Main


June 7, 2014

"A Major Critical and Financial Reappraisal" of Norman Rockwell



RockwellNormanTheRookie2014-05-26.jpg "Peter Rockwell, son of Norman Rockwell, with "The Rookie," which sold for $22.5 million on Thursday [May 22, 2014]." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. B1) "Rockwell's greatest sin as an artist is simple: His is an art of unending cliché."

In that Washington Post criticism of a 2010 exhibition of Norman Rockwell paintings at the Smithsonian, Blake Gopnik joined a long line of prominent critics attacking Rockwell, the American artist and illustrator who depicted life in mid-20th-century America and died in 1978.

"Norman Rockwell was demonized by a generation of critics who not only saw him as an enemy of modern art, but of all art," said Deborah Solomon, whose biography of Rockwell, "American Mirror," was published last year. "He was seen as a lowly calendar artist whose work was unrelated to the lofty ambitions of art," she said, or, as she put it in her book, "a cornball and a square." The critical dismissal "was obviously a source of great pain throughout his life," Ms. Solomon, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, added.

But Rockwell is now undergoing a major critical and financial reappraisal. This week, the major auction houses built their spring sales of American art around two Rockwell paintings: "After the Prom," at Sotheby's, and "The Rookie," at Christie's. "After the Prom" sold for $9.1 million on Wednesday; "The Rookie" for $22.5 million on Thursday.


. . .


(p. B5) Rockwell also gained a Hollywood stamp of approval. Two of the country's most famous film directors, George Lucas ("Star Wars") and Steven Spielberg ("E.T.") were acquiring Rockwells. Rockwell "is a great story teller, and he used cinematic devices," Mr. Lucas told an interviewer for the Smithsonian, which mounted the exhibition of his and Mr. Spielberg's Rockwell collections, "Telling Stories," in 2010. "He 'cast' a painting," Mr. Lucas said. "It wasn't just a random group of characters."

Others, too, were discovering new depths in Rockwell's work. "What distinguishes the best of his works for me," Ms. Solomon said, "is that they're rooted in real emotion. They're not just a one-liner. Take 'The Rookie,' which is a great painting. It captures the tension between generations, when a rookie, a youngster, arrives, and the veterans realize they've just met their replacement. Their time is limited. It doesn't matter if it's baseball players, or newspaper reporters, or firefighters. It's about time and how one generation replaces another."

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., observed: "What we're seeing in the marketplace is that collectors, in a sense, are catching up with the incredible quality and enduring meaning and message in Rockwell's paintings. There are a handful of his works that have iconic resonance, enduring meaning, and those pieces are what we're seeing really take off in the marketplace."


. . .


What would Rockwell himself make of this? "He would be incredulous," Ms. Solomon said. The consummate modest man, he was content to be paid by his magazine employers, and never pursued the gallery scene. He often gave away his paintings to family, friends, co-workers or neighbors.

He sold one of his most famous images, "Town Meeting," an oil study for "Freedom of Speech," to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1952 for $100, and, according to The Saturday Evening Post, let out a "gladsome yelp" when he learned the Met had bought it. It was the first museum to buy one of his works.

But some things haven't changed. The painting is nowhere to be seen in the Met's recently expanded and reorganized American wing. The museum's website says simply: "Not on view." (The museum didn't respond to a request for comment.)



For the full story, see:

JAMES B. STEWART. "Norman Rockwell's Art, Once Sniffed At, Is Becoming Prized." The New York Times (Sat., MAY 24, 2014): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 23, 2014.)






October 26, 2013

Under Humble Austerity Policy China Builds $11.4 Million Giant Brass Puffer Fish



PufferFishStatueYangshong2013-10-22.jpg "A puffer fish statue in Yangzhong has raised ire in view of a government pledge to end spending on vanity projects." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. 6) HONG KONG -- Chinese Communist Party leaders' vows of a new era of humble austerity in government may have met their most exotic adversary yet: an $11 million, 2,300-ton, 295-foot-long puffer fish.

The brass-clad statue, which shimmers golden in the sunlight and switches into a garish light show at night, was built by the city of Yangzhong, in Jiangsu Province in eastern China, . . .


. . .


Chinese news outlets said the brass and steel for the fish cost about $1.7 million, raising questions about where the rest of the money went. Construction of the fish tower began on a previously isolated and undeveloped river island in March, four months after Mr. Xi was appointed party leader.


. . .


. . . China is speckled with outlandish works of official art that vie with even a giant, glow-in-the-dark puffer fish for attention and outrage.

Critics berated a county in Guizhou Province for building "the world's biggest teapot," a 243-foot-high teapot-shaped tower, complete with spout, that was part of a $13 million project.

In Henan Province, in central China, a government-backed charity has been accused of corruption in spending about $19.6 million on a vast, unsightly sculpture of Song Qingling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen, a revered founder of modern China. Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, is also home to a sculpture of two pigs in a frolicking embrace. From certain angles, the pigs might appear to be mating.



For the full story, see:

CHRIS BUCKLEY. "As China Vows Austerity, Giant Brass Fish Devours $11 Million." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., October 13, 2013): 6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 12, 2013.)



SongQinglingSculpture2013-10-23.jpg









"A sculpture of Song Qingling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen, a founder of modern China." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.







May 2, 2013

Cultural Impact of Industrial Design Is Greater than Cultural Impact of Fine Arts



(p. C3) Capitalism has its weaknesses. But it is capitalism that ended the stranglehold of the hereditary aristocracies, raised the standard of living for most of the world and enabled the emancipation of women. The routine defamation of capitalism by armchair leftists in academe and the mainstream media has cut young artists and thinkers off from the authentic cultural energies of our time.

Over the past century, industrial design has steadily gained on the fine arts and has now surpassed them in cultural impact. In the age of travel and speed that began just before World War I, machines became smaller and sleeker. Streamlining, developed for race cars, trains, airplanes and ocean liners, was extended in the 1920s to appliances like vacuum cleaners and washing machines. The smooth white towers of electric refrigerators (replacing clunky iceboxes) embodied the elegant new minimalism.

"Form ever follows function," said Louis Sullivan, the visionary Chicago architect who was a forefather of the Bauhaus. That maxim was a rubric for the boom in stylish interior décor, office machines and electronics following World War II: Olivetti typewriters, hi-fi amplifiers, portable transistor radios, space-age TVs, baby-blue Princess telephones. With the digital revolution came miniaturization. The Apple desktop computer bore no resemblance to the gigantic mainframes that once took up whole rooms. Hand-held cellphones became pocket-size.



For the full commentary, see:

Paglia, Camille. "How Capitalism Can Save Art; Camille Paglia on why a new generation has chosen iPhones and other glittering gadgets as its canvas." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., October 6, 2012): C3.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date October 5, 2012.)






January 21, 2013

The Creation of Consistent, Predictable Dyes and Paints



The-Color-Revolution-by-Regina-Lee-Blaszczyk.png
















Source of book image: http://www.kristenlovesdesign.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/The-Color-Revolution-by-Regina-Lee-Blaszczyk.png




(p. C12) Few things seem as eternal as color. Yet as Regina Lee Blaszczyk argues, color has a history, a history largely created by business. In "The Color Revolution," Ms. Blaszczyk shows how the invention of synthetic organic chemistry in the 1850s allowed chemists to create consistent, predictable colors in dyes and paints. Once a chemical company's magenta was reliable, manufacturers could select it from a color card, order it by mail, and use it to produce dresses and dishware in exactly the promised hue.


For the full review essay, see:

Marc Levinson. "Boardroom Reading of 2012." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 15, 2012): C12.

(Note: the online version of the review essay has the date December 14, 2012.)



The book under review, is:

Blaszczyk, Regina Lee. The Color Revolution, Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.






December 4, 2012

Isaacson's "Steve Jobs" Tells Us Much About the Innovative Project Entrepreneur



walter-isaacson-steve-jobsBD2012-12-01.png








Source of book image: http://www.internetmonk.com/wp-content/uploads/walter-isaacson-steve-jobs1.png






Steve Jobs is one of my favorite examples of what I call the "project entrepreneur." Walter Isaacson has written a fascinating biography of Jobs, full of memorable examples for any student of the innovative entrepreneur.

During the next few weeks, I will occasionally add entries that quote some of the more important or thought-provoking passages.



The book under review is:

Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.






July 5, 2012

Steve Jobs Showed that Art and Commerce Could Be "Happy Bedfellows"



OldmanGary2012-06-22.jpg














Gary Oldman. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.







