Monday, August 26, 2013

A Few of my Literary Pillars, Part One

In the spirit of William Gass's "Fifty Literary Pillars" (in A Temple of Texts) this post begins a series of memoiristic micro-essays about 'the books in my life' and, more importantly, the life in (some) of my books. These are the works that have shaped my mind, the books I have returned to over the years. Some of them I no longer love as I once did, but for others my passion is undiminished. The original list of titles that forms the basis of this series was improvised late one night between midnight and twelve-thirty and is thus in no particular order. Pater comes first because I happened to be re-reading The Renaissance when the idea of doing an imitatio Gassei struck like summer lightning.

The Renaissance by Walter Pater. I am a lover of beautiful prose, and Pater's little book is quite simply, and quite marvelously, one of the most beautifully written books in the English language. A reference in Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae first brought Pater to my attention as an undergraduate (tellingly, I don't think any of my professors ever mentioned him, not even in passing), and The Renaissance has been one of my (un)holy books ever since. As I read beyond the sheer loveliness of its language (which is enough, more than enough, to justify any number of readings), I felt the very depths of myself vibrating in harmony to Pater's ideas about the nature of beauty, the paramount importance of art, the definition of success in life (to burn always with that too-often parodied and too-little understood 'gem-like flame.'), and I found myself deeply attracted to the theme of homoeroticism that underlies Pater's text, popping up frequently like a Wagnerian motif. (Rereading the previous sentence, I note the unintentional phallicism of the 'popping up' image, a little textual erection tent-poling itself into my rhetoric and telling the bawdy body-truth about my attraction to The Renaissance.) I was already on the road to aestheticism when Pater found me, but his book strengthened my resolve, focused my explorations, and licensed my transformation into the kind of person who hops onto a plane and screams all night across the freezing North Atlantic at 30,000 feet just to attend an exhibition at the Tate.

Dispatches by Michael Herr. Michael Herr is a one-book writer. He has written other books, but he is destined to be remembered for this book alone. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's okay to be a one-book writer when your one book so definitively kicks the ass of every comparable book that readers finish it shaking their heads and saying, "Well, that's it, man. That is most absofuckingposilutively it!" That's how I felt when I came to the end of this book one sweaty, sunny summer afternoon during my college years. I was so impressed that I did something I've hardly ever done: I turned back to the beginning and began to read it again. Like a child taking apart a mechanical toy, I needed to understand how this book worked, how so much disparate information and so many diverse stories seemed to cohere into a text as seamless as the surface of a pond. A second reading showed me that the mainspring of Herr's prose machine is his incomparable narrative voice, that wild, charging, soaring, screaming, amphetamine-fueled voice that sometimes seems like the voice of the war itself whispering in your ear. It's a voice that comes out of Faulkner as well as the Beats, and is equal parts Kerouac and Hemingway. It's a voice so American that it should be painted red white and blue and held aloft during parades. It's a voice so authoritative that it forms itself into the most fearsomely eloquent indictment I have ever read of the omni-murderous American way of war. No other writer, not even Melville, has given us an example of American nihilism as cogent and exact as Herr's shortest and most terrible story: "...There was a famous story, some reporters asked a door gunner, "How can you shoot women and children?" and he'd answered, "It's easy, you just don't lead 'em so much."..." There, in a single sentence, is the story of Vietnam, and of Iraq, and of Afghanistan--and of the next war the neocons will start, somewhere, eventually. A civilian's question, fueled by moral outrage, is answered in the psychotically flat, matter-of-fact tone of technological amorality. It's the voice of Haditha and My Lai. It's a message from that darkest part of America that always blows a mean wind back from our foreign wars, sowing suicide and murder across the homeland.

