The Daily

On the Shelf

The Origins of Kitsch, and Other News

July 14, 2014 | by

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Rosso Fiorentino, Madonna and Child with Four Saints (Spedalingo Altarpiece), 1518; image via the Nation.

  • Bill Gates’s favorite business book is 1969’s Business Adventures, “twelve classic tales from the worlds of Wall Street and the modern American corporation,” and “it’s easy to see why. Brooks, who wrote for [The New Yorker] for more than thirty years, approached business in an unusual way. He had an eye for the technical details that mattered to insiders, but the sensibility of a broad-minded cultural critic.”
  • “If you visit Florence this summer, you may find that ducking into the Palazzo Strozzi to see the remarkable exhibition ‘Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Diverging Paths of Mannerism’ (through July 20) is a great way to dodge the tourist crowds that choke the city’s streets. The works by these two Tuscans, who have good claim to being considered the originators of Mannerism, are as fascinating and problematic as ever. But chances are, if you’re inclined to look at them to discover affinities with art’s future, it’s not Matisse, German Expressionism, or Giacometti you’ll think of first. At least I didn’t—what I saw, for better or worse, was a postmodern Mannerism: the invention of bad taste or, as Clement Greenberg used to call it, kitsch.”
  • Talking to Jamie Keenan, a jacket designer: “Turd Theory (one of The Twenty Irrefutable Theories of Cover Design, written by myself and Jon Gray) works on the idea that in a scary world of disorder and chaos people are programmed to seek out repetition and order. So even the worst cover in the world, repeated twenty times in different colors of the rainbow, will get you an award or two.”
  • Some of literature’s greatest opening sentences—now in punch-card form.
  • Michael Oakeshott was one of the most original philosophers of the twentieth century, but also, his notebooks reveal, one of the strangest: “His response to the modern world was to cultivate an Epicurean gaiety and independence. (He rebuffed politely an approach by Margaret Thatcher, who had it in mind to recommend him as a Companion of Honour.) It was a style of life that combined seemingly antagonistic attitudes: a highly developed aesthetic sensitivity with a tolerance of everyday routine (he was punctilious when acting as chair of his LSE department); a capacity for intense romantic engagement with deep detachment.”

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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Boyhood, Blockbusters, Bay Area Ceramists

July 11, 2014 | by

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A publicity shot from Edge of Tomorrow.

Left Coast/Third Coast”: it’s the name of an exhibition up at George Adams Gallery through the middle of next month, and a brilliantly concise epithet for those other places where art gets made. They refer, of course, to the West Coast and to Chicago, and the show focuses on artists whose careers were begun in the Bay Area and in the Windy City in the fifties and sixties. It’s not every day you get to see so many of these artists in one place. Among them are Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson (part of the Hairy Who), Robert Arneson (a wonderfully profane Bay Area ceramist), and Jeremy Anderson (a West Coast sculptor who frequently worked with wood). H. C. Westermann’s work is also here, and it’s always a treat to see his sculptures and drawings in person. These are artists who not only returned to figuration when Abstract Expressionism was at its most monumental, but they did it in what were then considered remote corners of the country for art making. —Nicole Rudick

Go see Edge of Tomorrow, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi romp, and walk out about fifteen minutes before its rah-rah conclusion. What you’ll be left with—as three of us learned yesterday in an impromptu TPR Night at the Movies™—is a grim but heartening existential parable. If you’ve seen the ads, you know that Edge runs with a premise similar to Groundhog Day’s: Cruise plays an infantryman who comes back to life whenever he’s killed. Instead of awaking in sleepy Punxsutawney, he comes to in a militarized, bureaucratized hell, i.e., the future. He’s always hours away from facing a massive extraterrestrial invasion, and he’s always tasked (not unpleasantly) with seeking the counsel of Emily Blunt, who is always crouched in the same sweaty, imperious yoga pose. Cruise’s condition gives him a chance to defeat the aliens, but it also gives us a chance to watch him die, a lot, in an elaborate montage that’s as compelling as anything at the movies now. Step by painstaking step, he has to repeat an intricate performance on which the fate of humanity is staked. If you’re willing to dwell on the sequence, it can take you to some surprising places, some rarefied and some not: I thought of syllogisms, Sisyphus, The Trial, first-person shooters, cheat codes, mid-period Paul Verhoeven, D-Day, Dance Dance Revolution, Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, those team-building, problem-solving exercises I had to do in elementary school, and how neat it would be to save the planet with Emily Blunt. These ruminations may not bear fruit, but that’s okay—Edge is still a more enlightened mental vacation than it ought to be. —Dan Piepenbring