(p. 2) Gary Oldman is an English actor . . . widely known for his roles as Sirius Black in the "Harry Potter" film series and Jim Gordon in the Batman movies.


. . .


READING Right now I'm reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. I love when people have a singleness of purpose and don't get dissuaded. I can connect with that. I can recognize it. I think a lot of artists have that. Art and commerce are not particularly happy bedfellows, but he was the exception.

I read quite a lot of biographies. I like nonfiction. The other book I'm carrying around with me at the moment is "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West" by Rebecca Solnit. It deals with the 19th century and the arrival of speed with the coming of the industrial age. We were very much governed by nature before; we were at the mercy of our own speed and horses and the like. It's interesting to think of living at that pace.



For the full interview, see:

KATE MURPHY. "DOWNLOAD; Gary Oldman." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., February 5, 2012): 2.

(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)

(Note: online version of the interview is dated February 4, 2012.)






March 15, 2012

"The Astaires' Defiant New World Optimism"



AstairesBK2012-03-07.jpg













Source of book image:
http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/513pEMI-LeL._.jpg





(p. C6) The Astaire universe was made of crazy joy, that guiltless worldview unique to the art of the American 1920s. The Astaires' trademarked exit was the gleefully mischievous "runaround," in which they trotted about the stage in ever increasing circles as if joined at the hip, expanding their geometry till they reached the wings and vanished. It was goofy and expert at once, a way of defining musical comedy as the state of being young, cute and in love with life.


. . .


"For all their jazz-fueled modernity," Ms. Riley writes of the Astaires' London réclame, they were "anti-modernist." This pair was more than sunshine. The sheer zest with which they frisked through a show ran "counter to High Modernism's pervasive sense of the instability of the self and the universe." This was the time, Ms. Riley notes, of "The Waste Land," "Ulysses," "Vile Bodies." Art was in despair. But the Astaires' "defiant New World optimism" proved a remedy: meeting cute, assuming disguises and high-hatting the blues with fascinating rhythm. It's a very American notion: that a strong foundation in popular art creates a positive worldview in general. Call it the audacity of charm.


. . .


They don't make shows that way anymore, and Ms. Riley's book is thus a resuscitation of a naive but perhaps more authentically native showbiz, an art of natural forces. "The Astaires" is a salute to an America at ease with itself and doing something wonderful in the song-and-dance line that seemed, for a time, like the hottest thing in the culture.



For the full review, see:

Kathleen Riley. "BOOKSHELF; Sibling Revelry." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 3, 2012): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The book under review is:

Riley, Kathleen. The Astaires: Fred & Adele. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.






July 21, 2011

"People Condemned to Short Lives and Chronic Hardship Are Perhaps Unlikely to Worry Overmuch about Decor"




If "necessity is the mother of invention," then why did it take so long for someone to invent the louvered slats mentioned at the end of this passage?


(p. 55) In even the best homes comfort was in short supply. It really is extraordinary how long it took people to achieve even the most elemental levels of comfort. There was one good reason for it: life was tough. Throughout the Middle Ages, a good deal of every life was devoted simply to surviving. Famine was common. The medieval world was a world without reserves; when harvests were poor, as they were about one year in four on average, hunger was immediate. When crops failed altogether, starvation inevitably followed. England suffered especially catastrophic harvests in 1272, 1277, 1283, 1292, and 1311, and then an unrelievedly murderous stretch from 1315 to 1319. And this was of course on top of plagues and other illnesses that swept away millions. People condemned to short lives and chronic hardship are perhaps unlikely to worry overmuch about decor. But even allowing for all that, there was just a great, strange slowness to strive for even modest levels of comfort. Roof holes, for instance, let smoke escape, but they also let in rain and drafts until somebody finally, belatedly invented a lantern structure with louvered slats that allowed smoke to escape but kept out rain, birds, and wind. It was a marvelous invention, but by the time it (p. 56) was thought of, in the fourteenth century, chimneys were already coming in and louvered caps were not needed.



Source:

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.





May 26, 2011

Government Finally Allows Steve Jobs to Creatively Destroy His Own House



(p. A18) WOODSIDE, Calif. -- There may not be an app for it, but Steve Jobs did have a permit. And with that, his epic battle to tear down his own house is finally over.

For the better part of the last decade, Mr. Jobs, the co-founder and chief executive of Apple, has been trying to demolish a sprawling, Spanish-style mansion he owns here in Woodside, a tony and techie enclave some 30 miles south of San Francisco, in hopes of building a new, smaller home on the lot. His efforts, however, had been delayed by legal challenges and cries for preservation of the so-called Jackling House, which was built in the 1920s for another successful industrialist: Daniel Jackling, whose money was in copper, not silicon.


. . .


"Steve Jobs knew about the historic significance of the house," Mr. Turner said. "And unfortunately he disregarded it."

Mr. Turner said the mansion, which had 35 rooms in nearly 15,000 square feet of interior space, was significant in part because it was built by George Washington Smith, an architect who is known for his work in California. But Mr. Jobs had been dismissive of Mr. Smith's talents, calling the house "one of the biggest abominations" he had ever seen.



For the full story, see:

JESSE McKINLEY. "With Demolition, Apple Chief Makes Way for House 2.0." The New York Times (Fri., February 16, 2011): A18.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 15, 2011.)





May 23, 2011

"Gambles on Original Concepts Paid Off"



InceptionMovieStill2011-05-19.jpg"One surprise hit was "Inception," with Leonardo DiCaprio." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


I thought the movie "Inception" was a wonderful, intellectual and adventure thrill ride. And if memory serves, what they were trying to instill in the conflicted inheritor of a monopoly, was that he should become more entrepreneurial.


(p. B1) As Hollywood plowed into 2010, there was plenty of clinging to the tried and true: humdrum remakes like "The Wolfman" and "The A-Team"; star vehicles like "Killers" with Ashton Kutcher and "The Tourist" with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp; and shoddy sequels like "Sex and the City 2." All arrived at theaters with marketing thunder intended to fill multiplexes on opening weekend, no matter the quality of the film. "Sex and the City 2," for example, had marketed "girls' night out" premieres and bottomless stacks of merchandise like thong underwear.

But the audience pushed back. One by one, these expensive yet middle-of-the-road pictures delivered disappointing results or flat-out flopped. Meanwhile, gambles on original concepts paid off. "Inception," a complicated thriller about dream invaders, racked up more than $825 million in global ticket sales; "The Social Network" has so far delivered $192 million, a stellar result for a highbrow drama.

As a result, studios are finally and fully conceding that moviegoers, armed with Facebook and other networking tools and concerned about escalating ticket prices, are holding them to higher standards. The product has to be good.



For the full story, see:

BROOKS BARNES. "Hollywood Moves Away From Middlebrow." The New York Times (Mon., December 27, 2010): B1 & B5.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 26, 2010 and has the title "Hollywood Moves Away From Middlebrow.")





April 7, 2011

Mickey Mouse: "A Little Fellow Trying to Do the Best He Could"



DancingInTheDarkBK2011-03-11.jpg



















Source of book image: http://www.examiner.com/images/blog/EXID983/images/dancing_in_the_dark_by_morris_dickstein_250.jpg



(p. 17) After a fond, lingering look at "Shall We Dance" -- Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the spotlight, romancing to songs by George and Ira Gershwin -- Dickstein sums up expertly: "Each number is a miniature of the movie, moving from singing alone, dancing alone, dancing with the wrong person, or dancing to the wrong music to making beautiful music together." With his next breath he roughly reminds us of the context: "It's the music, the dancing, that saves all this from familiar romantic cliché. As photography documents the Depression, dance countermands it." And then he takes one more step back to give us an even broader view: "The culture of elegance, as represented by Astaire and the Gershwins, was less about the cut of your tie and tails than the cut of your feelings, the inner radiance that was one true bastion against social suffering. They preserved in wit, rhythm and fluidity of movement what the Depression almost took away, the high spirits of Americans, young and modern, who had once felt destined to be the heirs and heiresses of all the ages." Sheer delight, pure escapism, serves its cathartic purpose -- and it means something, too.