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. It's entirely appropriate that Proust comes next, because Herr's Dispatches is one of the very few American books that, as a work of aestheticized memory, approaches the majesty of A la recherche du temps perdu. I still remember the day I learned to love Proust. I was sitting in a plastic lawnchair in the shade of an evergreen tree on a summer day abuzz with bees and fragrant with the breeze-blown breath of flowers when I came to the section of Swann's Way that describes young Marcel reading his beloved Bergotte in the garden of the Combray house one lazy childhood summer, and I looked up from the book into yellow sunlight dappled through dark branches and luxuriated for a moment in the swooning sense that my life had become a mise en abyme of the Proustian text, that Proust's book had captured not only his characters' lives, but mine too; that I, living a century later in a country he never knew, was also a bundle of tics and neuroses and prejudices to be deliciously anatomized by this exquisite doctor's son; that my life too was to be laid open by the scalpel of the Proustian pen; that I was not reading Proust so much as Proust was reading me. Whenever I return to his books I sometimes feel the slightest tremor of that initial vertigo, but nothing more. I had my moment of perfect ecstasy. The rest is appreciation.

The Stories of John Cheever. Published when I was about twelve years old and just beginning, somewhat precociously, to read adult fiction, this then-ubiquitous orangey-red paperback was the first volume of literary short fiction I ever purchased and read. I recall carrying it around the hallways of my junior high while I was reading it, hoping someone would remark upon it and give me the opportunity to open their eyes to the wonders of Cheeverland. (Predictably, no one noticed. The students at my school were almost as illiterate as the teachers.) I don't remember exactly how much I understood, as a rural Ohio preteen, of Cheever's Don Draperish world, but something about his fiction caught me early and has never let go. I found myself most attracted (and this remains the case) to the weird, 'surreal' side of Cheever as best exemplified by "The Enormous Radio," "The Swimmer" and "The Death of Justina," the last two of which are nearly perfect, and perfectly beautiful, stories that can stand alongside anything by Hawthorne or even Henry James in the American canon. I also find myself returning again and again to "The Five-Forty-Eight," "O Youth and Beauty!" "The Sorrows of Gin," "Metamorphoses," "The Hartleys" and "Brimmer."

The Symposium by Plato. Like all the best Platonic dialogues, the Symposium is a masterpiece of irony, almost as impressive as the Phaedrus (which utterly deconstructs itself in its second half, obviating the work of Derrida) or the Crito (in which Socrates is condemned by his own failure as a teacher, for he did not teach Crito well enough to out-argue his master). Perhaps the greatest irony surrounding the Symposium is that most modern readers are more attracted to Aristophanes' myth of human origins than to the ostensible climax of the piece, the ladder of love and beauty that made Platonism so intellectually appealing for so many centuries. I too am of the Aristophanic persuasion and have come to consider his speech the 'secret climax' (a closeted climax, perhaps?) of the dialogue. The Republic may contain a more profound poetry (in the myth of the cave), but the banquet of love remains the apex of my Plato. (Every true reader creates his own Plato, as every authentic reader molds an inner Shakespeare having perhaps little relation to the money-mad, shadowy Shaxpo of the few surviving documents.) It's also worth noting that the Symposium is actually a dialogue, rather than, as is the case with the Republic, a monologue occasionally interrupted by purely decorative 'interlocutors' who exist solely to play Ed McMahon to Socrates' Johnny Carson, occasionally interjecting, "Yes, Socrates" and "You are correct, Socrates."

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Don't DOA the DIA

It's upside-down flag time at one of America's greatest art museums. The Detroit Institute of Arts is facing an existential crisis. The soi-disant Emergency Manager (i.e. Dictator of Detroit) appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (i.e. Koch Drone) has spent the last few months floating trial balloons about the possibility of selling the museum's collection to pay off some of the city's debt. Now Christie's auction house has confirmed that they have been commissioned to assess the DIA collection for probable sale. Christie's official statement is carefully vague about details, but the DIA's response sends up the Batsignal:

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has learned that Christie’s, at the request of the Emergency Manager, plans to proceed with a valuation of the DIA collection, and we will be cooperating completely in that process. However, we continue to believe there is no reason to value the collection as the Attorney General has made clear that the art is held in charitable trust and cannot be sold as part of a bankruptcy proceeding. We applaud the EM’s focus on rebuilding the City, but would point out that he undercuts that core goal by jeopardizing Detroit’s most important cultural institution.

