in the “real life”
We viewed the Metropolitan Opera “Live” in HD’s L’Amour de Loin on a Saturday afternoon, one week after than the actual simulcast. We enjoyed the music and the libretto; we were intrigued by what we could make out of Robert Lepage’s dramaturgy; and we very much appreciated the female presences of composer Kaija Saariaho and conductor Susanna Mälkki. But “loin (distance)” seemed the operative word. With a not very good sound system and (despite the hype) a not very good picture, it was a little like watching the matinée from the very back row of the opera house. This struck us as a particularly bad deal, given that the movie ticket charged by our local theater cost more than one of the actual seats in the Met’s Family Circle. On the other hand, the poise and intelligence shown by the two Scandinavians in their “up-close” intermission interview more than made up for the price of admission. The Met’s publicity department is right to make a very big deal about the long-delayed presence of women in charge of a HD production’s musical score.
Speaking of Alexander Calder (see Nov. 28 post below), we also spied on the shelves of the Gagosian shop a Cahiers d’art whose retro fifties cover made us think it was a reproduction of an early issue of the French revue. Something even more interesting than that, it’s a contemporarily edited review that includes new contributions as well as offerings from the archive. This particular issue (2015, number 1) focuses on Calder, and it’s a gem. In addition to some excellent discussions of Calder’s oeuvre, the oversized paperback volume includes some wonderful early (1930) paintings. It also presents still photos of the artist by Agnès Varda of the artist performing his circus, as well as a priceless 2014 interview with her speaking of the experience. As a special insert, it reproduces on special Japanese paper a collotype print from a 1954 copper etching plate. It also contains an André Masson poem, The Studio of Alexander Calder (with sculpture photos taken by Herbert Matter), whose lines recalled for us our recent experience of the new “Calder Tower” at the National Gallery in Washington: “But a carousel of little crimson moons thrills me / It brings to mind a translucent circus.”
This past fall we stopped by the Gagosian’s Madison Avenue Gallery to see “Remembered Light,” Sally Mann’s haunting photographs of Cy Twombly’s Lexington studio. And then in the gallery bookshop we came across a most wonderful accompanying book, Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint by Mary Jacobus. It’s a source of amazement to us that this Princeton University Press offering did not show up on more“best books of 2016” lists. Among other things, this beautiful volume should be received as an important artifact of Poundiana, manifesting as it does the afterlife of that poet’s work as an presence in contemporary American painting.
There is a charming appropriateness to the location of the Berggruen Paul Klee Collection on the fifth floor of the Met Breuer. Looking out the gallery windows over city rooftops, the visitor has the momentary sense of having travelled up to the household nursery. The show is titled “Humor and Fantasy,” and it does provoke a quiet amusement; Klee shares a temperamental bent with Calder. Klee’s figures also have much in common with children’s books; his odd creatures with human characteristics arrive from myth or fairy tale and inhabit otherworldly cities and landscapes. And while the paintings on canvas do have an ominous power, Walter Benjamin preferred Klee’s works on paper. We understand what Benjamin means, for these evoke childhood’s poignant pellucidity, a happy/sad quality of colored tissue paper dissolving in water.
Readers of this newsletter may have been given the mistaken impression that we have a low opinion of journalism. We do often distinguish between the work of literary writers and that of journalists, but the qualification shouldn’t be taken as a general put-down of the Fourth Estate. And yet the media humiliated itself this election season. We don’t hold print or electronic journalists wholly responsible, as their influence has been overtaken by a set of telegenic imposters. We watched a whole set of evening “news shows” in recent months, infuriated by individuals of various political persuasions whose authority to speak on matters at hand was, to put it mildly, highly questionable, among them the fiendish “political strategist” Jeffrey Lord. When were such people handed the mike with rhetorical impunity?