Which makes the omission of Walt Disney (his name doesn't even appear in the index) all the more perplexing. Even if one rejects the provocative claim by the historian Warren Susman that "Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to an understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt," it's hard to deny Disney a place in the pantheon of the decade's movie­makers, if only for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Fantasia." Whether or not the cartoons that delighted '30s audiences are complex works of art, they would have slotted nicely into several of Dickstein's chapters. On the lookout for a cultural artifact that served to "lift sagging morale and stimulate optimism about the future"? Try any one of the dozens of animated shorts featuring that cartoon collective, Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy. Every gag is an explosion of energy, and the whirligig of slapstick invention always ends happily, thanks to the orchestrated efforts of our heroes. Mickey, described by Disney as "a little fellow trying to do the best he could," may have been born in the late '20s, but he grew up a pure creature of the '30s.



For the full review, see:

ADAM BEGLEY. "Side by Side ." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., September 27, 2009): 17.

(Note: the online version of the review is dated September 25, 2009.)


Book reviewed:

Dickstein, Morris. Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.





February 21, 2011

The Story of Spielberg's "World-Changing Movies" Deserves "a Detailed, Impassioned and Insightful Telling"



(p. 20) . . . , LaPorte combines tabloid celebrity worship with an older oddity: the incongruous fact that a free market also produces resentment, especially when a competitor like Spielberg demonstrates leadership, superior achievement and undeniable success. He's one of the few filmmakers still committed to exploring the human condition -- and in popular terms. This is what sets him apart and makes him admired, envied and even inscrutable to those who think only in craven terms of business and royalty.


. . .


So it's a tabloid book. We can only hope it doesn't become the historical record. LaPorte undermines her research with a headachy repetition of anonymous informants ("one insider," "one former executive," "one source"). She concludes that "inherent in all of it was hubris." But a story this significant, about world-changing movies, doesn't need homilies. It needs a detailed, impassioned and insightful telling, one that would help us better appreciate a frequently misunderstood, underinterpreted pop artist whose work connects with the public, defines the complexities of human experience and dwarfs most of contemporary Hollywood's output. DreamWorks calls for a sensitive sociologist -- a Tom Wolfe or a Norman Mailer or a Pauline Kael -- who can discern the deep, divided heart of Hollywood.



For the full review, see:

ARMOND WHITE. "The Big Picture." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., July 11, 2010): 20.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated July 9, 2010.)


The book White credibly pans is:

LaPorte, Nicole. The Men Who Would Be King; an Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called Dreamworks. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.





January 8, 2011

Longfellow Created a "Hero Whose Bravery Can Inspire"



(p. C13) When it comes to the galloping meter of a narrative poem with a message, Longfellow has no equal.

Unfortunately, this poetic tradition has fallen on hard times. Academics have come to prefer different forms--mainly lyrical verse on personal topics more suited to the tastes of intellectuals than the masses. In recent years, many of Longfellow's works have fallen out of literary anthologies. The reputations of his contemporaries Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman have eclipsed his own.

In his day, however, Longfellow was America's most widely read poet--and his most widely read poem was interpreted as both a warning cry and a call to action on the eve of the Civil War. Yet Longfellow achieved a larger purpose, creating a national hero whose bravery can inspire his fellow citizens down the generations: "For, borne on the night wind of the past / Through all our history, to the last / In the hour of darkness and peril and need / The people will waken and listen to hear / The hurrying hoofbeats of that steed / And the midnight message of Paul Revere."



For the full review, see:

JOHN J. MILLER. "MASTERPIECE; Spotty History, Maybe, but Great Literature." The New York Times Book Review (Sat., December 18, 2010): C13.






December 24, 2010

A Late Bronze Age "Cornucopian Example of Multiculturism"



BronzeAgeContainer2010-12-20.jpg"Influences from Egypt and Mediterranean Asia appear to merge in this container, from around 1390 to 1352 B.C." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



The cultural flowering (see above and below) brought about by Late Bronze Age Mediterranean trade, is highly compatible with arguments made in Tyler Cowen's Creative Destruction, which argues that capitalism promotes the important kind of diversity that within cultures increases creativity and options for individual choice.

It would be interesting and useful to know more about the causes and effects of the dark age mentioned below--the one that started around 1200 BC. An earlier entry mentioned archeological evidence of a small family group near Katilimata on Crete who attempted to hunker down to defend themselves and their property from the invaders from the sea mentioned below.

Sometimes the Phoenicians are given credit for the trade, and Paul Johnson in his recent Heroes book (p. 4), identifies the evil invaders who killed the trade as being the Philistines.


(p. C28) For a truly cornucopian example of multiculturalism, though, nothing matches the contents of the Late Bronze Age merchant ship recovered from the sea off the southern coast of Turkey. Discovered by a sponge diver in 1984 and considered the oldest surviving example of a seagoing ship, it probably sank around 1300 B.C., packed with cargo representing a dozen cultures, from Nubia to the Balkans.

Although the ship's home port is unknown, it appears to have traveled a circular route through the Mediterranean and Aegean, stopping in Greece, Crete, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, picking up and unloading as it went. Bulk materials included copper ingots, Cypriot pottery, African wood and Near Eastern textiles, all for waiting markets.

Divers also found luxury items, possibly personal possessions of the ship's crew and passengers. Examples of ivory containers in the form of ducks have parallels with Egyptian prototypes, but were probably made in Mediterranean Asia. The two sources merge in a figure found in a tomb: a nude female swimmer with a chic, Nile-style pageboy who is hitching a ride behind an ivory-headed bird.

More precious and enigmatic is a standing bronze figure of a woman, probably a goddess, her head and face still covered with the sheet gold that may once have encased her whole body in a radiant epidermis. The exhibition catalog suggests that she might be a talismanic charm intended to protect the ship from harm.

Harm came anyway, as it did to much of the Mediterranean world, around 1200 B.C. with the arrival of mysterious, sea-based invaders, who conquered most of the great maritime cities, interrupting trade and easy cultural exchange, and bringing on a dark age, a depression. The depression -- or was it severe recession? -- didn't last forever. The passion for acquisition, exchange and accumulation survived it, as it always does.

This passion is, of course, our own. It is one reason that we can, if we try, identify with the diverse people who, thousands of years ago, made the objects in this show. The globalist, all-in-it-together world model they invented is another reason. Their dark age could be one too.



For the full review, see:

HOLLAND COTTER. "Art Review; 'Beyond Babylon'; Global Exchange, Early Version." The New York Times (Fri., November 21, 2008): C23 & C28.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 20, 2008.)



The Cowen book mentioned in my initial comments, is:

Cowen, Tyler. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.



The Paul Johnson book mentioned in my initial comments, is:

Johnson, Paul M. Heroes. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.





December 12, 2010

Rockefeller Is Vilified Despite His Entrepreneurial Genius and His Philanthropic Generosity



AmericasMedicisBK2010-12-08.jpg















Source of book image: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/512M5Z648JL.jpg




(p. C7) . . . as Suzanne Loebl rightly emphasizes in "America's Medicis," the Rockefellers' patronage has been notable not only for its generosity but also for its deliberativeness. By founding such diverse institutions as MoMA, Colonial Williamsburg, the Cloisters, Riverside Church and the Asia Society--as well as by commissioning the distinguished artworks that enliven the office complex at Rockefeller Center--various members of the family have been guided by a perception that a moral responsibility comes with the possession of great wealth.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1839-1937), the founder and chairman of Standard Oil, was routinely vilified in the press as a ruthless monopolist who crushed competition the way a giant might crush a bug.     . . .     . . . yet he was not the cold-hearted miser that some supposed. A devout Baptist, he donated substantial sums every year to one or more of the congregations he attended, as well as to associated causes, such as the American Baptist Education Society, which founded the University of Chicago with his support in 1890.


. . .


Unfortunately, not everyone behaved well in the face of Rockefeller munificence. The Mexican painter Diego Rivera, commissioned to create a sprawling mural for the lobby of Rockefeller Center, chose to deviate from his preparatory drawings and place an enormous portrait of Lenin at the center of the finished composition. Refusing to amend this egregious provocation, Rivera was paid in full for his work, which was then duly destroyed. A predictable uproar ensued, garnering the artist abundant publicity, which may have been his objective all along.


. . .


Ms. Loebl's account is well grounded both in the existing literature and in original archival research. She has striven to be comprehensive and done a good job of incorporating lesser-known Rockefeller projects, for example the charming Wendell Gilley Museum of carved birds, in Maine, funded by Nelson's son Steven. But several worthy undertakings, such as Junior's restoration of the châteaux of Versailles and Fontainebleau, receive scant attention--as do Laurance Rockefeller's extensive gifts for the purpose of creating and expanding our national parks.