In addition, recent moves in Oakland and Macomb counties to invalidate the tri-county millage if art is sold virtually ensure that any forced sale of art would precipitate the rapid demise of the DIA. Removing $23 million in annual operating funds – nearly 75% of the museum’s operating budget – and violating the trust of donors and supporters would cripple the museum, putting an additional financial burden on our already struggling city. The DIA has long been doing business without City of Detroit operating support; any move that compromises its financial stability will endanger the museum and further challenge the City’s future.

To read an art museum's prediction of its own imminent "demise" is a uniquely chilling experience. There's certainly nothing new or unusual about the traditional American philistinism that looks at one of the world's great aesthetic treasure houses and sees little more than an overflowing chest of pirate's gold, but the Detroit Dictator's actions are evidence of a truly astounding stupidity. A fire sale (and that is the only thing it could possibly be) of the DIA collection would give the city a one-time infusion of cash comparable to a crackhead's head-cracking rush; and after the hit wears off, the city will be left with one more big empty building with some awesome Diego Rivera frescoes on the walls. (Unless, of course, they intend to improve upon Nelson Rockefeller's legendary act of vandalism and monetize the Rivera Court also.) Instead of selling or leasing or loaning or whatever else the vague auctioneers and official authoritarians have in mind, Detroit should be using the stellar DIA collection as a crystal around which the depressed and depressing downtown can be reinvented. Instead of an auction, the city needs an ad campaign to generate international tourist revenue by informing the world of all the masterpieces hidden behind the DIA's imposing fa├žade. Here, off the top of my head, are a few taglines for such a campaign:
  • "You don't have to go to Paris to see Van Gogh."
  • "You don't have to go to Rome to see Michelangelo."
  • "You don't have to go to France to see Cezanne."
  • "You don't have to go to Mexico to see Diego Rivera."
  • "Come to Detroit and see the world."
Most Americans, even most citizens of Michigan, have no idea of the excellence of Detroit's collection, so I will take this opportunity to shine a little light on a few of the gems in the DIA's dazzling crown. If the DIA goes DOA, and the artworks are lost (and make no mistake, they will be lost if auctioned; they will be snatched by oilygarchs and secreted away in those high-security warehouses where the superrich store their artistic investments), here are a few examples of what Detroit, Michigan, America and the world are going to lose (click on the titles for illustrations from the DIA website) :

Titian, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca.1570. Titian was one of the four most important painters of the Italian Renaissance, a transcendent master on the level of Michelangelo (who admired his work), Leonardo and Raphael. Detroit's Judith may be the best late Titian in any American collection. It's a fascinating, gruesome work that foreshadows in both style and subject the great Black Paintings of Goya. Stand in front of this painting for a while, look at the magisterially loose brushwork, and you will understand why critics have called Titian 'the first modern painter.' Study that amazing head and understand that blood dries black.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, ca.1624. One of the principle pleasures afforded by any great art museum is the opportunity to compare different artists' and eras' conceptions of the same subject. Detroit's two incomparable and priceless Judiths offer a rare opportunity to experience the difference between Renaissance and Baroque painting. Titian's heroine is an icon of impenetrable individual resolve; her gaze is inscrutable, with a chilly vapidity that seems almost unaware of the gory trophy in her hands. Gentileschi's Judith, on the other hand, is an outward-turned masterpiece of theatricality. Its stagy curtain, lighting and poses, its operatic gestures that lean toward melodrama--all this distracts us until we realize that Judith is trapped in baroque shadows and holding out her hand (can't you just feel that candle's heat against your palm?) in an attempt to block its light and see into the darkness beyond, to look past the painting into a something as yet unseen. The painting is, among much else, an allegory of viewing the Caravaggist Baroque.