In trying to come up with recommendations for these posts, I sometimes think of Montaigne, who, despite serving as a legal counselor for most of his professional life, did not like giving advice: “I am very seldom consulted, and even more seldom heeded; and I know of no undertaking, public or private, that my advice has advanced and improved. Even those who, by chance, have come to depend on it, have in the end preferred to be guided by any other brain than mine.” He was a bit of a lone wolf, continuing, “By leaving me alone, they follow my declared wish, which is to be wholly self-reliant and self-contained. It pleases me not to be interested in the affairs of others, and to be free from responsibility for them.” This sentiment may have had something to do with the extreme social isolation in which Montaigne was raised; it was part of his father’s strict pedagogical curriculum, which would put today’s pre-Ivy prep Montessori schools to shame. (Montaigne’s first language—in sixteenth-century France—was Latin. Every morning the child was awakened by soft music. As a baby, he was sent to live with a peasant family for three years so he would not become accustomed to great wealth.) Montaigne later returned to this isolation, retreating to his tower-library in Dordogne when he retired. He considered the opinions of others “flies and specks that distract my will,” and so, at risk of being one of those specks, I recommend the vast, insight-laden Essays of this thoroughly, idiosyncratically educated man. They’re always worth another look. —Chantal McStay

Nearly a decade elapsed between each of Richard Linklater’s three Before Sunrise films, and like that trilogy, his latest, Boyhood, follows a pattern of real time, grounding us in fixed points throughout its character’s lives. Boyhood was filmed over twelve years, which allows its actors to age onscreen. It has an authenticity that’s too rare in cinema—its pinches of dialogue sound like natural exchanges, rooting the audience into a narrative that mirrors the adolescent experience with a painstaking awareness. Linklater recently voiced his intent in The New Yorker: “I always had that personality—I think it’s a writer’s sensibility—where you’re there but not there … I had to make a peace with myself. It’s like, well, you’re not in the moment. But just by contemplating it, by searching for the depth of the moment, that is itself an experience.” —Yasmin Roshanian

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Video & Multimedia

Solitary and Authentic Deep Readers

July 11, 2014 | by

In his Art of Criticism interview from our Spring 1991 issue, Harold Bloom tells of a kind of literary conversion experience:

I was preadolescent, ten or eleven years old. I still remember the extraordinary delight, the extraordinary force that Crane and Blake brought to me—in particular Blake’s rhetoric in the longer poems—though I had no notion what they were about. I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems of Hart Crane in the Bronx Library. I still remember when I lit upon the page with the extraordinary trope, “O Thou steeled Cognizance whose leap commits / The agile precincts of the lark’s return.” I was just swept away by it, by the Marlovian rhetoric. I still have the flavor of that book in me. Indeed it’s the first book I ever owned. I begged my oldest sister to give it to me, and I still have the old black and gold edition she gave me for my birthday back in 1942. It’s up on the third floor. Why is it you can have that extraordinary experience (preadolescent in my case, as in so many other cases) of falling violently in love with great poetry … where you are moved by its power before you comprehend it? In some, a version of the poetical character is incarnated and in some like myself the answering voice is from the beginning that of the critic.

A few years later, in 2000, Bloom appeared on C-Span’s Booknotes in support of How to Read and Why. In the excerpt above, the host, Brian Lamb, gets him on the subject of teaching; and Bloom, who’s been a member of the Yale faculty since 1955, becomes visibly moved as he vacillates on the degree of isolation he feels:

Do I feel isolated in America? Yeah, I guess in a way I do. It does seem to me … I’m a somewhat outspoken old monster. You know, why not, at my age—what can they do to me? One wants to tell the truth. And I think the truth is pretty dreadful nowadays, culturally speaking and intellectually speaking … I guess I can feel kind of isolated. Isolated, maybe, in the profession. Isolated in terms of the media … But not isolated with the reading public … Clearly there are a vast number of what I would call solitary and authentic deep readers in the United States who have not gone the way of counterculture, and they are of all ages, and all races, and all ethnic groups.

And toward the end of the segment, as he blinks tears out of his eyes:

Here I am about to turn seventy and maybe I am obsolete, but that’s just personal inadequacy … What I hope to represent, what I try to represent, that cannot be obsolete. If that is obsolete, then we will go down. But I’m being too emotional. I’m sorry.

Bloom is eighty-four today, and still teaching. Happily his work is no closer to obsolescence than it was fourteen years ago.

The entire episode of Booknotes is available here.

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First Person

Waiting for the Siren

July 11, 2014 | by

A letter from Jerusalem.

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Photo: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, via Flickr

The rockets are back. It wasn’t two years ago they were falling over Israel. Things progress, they regress, they explode, and then you find yourself where you first began. With the rockets come all the accompanying nightmares about the endlessness of this war. We mutter darkly about escalation, look at pictures of the brutal deaths in Gaza. This is what comes when the rockets fall again. But the truth is, I missed them.

In Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, when the rocket siren goes off—a rising and falling pitch, kind of thin, actually—you have a recommended ninety seconds to find shelter. I use a method I’ve written about before to keep track of time: I sing Ghostface Killah’s “Run” to myself, as I run around the apartment looking for my boots. You’re supposed to go to a shelter or a safe room, if your building has one. If it doesn’t, as mine does not, you go to the stairwell, because it’s a reinforced area without much glass. Then you wait, nodding politely to four or so of your neighbors, whose names you still don’t know; smiling sympathetically at their children, who are posting fallout selfies.

The siren stops and you hear the booms of the rockets being detonated midflight by the Israeli defense system—the Iron Dome, love of my life—or hitting open areas that the anonymous geniuses manning the Iron Dome have determined to be okay to hit. They say to wait ten minutes, but nobody does. A few minutes after the booms, you all go back to your apartments, or step outside to catch a glimpse of the wispy, white puffs—all that remains of the rockets. Read More »

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On the Shelf

What Silence Looks Like, and Other News

July 11, 2014 | by

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From 1916’s The Good Bad Man; image via The Atlantic.

  • Allan Ahlberg, a British author who’s written more than 150 children’s books, declined a lifetime-achievement award (and a nice cash prize) because Amazon sponsors it.
  • In the silent-film era, a movie’s typeface was a crucial part of its identity. Now, a type designer in Minneapolis has tried to re-create the font from The Good Bad Man, a Douglas Fairbanks vehicle from 1916. “In 1916 the titles would have been painted or drawn on a smooth surface and then photographed with the motion-picture camera. There were no optical printers in those days, so the titles would literally have been shot by someone hand cranking a motion-picture camera.”
  • In Athens, the Caryatid statues (five maidens “among the great divas of ancient Greece”) have emerged from a three-year cleaning with “their original ivory glow.”
  • “Movies, if they’re very good, aren’t a conversation; they’re an exaltation, a shuddering of one’s being, something deeply personal yet awesomely vast. That’s what criticism exists to capture. And it’s exactly what’s hard to talk about, what’s embarrassingly rhapsodic, what runs the risk of seeming odd, pretentious, or gaseous at a time of exacting intellectual discourse.”
  • A friendly reminder: your brain is on the brink of chaos.

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World Cup 2014

Let’s Get Metaphysical

July 10, 2014 | by

Argentina vs. the Netherlands, 1978: Mario Kempes of Argentina celebrates a goal.

Argentina and the Netherlands played yesterday’s second semifinal. That’s as much as should be said about the match, which forced us to appreciate what this World Cup has been, while remembering what it could have been. Throughout 120 minutes of football, there was first, last, and above all an air of safety that had been refreshingly absent from most of the games thus far—and with that absence came gifts of goals and good play. But yesterday, there was so much at stake: safe passage to a World Cup final. Since both teams are middling, professional, and graced by the presence of once-in-a-lifetime, left-footed talents, they took no risks—no playing the ball patiently through the midfield, no attempts at a tactical surprise. It was a game of chicken, and a penalty kick shoot-out was the inevitable collision.

Or: Argentina and the Netherlands played yesterday’s second semifinal. That’s as much as should be said about the match, which forced us to rue what this World Cup could have been, and to remember it exactly as it was. Throughout 120 minutes of football, there was an air of danger in every movement that put to the sword the careless attacking and defending we’ve seen in all the games thus far—we’ve suffered own gifted goals and poor play for it. But yesterday, there was so much at stake: safe passage to a World Cup final. Since both teams are fairly stout and battle-tested—graced by the presence of not only once-in-a-lifetime, left-footed talents, but a host of other complimentary stars—they went forward intelligently instead of rashly. They avoided over-elaborating in the middle of the pitch and followed their tactical plans to the letter. It was as though the game was played in a labyrinth, and a penalty kick shoot-out was the inevitable way out.

Football games between sides with history between them seem to exist in a multiverse—everything that has happened between them happens here simultaneously. All outcomes exist at once. Hence, Argentina versus the Netherlands in the São Paulo of 2014 is Argentina versus the Netherlands in the Marseille of 1998 is Argentina versus the Netherlands in the Buenos Aires of 1978. The weight of history is in the thickness of the air: young men run into each other with the anxiety and ache of memories that are not theirs, and the colors of their shirts become portals. No competition is barnacled by its past like a World Cup. Two sides significantly better than Brazil—but neither of which had ever defeated Brazil—capitulated in the round of sixteen and in the quarterfinals, more to the canary-yellow shirts than to the players who wore them. (We know what happened afterward.) Read More »

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