For the full review, see:

JONATHAN LOPEZ. "BOOKSHELF; The Splendid Spoils of Standard Oil; The Rockefeller family's vast cultural legacy resulted from a sense of civic duty and a love of beautiful things." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., NOVEMBER 20, 2010): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The book being reviewed, is:

Loebl, Suzanne. America's Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.





November 16, 2010

"The Roiling World of Opera More Appealingly Straightforward than the Roiling World of Academe"



GillRichardEconomist2010-11-13.jpgGillRichardOperaSinger2010-11-13.jpg



















At left, Richard Gill as Harvard economist. At right, Richard "Gill as Frère Laurent, one of his numerous singing roles he preformed at the Met." Source of part of caption, and of photos: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.


(p. B19) Richard T. Gill, in all statistical probability the only Harvard economist to sing 86 performances with the Metropolitan Opera, died on Monday in Providence, R.I. He was 82.


. . .


Mr. Gill, a longtime Harvard faculty member who wrote many widely used economics textbooks, did not undertake serious vocal training (which he began as an anti-smoking regimen) until he was nearly 40. At the time, he had seen perhaps 10 operas and rarely listened to classical music.


. . .


In some respects, he later said, Mr. Gill found the roiling world of opera more appealingly straightforward than the roiling world of academe.

"Performing is a great reality test," he told Newsweek in 1975. "There's no tenure in it and the feedback is much less complicated than you get in academia. When you go out on that stage, you put your life on the line."



For the full obituary, see:

MARGALIT FOX. "Richard T. Gill, Economist and Opera Singer, Dies at 82." The New York Times (Thurs., October 28, 2010): B19.

(Note: ellipses added.)





September 26, 2010

Cultures that Excel at the Practical Often Also Excel at the Sublime



According to the reasoning of the following passages, the same Cro-Magnons who created the wonderful cave paintings at Lascaux, were also the ones who created the highly effective laurel leaf projectile points.

It is often believed that the practical is in conflict with the sublime. The Solutreans may be one more example, in addition to that of entrepreneurial capitalism, that cultures that excel at the practical also excel at the sublime.

[The passages I quote are somewhat disjointed, so let me sketch how they fit together. The first sentence asserts that the Lascaux cave paintings are the prehistoric equal of the Sistine Chapel. The second passage describes the Salutreans' highly practical laurel leaf projectile points. The final sentence asserts that the same Salutrean culture that invented the practical points, also painted the sublime cave at Lascaux.]


(p. 219) Lascaux had been sealed since the late Ice Age, so what the Abbe Henri Breuil soon called "the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory" was intact.


. . .


(p. 221) . . . The seasonal killing at Solutre resumed, but now the prey was reindeer rather than horses. This time, too, the hunters used not only bone-pointed spears hut also weapons bearing what French archaeologists rather elegantly call feuilles de laurier, "laurel leaves" . . . . These beautifully made stone projectile points do indeed look like idealized laurel leaves and stand out as exotic in otherwise unchanging tool kits of bone artifacts, burins, and scrapers. Those skilled enough to fabricate them had mastered a new (p. 122) stoneworking technology, which involved using an antler billet to squeeze off shallow flakes by applying sharp pressure along the edges of a blade. This technique--pressure flaking--produced thin, beautifully shaped yet functional spear points that were both lethal and lovely to look upon. Sometimes, the stoneworkers made what one might call rudimentary versions of the points using pressure flaking on but one side of the tool. On occasion, too, they made spearheads with a shoulder that served as the mount for the shaft. But the ultimate was the classic laurel leaf, flaked on both sides, beautifully regular and thin. Feuilles de laurier were never common, and indeed, some researchers wonder if they were, in fact, ceremonial tools and never used in the field. This seems unlikely, for they would have made tough, effective weapons for killing prey like reindeer.


. . .


If the Lascaux chronology is to be believed--and remember that the radiocarbon dates come from artifacts in the cave, not actual paintings--then Solutreans were the artists who painted there, . . .




Source:

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)





July 26, 2010

The British Museum Collaborating with Wikipedia



WikipediaVisitsBritishMuseum2010-07-05.jpg"Two visitors from Wikipedia, Liam Wyatt, left, and Joseph Seddon, at the British Museum." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. C1) The British Museum has begun an unusual collaboration with Wikipedia, the online, volunteer-written encyclopedia, to help ensure that the museum's expertise and notable artifacts are reflected in that digital reference's pages.

About 40 Wikipedia contributors in the London area spent Friday with a "backstage pass" to the museum, meeting with curators and taking photographs of the collection. And in a curious reversal in status, curators were invited to review Wikipedia's treatment of the museum's collection and make a case that important pieces were missing or given short shrift.

Among those wandering the galleries was the museum's first Wikipedian in residence, Liam Wyatt, who will spend five weeks in the museum's offices to build a relationship between the two organizations, one founded in 1753, the other in 2001.

"I looked at how many Rosetta Stone page views there were at Wikipedia," said Matthew Cock, who is in charge of the museum's Web site and is supervising the collaboration with Wikipedia. "That is perhaps our iconic object, and five times as many people go to the Wikipedia article as to ours."

In other words, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Once criticized as amateurism run amok, Wikipedia has become ingrained in the online world: it is consulted by millions of users when there is breaking news; its articles are frequently the first result when a search engine is used.


. . .


(p. C6) Getting permission to work with Wikipedia was not as hard a sell as he expected, Mr. Cock said. "Everyone assumed everyone else hated it and that I shouldn't recommend it to the directorate," he said. "I laid it out, put a paper together. I won't say I was surprised, but I was very pleased it was very well received."

He said he had enthusiastic support from four departments, including Greek and Roman antiquity and prints and drawings. "I don't think it is just the young curators," he added.



For the full story, see:

NOAM COHEN. "Venerable British Museum Enlists in the Wikipedia Revolution." The New York Times (Sat., June 5, 2010): C1 & C6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated June 4, 2010.)





July 5, 2010

Life is Too Short to Waste on Hypercomplex Music and Literature



(p. W14) Are certain kinds of modern art too complex for anybody to understand? Fred Lerdahl thinks so, at least as far as his chosen art form is concerned. In 1988 Mr. Lerdahl, who teaches musical composition at Columbia University, published a paper called "Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems," in which he argued that the hypercomplex music of atonal composers like Messrs. Boulez and Carter betrays "a huge gap between compositional system and cognized result." He distinguishes between pieces of modern music that are "complex" but intelligible and others that are excessively "complicated"--containing too many "non-redundant events per unit [of] time" for the brain to process. "Much contemporary music," he says, "pursues complicatedness as compensation for a lack of complexity." (To read his paper online, go to: http://www.bussigel.com/lerdahl/pdf/Cognitive%20Constraints%20on%20Compositional%20Systems.pdf)


. . .


Mr. Lerdahl is on to something, and it is applicable to the other arts, too. Can there be any doubt that "Finnegans Wake" is "complicated" in precisely the same way that Mr. Lerdahl has in mind when he says that a piece of hypercomplex music like Mr. Boulez's "Le marteau sans maître" suffers from a "lack of redundancy" that "overwhelms the listener's processing capacities"?


. . .


"You have turned your back on common men, on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence," H.G. Wells complained to Joyce after reading "Finnegans Wake." That didn't faze him. "The demand that I make of my reader," Joyce said, "is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works." To which the obvious retort is: Life's too short.



For the full commentary, see:

TERRY TEACHOUT. "Too Complicated for Words; Are our brains big enough to untangle modern art?." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., June 26, 2010): W14.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The research discussed above is:

Lerdahl, Fred. "Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems." Contemporary Music Review 6, no. 2 (1992): 97-121.





May 21, 2010

"The Evolutionary Concomitant of Incessant Climate Change Was Human Resilience"



CreativeObjectsEarlyMan2010-05-14.jpg"Early Homo sapiens created these symbolic objects between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago. Using natural materials and creativity, they combined animal and human features into fantastical creatures and fashioned instruments for making music. "Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


The sort of artifacts displayed above have been used to argue that homo sapiens had essentially reached their modern capabilities at least by 40,000 years ago.

The handaxes below are fascinating, in that they clearly display progress, and they clearly display how slow that progress was.


(p. D13) The mysterious Ice Age extinction of the Neanderthals, losers in the competition against modern humans, still fires the popular imagination. So it's startling to learn that as recently as 70,000 years ago, at least four human species coexisted, including tenacious, long-lived Homo erectus and diminutive, hobbit-like Homo floresiensis, found in Indonesia in 2003.