Michelangelo, Scheme for the Decoration of the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, ca. 1508. Anything by Michelangelo is extremely rare outside of Italy (and inside it, for that matter), so the DIA's two preparatory sketches for the Sistine Chapel ceiling are among the museum's most prized possessions. About ten years ago, the DIA hosted an amazing exhibition, The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence, that featured an entire gallery of loaned drawings centered around the late Apollo/David sculpture from the Bargello in Florence--and that was only the beginning of one of this generation's landmark exhibitions of Mannerist art. This was the kind of exhibition that would normally appear only at the Met or the Louvre; Detroit's collection was impressive enough to attract it to town.

Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, ca.1598. A great Caravaggio at a regional museum is another almost unheard-of thing, and this is an especially gorgeous and uncharacteristically understated example of his work. Look closely at that hand over the mirror at right and you might hear the pulse of the blood in its veins.

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Wedding Dance, ca.1566. Here's a painting that probably provokes the envy of every museum curator in the country. Works by other members of the Brueghel family are fairly common, but a major work by the great patriarch, the one known to museum-goers as "Brueghel Breughel" to differentiate him from all those other Breughels, is as rare in America as a sketch by Michelangelo.

Jacob Van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery, ca. 1654. A great, beautiful work of proto-Romantic melancholy, this is the sort of Dutch landscape that can psychologically envelop an attentive viewer. Watch it for a while, and it will enfold you into its world. You will think in its colors; you will see stormy skies through its prism.

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781. An iconic work and the most famous thing Fuseli ever painted. This is one of those paintings that you look at and wonder, "Why is this in America? Why isn't it in the London National Gallery?" The NGL would love to have it, I'm sure. I've written at length about this painting in Beauty and Terror, so here I'll just remark that when the DIA closed many of its galleries for an extensive renovation over the last decade and this painting went into storage for several years, I felt the loss like the absence of a friend.

Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold (The Falling Rocket) , 1875. This is the painting at the center of one of art history's greatest knock-down-drag-out artist vs. critic brawls. When critic John Ruskin wrote that in this painting Whistler was "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face," Whistler sued him for libel--and won. (The victory was seriously pyrrhic, but still...)

Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1887. One of the Dutch melancholic's least haunted self-portraits, this one at first seems almost sunny: the straw hat sits like a jaunty halo on his whore-loving head and casts a yellow light across his red beard. Only after a few minutes do we appreciate the lines carved into his chin by the perpetually downturned mouth; only later do we acknowledge (without presuming to understand) the wavering uncertainty in the misaligned eyes. It's a great Van Gogh.

Van Gogh, The Diggers, 1889. And this is a very good one. Those trees are so gnarly you could get a splinter just by looking at them. I like the way the trees' unmovable verticality humbles the Millet-like workers and even overpowers the extensive landscape, pulling it cubistically toward the picture plain.

Van Gogh, Portrait of Postman Roulin, 1888. The postman seems to have been Van Gogh's only real friend at Arles, and the Dutchman painted him several times. Here he aesthetically elevates the humble provincial civil servant, granting him a literally iconic frontal pose and painting him in a flattened style that recalls Manet's portrait of that echt-bourgeois Parisian, Antonin Proust, a painting that hangs due south of Detroit in the less overwhelming, but still exquisite, permanent collection of the Toledo Museum of Art.

Van Gogh, Bank of the Oise at Auvers, 1890. Time may have faded the colors in this painting that looks back at Monet and Renoir and forward to the Fauves (for Vincent is the hinge upon which Impressionism turns toward Expressionism), but there's still something magical in that illusion of glassy water Van Gogh has coerced from short, Cezanne-ish strokes of paint.

Cezanne, The Three Skulls, ca.1900. Did someone say 'Cezanne'? He's here, too, of course. This is one of the last great memento mori still lifes in the western tradition. Every writer on the genre mentions that in French it's called nature morte, literally 'dead nature,' a pun Cezanne literalizes on this canvas in a delicately painted meditation on the decay that is the end of all our going.

Picasso, Portrait of Manuel Pallares, 1909. More than one critic has compared Pallares's mustache to an airplane propeller; the simile could not be more appropriate. The dark brown right half of the mustache might also be a fat Cuban cigar rolled by Wallace Stevens's "muscular one." Stylistically, this is another Detroit canvas that connects to a painting hanging just down Interstate 75 in the Toledo Museum, their cubist portrait of Fernande Olivier.