One problem has been our culture’s blurring of news and entertainment. We can hear someone like the sophistic Lord saying, “But surely the average citizen can tell the difference between fact and fiction!” When Wolf Blitzer or Donna Brazile appear as themselves in movies and on TV shows, however, the line between actor and pundit dissolves completely. Under the circumstances it’s not surprising that viewers and voters were confused. There are diverse ways of interpreting facts, and even the best-intentioned politician has cited questionable data to support his or her position, but when someone is on the air stating an out-and-out lie, it’s up to network “anchors” to distinguish truth from dangerous dissimulation. Yet after television journalism’s critical failure on this point — in what increasingly strikes us as an interesting spin on the “all Cretans are liars” paradox — even Democratic political commentators continue to argue that responsibility for a Trump presidency should not be laid at the media’s feet.
After the last week’s election, our initial reaction was that there was nothing to be said. Others, rightly, have compared the political moment to the end of the Roman Republic, the Spanish Inquisition, the era of HUAC, etc. For us, what immediately follows is the fact that among the first to be persecuted were certain individuals (Ovid, Galileo, Dalton Trumbo) who, while not explicitly political in their writings, were definitely working at cross-purposes with the new tyranny’s social agenda.
Initiatives to jettison the National Parks, to abandon strategies addressing climate change, and attempts to reverse a woman’s right to legal reproductive choice — all these have already begun. And so it falls to the “cultural elite” (the universities, private foundations, arts organizations) to counter the drift to “populism.” We scare quote both these abstractions, because we hold received ideas about their nature in bitter disdain. Excellence does not acknowledge ethnicity or social class and the majority does not always choose in its own best interests.
In our opinion, the losing side’s first task is to defend the humanities. We don’t call upon our readers to attend to this essential responsibility as a form of interim hopefulness. History, in this case, provides a reliable guide to the survival of earth’s inhabitants. The outcome of the election rested on the failure of American education. If so moved, the artistic and academic community should certainly join the protests now expressing themselves across the country. But we must remember that our most powerful medium of counterattack will always be the arts and sciences themselves.
On the eve of the national election, we have a few thoughts to share about the federal government. At the National Gallery in Washington one recent weekday morning, among nearly empty galleries, we had a brief conversation with one of the young guards. He’d previously served in the Armed Forces, worked for the NSA for a few years, and was now sharing with us his delight at his current occupation. We agreed with him about the incredible permanent collection and we joined him in his enthusiasm for the new installations in the East Wing’s towers. Afterward, walking through room after room of masterpieces, all we kept thinking about was how happy we were about this use of our nation’s shared resources. We love how the entrance-free experience contradicts one of contemporary America’s most persistant falsehoods — the Trumpian premise that what doesn’t “make money” must not be valuable.
In what was once a movie revival house oft-visited by us, we recently heard Kristian Bezuidenhout play the fortepiano at Carnegie Hall’s subterranean Zankel auditorium. The program was mostly Beethoven and concluded in a rendering of the composer’s Pathétique. Yet despite the music’s familiarity, the piece was not as it is usually heard on a concert-hall Steinway. After the intermission, following two early rondos and the Piano Sonata No. 7, the pianist thoughfully described the earlier keyboard instrument’s distinct qualities. Bezuidenhout’s commentary and performance had much in common; both were elegant, sincere and completely convincing.
Too many awards are now given to those who’ve already won numerous (we might even say, excessive) accolades. We’re not just thinking about this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, but also recent years’ MacArthur “Genius” Grants. We had the idea that such generous prize purses were originally intended for those working outside the usual cultural bureaucracies and academic contexts. Instead, the MacArthur Foundation evidently works in tandem with these institutions so that a majority of the recipients are already quite famous, even outside their respective specializations. Certainly those well-known to the critical community are in some sense “pre-approved,“ but we miss the daring of previous decades.