The sensational 1974 discovery in Ethiopia of "Lucy," resembling an ape but walking upright, located human origins 3.2 million years in the past. Those same fossil deposits have recently yielded even more-ancient ancestors, who stood on their own two feet as far back as six million years ago.

Paleoanthropology is thriving, and human fossil finds--more than 6,000 and counting--regularly force revisions of old timelines and theories. Our species, Homo sapiens, turns out to have had an abundance of long-lost cousins, though scientists are still arguing about the closeness of those relationships. The new David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, whose opening marked the museum's centennial, provides a formidable overview of this still-developing story.


. . .


It's long been accepted that different human species were adapted to thrive in specific climatic niches. Neanderthals had short, compact bodies to conserve heat and large nasal passages to warm frigid air, while some of our African forebears had long, skinny frames suited to hotter climes. But this exhibition contends that the evolutionary concomitant of incessant climate change was human resilience--the flexibility to make it almost anywhere, thanks to large, sophisticated brains and social networks.

Versatility apparently characterized even our oldest relatives. The ability to walk upright through the drier, more open grasslands did not immediately divest them of their penchant for climbing trees in the shrinking woodlands. A diorama of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) depicts her with one foot on the ground and another on a tree limb, symbolizing her straddling of two environments.



For the full review, see:

JULIA M. KLEIN. "Natural History; Our Species Rediscovers Its Cousins." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 11, 2010): D13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


HandaxesSlowlyEvolved2010-05-13.jpg"Handaxes -- multipurpose tools used to chop wood, butcher animals, and make other tools -- dominated early human technology for more than a million years. Left to right: Africa (1.6 million years old), Asia (1.1 million years old), and Europe (250,000 years old)." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.





February 12, 2010

"The Bus -- La Guagua -- Always Comes for Those Who Wait"



HerreraCarmen2010-01-24.JPG "Carmen Herrera in her Manhattan loft, surrounded by her art. She sold her first work in 2004." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. 1) Under a skylight in her tin-ceilinged loft near Union Square in Manhattan, the abstract painter Carmen Herrera, 94, nursed a flute of Champagne last week, sitting regally in the wheelchair she resents.

After six decades of very private painting, Ms. Herrera sold her first artwork five years ago, at 89. Now, at a small ceremony in her honor, she was basking in the realization that her career had finally, undeniably, taken off. As cameras flashed, she extended long, Giacomettiesque fingers to accept an art foundation's lifetime achievement award from the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Her good friend, the painter Tony Bechara, raised a glass. "We have a saying in Puerto Rico," he said. "The bus -- la guagua -- always comes for those who wait."

And the Cuban-born Ms. Herrera, laughing gustily, responded, "Well, Tony, I've been at the bus stop for 94 years!"

Since that first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued Ms. Herrera, and her radiantly ascetic paintings have entered the permanent collections of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Tate Modern. Last year, MoMA included her in a pantheon of Latin American artists on exhibition. And this summer, during a retro-(p. 29)spective show in England, The Observer of London called Ms. Herrera the discovery of the decade, asking, "How can we have missed these beautiful compositions?"

In a word, Ms. Herrera, a nonagenarian homebound painter with arthritis, is hot. In an era when the art world idolizes, and often richly rewards, the young and the new, she embodies a different, much rarer kind of success, that of the artist long overlooked by the market, and by history, who persevered because she had no choice.

"I do it because I have to do it; it's a compulsion that also gives me pleasure," she said of painting. "I never in my life had any idea of money and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I'm getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually."


. . .


But Ms. Herrera is less expansive about her own art, discussing it with a minimalism redolent of the work. "Paintings speak for themselves," she said. Geometry and color have been the head and the heart of her work, she added, describing a lifelong quest to pare down her paintings to their essence, like visual haiku.

Asked how she would describe to a student a painting like "Blanco y Verde" (1966) -- a canvas of white interrupted by an inverted green triangle -- she said, "I wouldn't have a student." To a sweet, inquiring child, then? "I'd give him some candy so he'd rot his teeth."

When pressed about what looks to some like a sensual female shape in the painting, she said: "Look, to me it was white, beautiful white, and then the white was shrieking for the green, and the little triangle created a force field. People see very sexy things -- dirty minds! -- but to me sex is sex, and triangles are triangles."


. . .


Ms. Herrera's late-in-life success has stunned her in many ways. Her larger works now sell for $30,000, and one painting commanded $44,000 -- sums unimaginable when she was, say, in her 80s. "I have more money now than I ever had in my life," she said.

Not that she is succumbing to a life of leisure. At a long table where she peers out over East 19th Street "like a French concierge," Ms. Herrera, because she must, continues to draw and paint. "Only my love of the straight line keeps me going," she said.




For the full story, see:

DEBORAH SONTAG. "At 94, She's the Hot New Thing in Painting, and Enjoying It." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., January 20, 2010): 1 & 29.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "At 94, She's the Hot New Thing in Painting" and is dated January 19, 2010.)



HerreraCarmenBlancoYVerde2010-01-24.JPG
HerreraCarmenRedStar2010-01-24.JPG








Ms. Herrara's ""Blanco y Verde" (1966-7)."









"Ms. Herrera's "Red Star" from 1949."

Source of captions and photos: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.







December 30, 2009

"When the Sons of the Communists Themselves Wanted to Become Capitalists and Entrepreneurs"



JanicekJosefPlasticPeople2009-12-19.jpg"Josef Janicek, 61, was on the keyboard for a concert in Prague last week by the band Plastic People of the Universe." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. A10) PRAGUE -- It has been called the Velvet Revolution, a revolution so velvety that not a single bullet was fired.

But the largely peaceful overthrow of four decades of Communism in Czechoslovakia that kicked off on Nov. 17, 1989, can also be linked decades earlier to a Velvet Underground-inspired rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe. Band members donned satin togas, painted their faces with lurid colors and wrote wild, sometimes angry, incendiary songs.

It was their refusal to cut their long, dank hair; their willingness to brave prison cells rather than alter their darkly subversive lyrics ("peace, peace, peace, just like toilet paper!"); and their talent for tapping into a generation's collective despair that helped change the future direction of a nation.

"We were unwilling heroes who just wanted to play rock 'n' roll," said Josef Janicek, 61, the band's doughy-faced keyboard player, who bears a striking resemblance to John Lennon and still sports the grungy look that once helped get him arrested. "The Bolsheviks understood that culture and music has a strong influence on people, and our refusal to compromise drove them insane."


. . .


In 1970, the Communist government revoked the license for the Plastics to perform in public, forcing the band to go underground. In February 1976, the Plastic People organized a music festival in the small town of Bojanovice -- dubbed "Magor's Wedding" -- featuring 13 other bands. One month later, the police set out to silence the musical rebels, arresting dozens. Mr. Janicek was jailed for six months; Mr. Jirous and other band members got longer sentences.

Mr. Havel, already a leading dissident, was irate. The trial of the Plastic People that soon followed became a cause célèbre.

Looking back on the Velvet Revolution they helped inspire, however indirectly, Mr. Janicek recalled that on Nov. 17, 1989, the day of mass demonstrations, he was in a pub nursing a beer. He argued that the revolution had been an evolution, fomented by the loosening of Communism's grip under Mikhail Gorbachev and the overwhelming frustration of ordinary people with their grim, everyday lives. "The Bolsheviks knew the game was up," he said, "when the sons of the Communists themselves wanted to become capitalists and entrepreneurs."




For the full story, see:

DAN BILEFSKY. "Czechs' Velvet Revolution Paved by Plastic People." The New York Times (Mon., November 16, 2009): A10.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated November 15, 2009.)

(Note: ellipsis added.)





November 29, 2009

Walt Disney: "I Don't Care About Critics"



(p. 286) "He is shy with reporters." Edith Efron wrote for TV Guide in 1965. "His eyes are dull and preoccupied, his affability mechanical and heavy-handed. He gabs away slowly and randomly in inarticulate, Midwestern speech that would be appropriate to a rural general store. His shirt is open, his tie crooked. One almost expects to see over-all straps on his shoulders and wisps of hay in his hair. . . . If one has the patience to persist, however, tossing questions like yellow flares into the folksy fog, the fog lifts, a remote twinkle appears in the preoccupied eves, and the man emerges."

