The Daily

Arts & Culture

The Lonely Art

October 5, 2015 | by

Robert Seydel’s visionary, genre-defying art and writing.

“The King” by Robert Seydel, n.d. © the Estate of Robert Seydel

Untitled by Robert Seydel, n.d. © the Estate of Robert Seydel

How are we to regard the artist who writes or the writer who makes art? There’s a venerable lineage of creative figures working both sides of the street: think of the poems of Marsden Hartley, the photographs of Eudora Welty, the collages of John Ashbery, among others. In almost all such cases, a hierarchy effortlessly falls into place; what’s primary and what’s ancillary are self-evident. Would we be much drawn to look at the watercolors of Elizabeth Bishop if we did not know her first as the poet who wrote “Roosters” and “One Art”? True aesthetic ambidexterity seems vanishingly rare, particularly among top-tier figures: a great artist’s side projects invariably seem secondary and marginal.

The work of the genuinely hybrid artist Robert Seydel (1960–2011) chips away at our biases about one art form always taking precedence over another. Read More »

On the Shelf

Humean, All Too Humean, and Other News

October 5, 2015 | by

The Camera Restricta encourages you to get a life.

  • If you were conducting a kind of Hemingway Grand Tour, traveling the world in search of all things Papa, I’d tell you to get a better hobby—but if you insisted, I would tell you to make sure you visit northern Michigan, the site of Hemingway’s sometimes neglected formative years. “Havana, Key West, Ketchum, Paris, Pamplona—these locales tend to conjure vintage Papa: a kerchiefed, bloated, rum-drunk Nobel laureate. Petoskey? Not so much. The gatekeepers of Hemingway’s legend have largely ignored the place … But if you want to understand the writer, you have to start here. Michigan-era Hemingway is threshold Hemingway—young and raw, before the fame and subcutaneous padding and sixteen-daiquiri lunches. It’s where he experimented in delinquency, learned to cast a fly rod, stepped unmoored into the wilderness and first tinkered with a prose style that would one day make him famous.”
  • In times of internal strife and quandary, it’s seldom a good idea to turn to the precepts of dead white men. But during her midlife crisis, Alison Gopnik found solace in the ideas of David Hume, which remain progressive even today: for Hume, “the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or ‘reality’ or even ‘I’? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact … Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.”
  • From the renowned creators of camera obscura and camera lucida, it’s Camera Restricta, which “will force you to actually spend time admiring a picturesque landscape rather than worrying about composing the best shot.” Basically, it’s a camera that can tell if other people have already photographed the thing you’re trying to photograph, thus saving you a lot of time and preventing any kind of White Noise–esque Most Photographed Barn in America phenomenon.
  • On Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound, an Indonesian novel now available in English, which is playful and agreeably profane even as it tackles the darkest chapters of its nation’s history, such as 1965’s anti-communist purge: “The narrator’s voice ranges from merciless and brusque to tender and doleful. One of the men is terrorized by the ghosts of slaughtered Communists, who make him ‘think that he was making love to his wife’ when, in fact, ‘he was fucking the toilet hole.’ Scenes of brutality—of rape, incest, bestiality—are undercut by macabre humor. Dewi Ayu’s eldest daughter, Alamanda, is in love with Kliwon, her childhood sweetheart, but she is forced to marry the Japanese soldier Shodancho, twenty years her senior, who drugs and rapes her. Alamanda buys an impenetrable ‘anti-terror garment’ that transforms her underwear into a literal iron fortress.”
  • Most of us have accepted that this “Internet” isn’t just a passing trend; it’s time, then, to put some serious thought into how to curb the trolls, whose power is on the rise. “With enough effort, expertise, and good faith, a comments section can showcase the worthwhile, efface the worthless, and downrank the dubious. But in mass media and mega-platforms—where most of the action is—comments sections are all too often cybercesspools of trashing and trolling, obsessive annotators, and regressive instigators … The original sin of Internet culture was the exploitation of user-generated content to enrich a lucky few at the top of dominant platforms. Spreading that wealth … would be a good first step toward taming trolls and shaming sock-puppeteers.”

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Sinister Clowns, Ferocious Beasts, Pigs

October 2, 2015 | by

Walton Ford, Gleipnir, 2012, watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil on paper, 69" x 120".