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, 1932-33. In the depths of the Great Depression and before the Rockefeller Center fiasco, Diego Rivera came to Detroit and frescoed the four walls of a large interior courtyard with his most important work north of the Rio Grande. To stand in the middle of the DIA's Rivera Court and be surrounded by these enormous paintings--to stand within them, not before them--is one of the greatest aesthetic experiences the American Midwest has to offer.

Go to Detroit and see this collection while you can. You may not get another chance.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

An (in)Appropriate Response to Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass, or, The Best Way to Get Arrested in Philadelphia

Plan for a never-to-be-performed performative criticism of Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare By her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass), 1915-23:

1. If one critic has a vagina, he or she must enlist a penised collaborator--or vice versa.

2. The anatomically female critic dresses in a black Fred Astaire tux, tails and top hat (cane optional, black leather tap shoes required); the anat. male critic wears a Dale Evans cowgirl blouse, a very short tennis skirt, black stockings with garter belt, stiletto heels, and a multicolored feather boa.

3. Slowly and arm-in-arm, both critics walk backwards up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, pausing only to hurl choice Norwegian profanities at running Rocky imitators.

4. Walking side-by-side and in step, the critics proceed to the gallery where Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass (hereinafter TBSBBHBE(LG)) is displayed.

5. The critics position themselves on opposite sides of the artwork (which is, after all, a large window) and stand facing each other through TBSBBHBE(LG). They stand motionless and stare at each other for two minutes and thirty-four seconds.

6. After two minutes and thirty-five seconds, the anat. female critic says, "Every woman walking her dog will vomit semen along the clothesline lined with the soiled handkerchiefs of masturbating kangaroos."

7. The anat. male critic immediately replies, "And she will have a hot ass." He then flips up his skirt and moons the ceiling-mounted security camera.

8. At exactly three minutes, both critics rush simultaneously toward TBSBBHBE(LG) and, to the accompaniment of shrieking museum alarms and iphone-wielding visitors, they press their bodies against TBSBBHBE(LG), attempting to kiss and caress each other through the glass.

9. The anat. female critic unzips, quotes Cleavon Little, "Excuse me while I whip this out," and whips out a pale plastic dildo harnessed to her crotch. She presses the dildo against TBSBBHBE(LG) while the anat. male critic raises his skirt and attempts to hump the dildo through the glass while imitating the overwrought coital cries of hardcore pornstars.

10. Both critics will be wrestled to the ground by museum security.

11. Both critics will bring plenty of bail money, for neither critic will relish the prospect of doing Philly jail time in these costumes.

(Hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: Since the actual performance of this criticism might damage an irreplaceable work of art, steps 8-11 must remain a work of language, a purely conceptual action. Performative criticism is a new and outrageous way of thinking about art, not an excuse for damaging it. Don't try this at home. And for dog's sake don't try it at the museum. You'll only get yourself tazed.)

Senator Mitch McConnell: Brought to You by the Undead...

Mitch McConnell: elected by Kentuckians, paid by zombies.

My worst suspicions have been confirmed. Senator Mitch McConnell (R - KY) not only walks and talks like a zombie, he's funded by them too. As reported in today's USA Today:

Last week, news emerged of a possible donation by a deceased contributor in a high-profile Senate race. A super PAC aiding Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's re-election reported Wednesday that it had received a $100,000 contribution from Houston homebuilder and GOP mega-donor Bob Perry on June 3 — nearly two months after his April 13 death.

Officials with the super PAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, said a computer-software glitch inserted the wrong contribution date on its filing, and quickly submitted a new report to the FEC showing the donation had been received the day before Perry died.

The day before he died? How perfectly convenient... Wake up, sheeple! Mitch McConnell is the John the Baptist of the Zombie Apocalypse. He is a politician of, by, and for the walking dead. In other words, he's pretty much a typical Republican.