Here again, as in other interviews from the 1960s, Disney permitted himself to sound bitter and resentful when he said anything of substance: "These avant-garde artists are adolescents. It's only a little noisy element that's going that way, that's creating this sick art. . . . There is no cynicism in me and there is none allowed in our work. . . . I don't like snobs. You find some of intelligentsia, they become snobs. They think they're above everybody else. They're not. More education doesn't mean more common sense. These ideas they have about art are crazy. . . . I don't care about critics. Critics take themselves too seriously. They think the only way to be noticed and to be the smart guy is to pick and find fault with things. It's the public I'm making pictures for."




Source:

Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. 1 ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipses and italics in original.)





November 14, 2009

"The Animated Man" is a Useful Account of the Life of an Important Entrepreneur



AnimatedManBK.jpg













Source of book image: http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/splog/wp-content/e/a336.jpg



I have always believed, and recently increasingly believe, that Walt Disney was one of the most important entrepreneurs of our time.

One of the most favorably reviewed biographies of Disney is Michael Barrier's The Animated Man. (At some point in the future, I will briefly discuss an alternative biography of Disney by Gabler.)

I have not thoroughly read The Animated Man, but have thoroughly skimmed it. It appears to be a very useful account of Walt Disney's life.

I did not want to wait until I had fully read it, in order to highlight a few passages that I think may be of special interest. I will do so in the next few weeks.


Reference to the book discussed:

Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. 1 ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.





April 19, 2009

Why Disney Was a Better Artist than Picasso



CreatorsFromChaucerAndDurerToPicassoAndDisneyBK.jpg

















Source of book image: http://ebooks-imgs.connect.com/ebooks/product/400/000/000/000/000/035/806/400000000000000035806_s4.jpg



(p. 275) The popularity of the creative arts, and the influence they exert, will depend ultimately on their quality and allure, on the delight and excitement they generate, and on demotic choices. Picasso set his faith against nature, and burrowed within himself. Disney worked with nature, stylizing it, anthropomorphizing it, and surrealizing it, but ultimately reinforcing it. That is why his ideas form so many powerful palimpsests in the visual vocabulary of the world in the early twenty-first century, and will continue to shine through, while the ideas of Picasso, powerful though they were for much of the twentieth century, will gradually fade and seem outmoded, as representational art returns to favor. In the end nature is the strongest force of all.



Source:

Johnson, Paul M. Creators: From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

(Note: I am grateful to John Devereux for telling me about Paul Johnson's views on Picasso and Disney.)





February 2, 2009

"The Whole Point of Camp is to Dethrone the Serious"


(p. W1) The 2000 film "Billy Elliot" was a surprise hit. It's an absorbing drama about personal transformation and the power of art to ennoble the human spirit. "Billy Elliot: The Musical" -- the noise is supplied by Sir Elton John -- is a depressing spectacle about partisan politics and the ephemeral power of schlock.

. . .

The musical, a campy, anticapitalist confection, is just one of the latest prepackaged exercises in "transgression." Maybe it's "Corpus Christi," Terrence McNally's play about a gay Jesus Christ. Maybe it's "The Goat," Edward Albee's play celebrating bestiality, or a production (p. W4) of "The Flying Dutchman" in which the heroine sports posters of Che Guevara and Martin Luther King on her bedroom wall. The point about these unpleasant offerings is not how outrageous but how common they are.

. . .

In the film, there was one extended reference to Margaret Thatcher. Mrs. Wilkinson's middle-class drink-sodden husband (tellingly made "redundant" -- that is, laid off) praises the prime minister for showing down the miners. He is hardly a sympathetic figure, but he had a point: If it costs more money to get the coal out of the ground then you make from selling it, why keep the pit open?

If there were truth in advertising, the musical would have been called "Billy Elliot, The Musical, Featuring Margaret Thatcher as the Incarnation of Evil." She is roundly abused by several characters in the opening scenes, is the object of casual calumny throughout the show, and features in a Christmas children's song -- replete with gigantic scary Thatcher masks and puppets -- whose refrain is "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher. We all celebrate today because it's one day closer to your death." Nice stuff, eh?

In one sense, "Billy Elliot: The Musical" represents a growth enterprise. Everywhere you turn these days, you are met not only with celebrations of the vulgar but also entertainments that pretend to be brave, challenging "interrogations" of established taste which in fact are simply reflections of established taste. The little sermons about Thatcher and capitalism and bigotry are presented as if they were fresh thoughts designed to disturb the dogmatic slumbers of the audience. In fact, they simply reinforce the left-liberal clichés audiences everywhere internalized decades ago. It's an odd phenomenon. In theaters and museums across the Western world you find audiences applauding sentiments that, were they translated into the real world, would spell their demise.

Perhaps it's an instance of what Lenin was talking about when he said that the bourgeoisie was so rotten that it would sell the rope with which it was to be hanged. The matinee I attended was packed to the last emergency exit with a cheery crowd of nice, middle-class folks who cheered and clapped and whistled and bravoed.

. . .

The impressive thing about "Billy Elliot" the film is its dramatic enactment of serious questions. "Billy Elliot: The Musical" spoofs and sentimentalizes those questions, replacing them with a series of political sermons and distracting gymnastic exhibitions. In 1964, Susan Sontag famously said that the "ultimate Camp statement" was "It's good because it's awful." Sontag wrote as an enthusiast for Camp. I have no doubt that she would have emerged happy from "Billy Elliot: The Musical." "The whole point of Camp," she wrote, "is to dethrone the serious."



For the full commentary, see:

ROGER KIMBALL. "Culture; A Clumsy Mix of Art and Politics; Broadway turns subtle themes into simplistic fare in shows like 'Billy Elliot'." Wall Street Journal (Sat., DECEMBER 13, 2008): W1 & W4.

(Note: ellipses added.)




February 1, 2009

Czech Republic's Sly Cerny Humorously Skewers European Foibles


EntropaMosaic.jpg "David Cerny's artwork "Entropa" is a symbolic map of Europe depicting stereotypes attributed to the individual member countries." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A6) . . . , an enormous mosaic installed in the European Council building over the weekend, was meant to symbolize the glory of a unified Europe by reflecting something special about each country in the European Union.

But wait. Here is Bulgaria, represented as a series of crude, hole-in-the-floor toilets. Here is the Netherlands, subsumed by floods, with only a few minarets peeping out from the water. Luxembourg is depicted as a tiny lump of gold marked by a "for sale" sign, while five Lithuanian soldiers are apparently urinating on Russia.

France? On strike.

The 172-square-foot, eight-ton installation, titled "Entropa," consists of a sort of puzzle formed by the geographical shapes of European countries. It was proudly commissioned by the Czech Republic to mark the start of its six-month presidency of the European Union. But the Czechs made the mistake of hiring the artist David Cerny to put together the project.

Mr. Cerny is notorious for thumbing his nose at the establishment. . . .

. . .

Before the hoax was discovered, the Czech deputy prime minister, Alexandr Vondra, said "Entropa" -- whose name alone should perhaps have been a sign that all was not as it seemed -- epitomized the motto for the Czech presidency in Europe, "A Europe Without Borders."

"Sculpture, and art more generally, can speak where words fail," he said in a statement on Monday. "I am confident in Europe's open mind and capacity to appreciate such a project."

But he does not feel that way now.



For the full story, see:

SARAH LYALL. "Art Hoax Unites Europe in Displeasure." The New York Times (Thurs., January 14, 2009): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)





January 12, 2009

"Commerce in Goods Brought with it Commerce in Entertainment, Music, Ideas, Gods and Cults"


TerraCottaVessel.jpg






"This terra-cotta vessel, from the Hittite site in Turkey, looks strikingly modern." Source of photo and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. D7) The show whisks us along on complementary interlocking narratives that take the visitor down a spaghetti junction of cultural confluences. We learn that in the 1950s a prominent Turkish archaeologist excavated a site known locally as Kultepe. It yielded a vast hoard of cuneiform tablets that record in detail the town's trade in copper and numerous aspects of its domestic life, including letters home -- many of which are on display. As a result, we know that Assyrian merchants in the copper trade moved en masse to Central Anatolia and founded the town, and many like it, to feed the burgeoning trade in what Ms. Aruz calls "the luxury goods of the time." She adds that "potentates competed to possess artifacts like these -- the more distant and exotic their origins, the more desirable because their possession denoted power and prestige."