We also think there is some confusion about fame and populism among those currently serving on boards and award committees. The MacArthur website is ludicrously concerned with “Media,” with photos of its fellows available for download, multiple opportunities for interviews given, as well as “cheat sheets” on the fellows’ work for nonliterate reporters. We’ve also heard about recommendations (and quasi-regulations) provided to winners themselves as to how to interact with the press. We find all this intensely depressing, as in the past the whole idea of “genius” — or so we once thought — was that it didn’t have to explain or defend itself.
We weren’t happy back in 2000 when the Library of America’s two-volume American Poetry: The Twentieth Century included song lyrics. It’s not that we believe that the works of Americans such as Cole Porter and W.C. Handy are not great art. We also hope it’s not, as an unconscious form of snobbery, that we consider popular forms as less worthy than “high culture.” But we continue to make a distinction (here keeping the Library of America’s complete list in mind) between journalism and the literary essay, even while we acknowledge the line between the two is often a fine one. A similar distinction holds for poem and song; while a shared vocal impulse forms an essential element of both, this doesn’t mean they’re the same thing.
As staunch book people, we consider the category of literature to be comprised of verbal works whose primary medium of expression is the page. Of course there’s a long tradition of lyric that first made itself known through performance (the vers of the troubadours, as but one example), but those works have now been incorporated into the literary canon wholly independent of their musical components. And so it’s a belief about the fundamental “book nature” of literature that underwrites our gripe about this year’s Nobel Prize given to Bob Dylan. The diminution of the published word in the public’s consciousness — in our view, the diminishment and devaluation of the literary life — is no longer simply underway. It’s now been given the Swedish Academy’s formal stamp of approval.
If “sexual vulgarity” can be praised (as we read in an online review of a recent collection) as a “necessary poetic category,” then perhaps Donald Trump’s current mode of political expression is more rhetorically valid than we realized. From the perspective of a recent visit to still-Fascism-recalling Europe, the man looks like another familiar tyrannical buffoon (Mussolini, Franco, Hitler), ludicrous yet nervous-making. We know that enemy, or so we smugly thought. Reading literary discourse such as quoted above on our return to the States, however, has made us even less confident as to the possibilities for reasonable political discussion. What gets the most attention is what wins. In national politics as in literary criticism, there are times when it does appear that our country has completely lost its footing.
It was initially nervy for the Spanish Rosalía de Castro to write in her native Galician in the mid-nineteenth century, but her choice acquired posthumous boldness under the anti-regionalism of Franco. The much beloved poet’s work remains imbued with a quality best captured by the Portuguese word saudade, a distinct form of nostalgia for a loss that has become replaced by the presence of newly powerful affection. The lover, paradoxically, becomes grateful for the experience of mournful longing. Visiting the abandoned Romanesque churches in the countryside surrounding her Santiago birthplace this fall, we found ourselves under Rosalía’s spell: The bells are forever /muted. With such regret /breezes informed heaven/of their absence!
What we most appreciated in “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Permanent Collection” was its acknowledgement of real artistic “community,” a nonvirtual system that perhaps only becomes truly evident with the perspective of decades. The first two rooms struck us as especially masterful examples of museum curation. According to the show’s description, “some of these groupings concentrate on focused periods of time, while others span the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to forge links between the past and the present.” The curators go on to make the point that “this sense of connection is one of portraiture’s most important aims, whether memorializing famous individuals long gone or calling to mind loved ones near at hand.”
We found ourselves especially moved by the context of the new building, a literal and figurative structure that gestured backward to the institution’s creation by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The opening wall formed a collage of photographs and drawings representing vocationally and personally related figures of early modernism. Drawn from the visual arts, music and dance, the set implied a still-little-known narrative of personal relations and forms of artistic support. A Walker Evans photograph of Lincoln Kirstein hangs next to a Paul Cadmus drawing set below a photograph of Ezra Pound’s Paris colleague, the dancer Michio Ito; across the room, the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby’s friend James Schuyler is painted by Fairfield Porter — just the recorded dialogue between those eight figures would make a thick tome! This and much more is all facilitated by the presence of sculptor Gertrude herself. There she is in person, painted by Robert Henri as the consummate Greenwich Village saloniste she would become, shockingly moderne for 1916, reclining in silk pajamas among her talented colleagues. It seems to us that these two spaces of the meat-packing district museum, for the run of the show at least, have turned themselves into Gertrude’s immortal boudoir.