Visitors should, in particular, feast their eyes on the smoothly burnished terra-cotta spouted vessels from Kultepe and Hittite sites in Turkey. Outlandishly geometric and eerily modern, futuristic even, they alone are worth the price of admission.

In following the visual motif of bull-leaping acrobats from Crete to Anatolia to Egypt on everything from Minoan vases to cylinder seals and carved boxes, the show makes the point that commerce in goods brought with it commerce in entertainment, music, ideas, gods and cults. Suddenly images of Sphinxes and Gryphons pop up all over the 15th-century B.C. geosphere, as do toys and board games and educational institutions.



For the full story, see:

SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN. "Doing the Math to Find the Good Jobs; Mathematicians Land Top Spot in New Ranking of Best and Worst Occupations in the U.S." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Jan. 6, 2008): D2.

For the case for the complementarity between capitalism and culture, see:

Cowen, Tyler. Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.


AmagiCuneiform.gif "The cuneiform inscription . . . is the earliest-known written appearance of the word "freedom" (amagi), or "liberty." It is taken from a clay document written about 2300 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash." Source of the cuneiform and the caption: http://www.libertyfund.org/aboutlogo.htm

(Note: ellipsis added.)




November 13, 2008

A Standing Ovation, and a Salute, for Colonel Jack Moelmann


MoelmannColonel20080823.jpg "Colonel Moelmann, a retired Air Force officer, sold seats for $50, but had to spend almost $120,000 of his own to perform." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

I do not share Colonel Moelmann's particular dream, but I do salute him for paying for his dream himself, rather than trying to force taxpayers to finance it, as so many do in pursuit of their dreams.

(p. A18) Col. Jack Moelmann, a retired Air Force officer from O'Fallon, Ill., blew $118,182.44 on a one-night stand in New York on Saturday. It was everything he had dreamed of, and more: three hours with the mightiest of the mighty Wurlitzers, the legendary pipe organ at Radio City Music Hall.

The experience left him sweaty and exhausted -- having your way with a mechanical marvel that contains more than a million parts is hard work -- and it reduced his net worth to "the mid-five figures," he said. But Colonel Moelmann had no regrets. He soldiered through tune after tune, from "The Trolley Song" from "Meet Me in St. Louis" to patriotic songs like "America the Beautiful," "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Which, as he pointed out before he climbed onto the bench of the giant ebony console at the left-hand edge of the Rockettes' high-kicking home, guaranteed him a standing ovation.

. . .

"Not many people get their name on the marquee," he said.

Not many people spend a large chunk of their life savings to buy their way in, either.

The idea for a Radio City concert began with the president of the year-old Theater Organ Society International, the Rev. Gus L. Franklin, and Mr. Page, a member. "We turned our pockets inside out and said, 'It's not going to happen,' " Mr. Page said.

Colonel Moelmann, the society's secretary, decided to make it happen -- "I looked in the mirror and said: 'Jack, you have a dream. Go for it.' "-- even though, he said, it was a foregone conclusion that "we're going to lose money big time."

He and the organ society put the price of the tickets at $50 a seat, but the show was far from a sellout. Even with the three balconies closed, the orchestra level was about a third full.

Some in the audience were Moelmann fans from way back. Susan Conrad Wells, a law librarian from Granby, Mass., said she had met Colonel Moelmann through an organ club in 1967, when he was stationed in Massachusetts.

Colonel Moelmann said that playing at Radio City presented its own challenges. "You can't listen to what you're playing," he said. "If you listen note by note, once you've hit the note and you hear it, it's too late to say, 'Oops, I hit the wrong note.' "

In the end, he got his standing ovation.



For the full story, see:

JAMES BARRON. "Organist Rents Radio City to Play, Fulfilling Wish." The New York Times (Mon., August 11, 2008): A18. (B4 in NY edition)

(Note: ellipsis added.)

MoelmannColonelAtOrgan20080823.jpg "Jack Moelmann always wanted to play Radio City's pipe organ, above, even after playing at Westminster Abbey and the Pantheon." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





August 21, 2008

Atlas Statue "Reveals the Powerful Paradox of Strength and Despondency"


AtlasStatue.jpg "The Atlas at Rockefeller Center has years' worth of lacquer and wax, in addition to the weight of the heavens, to bear. The four-story-high statue will undergo a six-week cleaning." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 31) Of course, he's angry. Of course, he's disheartened. The weight of all the heavens has been on his shoulders for 71 years and, according to the mythological timetable, he has exactly forever to go.

But only a close-up view of Atlas, at the base of the International Building in Rockefeller Center, reveals the powerful paradox of strength and despondency created by Lee Lawrie and Rene Chambellan, the artists behind the four-story-high, seven-ton bronze.

. . .

"Everyone reads the substance of things through the surface," said Jeffrey Greene, president of EverGreene Painting Studios, which is about to begin a six-week cleaning of Atlas, down to the original patina.

. . .

A snapshot staple of any visitor's souvenir New York album shows Atlas and the 21-foot-diameter armillary sphere on his shoulders (representing the heavens with which he was burdened by Zeus as a member of the losing Titan team), silhouetted in front of the twin spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral across Fifth Avenue.

. . .

On Monday, Mr. Greene said, a translucent scrim will be wrapped around the scaffolding. After that, the statue will get a low-pressure steam bath. Any residue will be cleaned with a gel solvent. A clear acrylic protective coating will be applied and the statue will be hand-waxed to a sheen that is more polished at sculptural highlights and flatter in the interstices.

One block south, Atlas's popular brother, Prometheus (by Paul Manship), was restored nine years ago.



For the full story, see:

DAVID W. DUNLAP. "Bringing a Smile (Well, a Shine) to a Burdened Statue of Atlas." The New York Times, Section 1 (Sun., May 4, 2008): 31.

(Note: ellipses added.)




July 5, 2008

Sir Laurence Olivier Got Mad at Those Who Ridiculed Charlton Heston's Acting


(p. 5go!) "In 1985, I took a train to London from Royal Air Force Mildenhall (Base) with a couple of med techs and decided to check out some of the plays," Brodston recalled in his e-mail.

His theater date was a native Briton who had joined the U.S. Air Force.

"We came upon a play that had Charlton Heston in it, 'The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,'" Brodston remembered. "We couldn't afford the tickets, so they put us on the 'king's cuff' (standby tickets for students and servicemen)."

Just as the house lights were dimming, an older woman led Brodston and his companion up the steps to a private box because no one had claimed the seats.

"Be quiet and don't tell anyone," she furtively whispered because she wasn't supposed to give away box seats that normally fetch up to $300 each.

Two minutes into the play, the door at the rear of the box opened, and two people sat behind them. Engrossed in the play, Brodston and friend paid little attention.

"At intermission, we looked up and saw Lord Laurence Olivier and his wife, Joan Plowright, sitting behind us!"

. . .

In 1999, Brodston crossed paths with Plowright in New York, and she remembered the night they shared a box at the London theater.

"Larry used to get mad when people made fun of Chuck's acting," Plowright told Brodston. "He loved Chuck in 'Ben Hur' and that silly ape movie ('Planet of the Apes'). He and the children would watch those movies again and again."



For the full commentary, see:

BOB FISCHBACH. "Bob's Take on Cinema: A night of fine theater with Chuck, Larry." Omaha World-Herald (Thursday, June 12, 2008): 5go!.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




June 10, 2008

Stark Artistic Depiction of Chinese Communism


BloodlineTheBigFamily.jpg "Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B1) BEIJING -- Sotheby's sold $51.77 million worth of Chinese contemporary art in three auctions in Hong Kong on Wednesday, allaying concerns that the global economic slowdown would depress the prices.

. . .

The star of that auction was a 1995 painting by Zhang Xiaogang, one of China's most prominent artists, which sold for just over $6 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting by a Chinese contemporary artist.

That oil on canvas, "Bloodline: Big Family No. 3," depicts a family of three during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution in China, when children were sometimes led to denounce their parents. Three collectors bid feverishly for the piece, which sold for far above its high estimate, about $3.4 million.


For the full story, see:

DAVID BARBOZA. "Chinese Art Continues To Soar at Sotheby's." The New York Times (Thurs., April 10, 2008): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





April 5, 2008

Blindly Imitating a False Vision of Ancient Sculpture


TrojanArcher.jpg "Trojan Archer from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

Ayn Rand's Howard Roark in The Fountainhead railed against the mindless imitation of the classics, as embodied for instance in the Parthenon. In sculpture there has also been blind imitation of white classical figures, such as one that has recently been installed next to the Arts and Sciences Building on my campus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

One imagines that Rand and Roark would have been amused by the article quoted below, that shows that the classical sculptures were actually rich in color.


(p. D8) The Venus de Milo: white. The Apollo Belvedere: white. The Barberini Faun: white. The passing centuries may have cast their pall of grime, yet ever since the Renaissance rediscovered antiquity, our Platonic ideal of classical statuary has been bare marble: bleached, bone white.

The Greeks and Romans did not see it that way. The current show "Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity" -- through Jan. 20 at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum on Harvard University's campus -- makes a bold attempt to set the record straight. On view are replicas painted in the same mineral and organic pigments used by the ancients: pulverized malachite (green), azurite (blue), arsenic compounds (yellow, orange), cinnabar or "dragon's blood" (red), as well as charred bone and vine (black). At first glance and quite a while after, the unaccustomed palette strikes most viewers as way over the top. But few would deny that these novelties -- archers, goddesses, mythic beasts -- look you straight in the eye.

. . .

By the 18th century, practitioners of the then-new science of archaeology were aware that the ancients had used color. But Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the German prefect of antiquities at the Vatican, preferred white. His personal taste was enshrined by fiat as the "classical" standard. And so it remained, unchallenged except by the occasional eccentric until the late 20th century.


For the full story, see:

MATTHEW GUREWITSCH. "CULTURAL CONVERSATION With Vinzenz Brinkman; Setting the Record Straight About Classical Statues' Hues." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., December 4, 2007): D8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)




December 10, 2007

Omaha Government Displays Pretentious Concrete Donuts: Is Dog Poop Next?

 

  The city of Omaha is forcing its citizens to endure four concrete donuts that are sometimes called "Sounding Stones" and sometimes called "art."  Source of photo: online version of  Dane Stickney.  "ART MOVEMENT; Some neighbors don’t want sculpture in Elmwood Park."  Omaha World-Herald  (Sat., Nov. 17, 2007):  B1.

 

I believe that all art should be private art.  But if the government is going to force art on us, at least they should commission art that most find enjoyable to look at. 

Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word skewered the pretension of modern "artists" whose "art" is not intended to please, but is intended to make some obscure philosophical point. 

If somebody wants to privately finance such activity, fine.  But don't force the rest of us to finance it through taxation.

 

 (p. 1B)  “So is this where they’re putting Stonehenge?”
  Stan Hille was walking his dog through Elmwood Park when he stopped to ask me the question. He thought I was a city employee.

  “Yes, it is,” I said as I stood near one of the gravel pads awaiting Leslie Iwai’s gigantic five-piece sculpture “Sounding
Stones .” “But you don’t sound excited.”
  “Well, I guess I’m not,” he said, stopping to contemplate art. 
“This thing just reminds me of that old question: ‘When is art not art?’ ” Hmm. Great question. Ancient question. I suggested it might not be art until people, especially a commission of people, tells you it’s art. Or, if it’s big, it’s art. Or, if you make something and then say there’s some meaning to it, then maybe it’s art.
  As we pondered, Hille’s dog defecated.

  “Perhaps if I can find some meaning in this poop, then maybe it’s art,” I told him as I rubbed my chin.

  The retired UNO professor and Dundee resident absorbed my genius. “Perhaps,” he responded, rubbing his chin also.

  But, alas, I could find no meaning. “Perhaps its lack of meaning is its meaning,” I then argued, sounding
not unlike French philosopher Jacques Derrida. “It’s post-postmodern ironic poop.” 

. . .

 For Hille and others around Elmwood Park, the bigger question seems to be aesthetics.
  Elmwood Park is a quiet forest setting. Is this really the place for large chunks of concrete, no matter what they mean?

  “It just doesn’t seem to fit,” Hille said.

  I’m with him on that. “Sounding
Stones
” might make more sense, or at least be better received, in the midst of, say, modern architecture, not nature.
  You know, perhaps put it downtown, where it could look like it fell off the old Union Pacific building.

  But if “Sounding
Stones ” does end up in Elmwood Park, whichit most likely will, I’m guessing it still will end up being a positive move.
  Because, as with Hille and me, it’s going to get people thinking and talking about art.

  And even when you’re looking at dog droppings, taking time out of the day to contemplate art can’t be a completely bad thing.

 

Yes, Robert, it can be "a completely bad thing" if you have alternative uses for your time.

 

For the full commentary, see:

Robert Nelson.  "Rocky art may lead to heavy thoughts."  Omaha World-Herald  (Nov. 21, 2007):  1B.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 




September 28, 2006

A Tale of Two Churches: Russia Has an Entrepreneurial Tradition Too

 

Two old and exotic churches, St. Basil's in Moscow and Kizhi in the Russian north, survived the Soviet era and are invariably depicted in brochures and books to suggest the distinctiveness of Russian culture.  Both feature the tent roofs and onion domes that dominated the skyline of medieval Russia.  But each bears mute witness to a very different tradition:  one, imperial centralism; the other, entrepreneurial regionalism.  Both are embedded in Russia's history; the conflict between them may well determine Russia's destiny.

St. Basil's, looming over Red Square, is an enduring symbol of theatrical autocracy; the Kizhi church, of frontier inventiveness.  Authoritarian centralism has been growing recently under President Putin.  But he also is fond of Kizhi and brought its new priest with him on his last trip to New York.

. . .

Tolerance was implicit in the northern tradition of dvoeveria:  the simultaneous belief in both the old pagan spirits and the new Christian God.  Medieval petroglyphs of the Kizhi region freely intermixed symbols of both.  Peasants in the region were not enserfed.  The northern region lost much of its independent power when Moscow sacked and subdued Novgorod.

. . .

Many more people have seen St. Basil's on Red Square than Kizhi on an island in Lake Onega -- and most see Russian history in terms of autocratic power in Moscow rather than creativity amid adversity in the regions.  Kizhi is the supreme monument to this forgotten tradition that continued to unfold as the vast Russian domain spread north to the Arctic Ocean and across the Pacific to Alaska in the 17th and 18th centuries.

No one knows who was the architect of either monument.  But Russian popular folklore suggests that the creator of St. Basil's was forcefully either blinded or drowned to assure that it could never be duplicated.  In contrast, the creator of Kizhi is said to have simply thrown his ax into the lake and lived on peacefully as a holy man in the northern forests.

During that time, Moscow autocrats looked out from the closed front porch of St. Basil's to see the enemies of central power drawn and quartered publicly in Red Square.  By contrast, the Kizhi church was wider and open to the sky -- and where local people gathered to solve practical problems, facing a vista of lakes and forests.

Much of the renewed vitality in Russia today is coming from young people in the regions.  Their hopes for a more participatory and accountable political and economic future depend on the kind of open community that created Kizhi -- not the closed circles that cling to St. Basil's.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

JAMES H. BILLINGTON.  "MASTERPIECE; Two Churches, Two Russias; One born of authoritarian centralism, the other of entrepreneurial regionalism."  Wall Street Journal   (Sat., September 16, 2006):  P18.

 




February 2, 2006

The Creation of "Freedom" in Iraq

 

Freedom.jpg "Freedom" (oil painting by Esam Pashwa). Source of image: http://www.artvitae.com/art.asp?art_id=1571&bhcp=1

 

When Saddam Hussein fell, artist Esam Pashwa pulled down a huge poster of Sadam and painted a mural underneath. The gesture, and the art, attracted the attention of art expert Peter Falk, who contacted and encouraged Pashwa. He learned that Pashwa, in addition to his art, has served as a translator for the coalition forces in Iraq. Falk has organized a show of Pashwa's work in a New York gallery.

As of 2/1/06, the "Freedom" oil painting above was offered for sale through the gallery. For more information: Peter Hastings Falk Hastings Art Management Services, Inc. P.O. Box 833 Madison, CT 06443 203.245.4761 peterfalk@comcast.net

(The source of most of the information in the entry above, was a CNN report/interview entitled "The Art of War" that was broadcast on 2/1/06. It is viewable at CNN.com at: http://www.cnn.com/video/partners/clickability/index.html?url=/video/world/2006/02/01/intv.art.of.war.cnn)

 




HP3D5006CropSmall.jpg


















The StatCounter number above reports the number of "page loads" since the counter was installed late on 2/26/08. Page loads are defined on the site as "The number of times your page has been visited."


View My Stats