Among the pages we regularly visit (online and off), the personal essay which is not a promotional vehicle for the author’s forthcoming book is becoming an endangered species. We recognize that every writer has at least two jobs these days — author and publicity agent. To some extent this may have always been the case, but the additional requirements of an electronic “platform” have contributed an additional set of writerly burdens. In fact, the absence of our newsletter for the last year was a result of our staff’s need to focus on writing itself — that is, producing actual matter for forthcoming titles. Next spring a companion volume to Nine Over Sixes will be appearing just in time for a summer launch. At this point in the book’s gestation we should be thinking about who might receive first copies (perhaps even a set of the two linked volumes?); who might review the collections; where we might arrange a series of readings or interviews about the very interesting form and content of these groundbreaking poems. At the minimum our poet should be pitching and placing a personal “think piece” (ideally with attractive author photo) tangentially related to the book’s subject matter. It’s not that we can’t or won’t do these things, but we feel it’s a kind of white flag, a surrender to the cult of personality. What is being promoted is not the book but the person. The stand-alone work of literature seems to be an increasingly rare bird.
As a rule we despise it when the word “poetic” is used in marketing to describe something (sports, fashion, design) that is decidedly unlyrical. But we couldn’t possibly object to the artist Varujan Boghosian being identified as a “Visual Poet,” the title of the Fine Arts Work Center’s annual auction and tribute this past August. In the tiny rooms of FAWC’s Hudson D. Walker Gallery, the Boghosian exhibition formed a sublimely succinct presentation of the artist’s verbal eye. On these walls were hung chosen examples of Bogohosian’s mixed media responses to (and active interpretations of ) beloved poetry; some works even incorporated actual lines into their construction, Kunitz, Roethke, Frost, Joyce, Hopkins, Dickinson — all were sincerely “appropriated.” We paraphrase from the excellent description in the auction catalogue describing the artist’s task as creating “new syntheses and conditions of meaning from reclaimed forms.” Exactly. This observation, we would add, is also not a bad description of the project of contemporary poetry’s more authentic practitioners.
Besides providing nature’s unique meeting of sand and sea (bay and ocean both), summer on the Outer Cape offers comparably amazing cultural encounters. Within the course of a week in August we enjoyed the Borromeo Quartet’s performance of Schubert and Shostakovich as part of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival; a few days later at the Payomet tent there was the Cuban jazz pianist Harold López-Nussa; and in between there was the the Harbor Theater’s original faux-Chekov play The Kritik, which was an entertaining and thoughtful take on the impossible task of “constructive” drama criticism. And while no one show in either Wellfleet or Provincetown made very much of a case for any given concept or artist, the two new GAA galleries in both towns have introduced some freshly unexpected forms of excellence to the over-familiar local arts scene.
A year has come and gone since our last posting here at the newsletter. As anyone who has followed these ruminations on the arts would expect, the loss of poets Christopher Middleton and Yves Bonnefoy in the interim was especially strongly felt at LongNookBooks. While both were the subjects of international tributes, the American literary world hardly made note of their passing. In our opinion this lapse is indicative of a failure of our nation’s literary “community,” a somewhat hazy entity which seems to function solely as a system of personal networking. The LitHub site, put together by a consortium of commercial publishers, has made gestures toward a larger conception but is often highjacked by individual contributors’ inevitable self-congratulation and self-promotion. It’s hard for us here not to give in and do the same, particularly given what we’ve felt to be our own small but distinctive mark on the world of arts and letters.