My favorite chapter in Valeria Luiselli’s wonderful, unusual new novel, The Story of My Teeth, is “The Parabolics,” in which the book’s protagonist, Highway, wakes to discover that all his teeth are missing and that he is in the midst of the supremely creepy Ugo Rondinone video installation Where Do We Go from Here; that is, he finds himself confronted on four sides by a quartet of lethargic, staring, “sinister” clowns, “a hell worse than the one that had installed itself inside my mouth.” A disembodied, rather unkind voice relates a series of parables to Highway throughout the chapter, so it seemed safe to assume that the chapter title referred to these. But Highway doesn’t understand any of the stories, and in fact his thoughts seem to circle around the idea expressed by Rondinone’s title. “Where am I supposed to go?” he queries the voice. “Parabolics” might also refer to “parabolas,” a series of curves—or perhaps (attempted) leaps over “the schism between the perception you have yourself and the perception other people have of you.” Maybe I’m taking a leap myself. But: “I’ve always thought that hell is the people you could one day become,” Highway thinks. “And there I was, toothless, lying on a bench in front of videotaped projections of enormous buffoons, dozing … being mistaking for one of them.” —Nicole Rudick

A recent piece in the Times on Walton Ford made me remember: I really enjoy the work of Walton Ford. His paintings, which I first saw at the Brooklyn Museum in 2006, depict ferocious animals doing ferocious things, ferociously; they’re set in a welter of copulation and violence at the edge of human society, and in a lot of them, nineteenth-century aristocrats are on hunting trips gone seriously awry. I’m envious of anyone in Paris who gets to see his fifteen new works at the Musée de la Chasse, a museum dedicated to hunters and animals that “essentially documents our historical fear of being eaten alive,” as Matthew Rose puts it in the Times, and thus a perfect venue for Ford’s work. In one new painting, Representation Véritable, a massive black creature based on the Beast of Gévaudan has a wolf by the jugular; in the background, two women are at rest (maybe forever?) in an idyllic meadow. Ford’s paintings are musky, unsparing allegories for colonialism, industrialism, and a host of other noxious -isms, and no one should discount their formal ingenuity—but none of it would matter if they weren’t, at their most literal level, so terrifying. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

Close Harmony

October 2, 2015 | by


By 1967, the Everly Brothers’ career was on the wane, their many hits a distant memory. Both Don and Phil Everly were addicted to amphetamines, and their relationship was (perhaps not incidentally) fraying. Although some of their later work is great—Roots is really beautiful—their glory days were decisively behind them, and it showed. Take “Bowling Green”—written by their bassist, it was their last song to chart for seventeen years. There are hints of desperation about the generic, sixties-style studio production, with its nods to the ethereal trends of the moment. The lyrics are kind of silly. Read More »

Prison Lit

Sick Souls

October 2, 2015 | by

On the long line of conversion literature from imprisoned writers.

Eldridge Cleaver in the pants he developed.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the first entry, on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from a Dead House, here.

In one of his later theological tracts, the sixteenth-century Nonconformist preacher John Bunyan interpreted a few lines from 2 Timothy—“I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand”—as a kind of challenge. “Here we see,” he wrote, “that a Christian’s heart should be unclenched from this world; for he that is ready to be made a sacrifice for Christ and his blessed Word, he must be one that is not entangled with the affairs of this life: how else can he please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier?”

Modern Biblical scholars suspect that Paul didn’t write most of 2 Timothy at all (it was likely composed by the apostle’s acolytes some time after his execution), but Bunyan could just as easily have extracted the same lesson from any number of lines in the letter Paul wrote to the young church in Philippi during one of his several imprisonments by the Roman government. “My desire,” Paul confesses frankly early in the epistle, “is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Some verses later, he heaps scorn on the respected Pharisee he’d been earlier in life. On the road to Damascus decades earlier, he’d survived a violent conversion experience: Read More »

On the Shelf

Bring Home a Little Piece of Obscenity, and Other News

October 2, 2015 | by

Detail from Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait, 1983.

  • If you’ve got an extra $250k–$350k lying around, you could own a part of obscenity history—a print of Robert Mapplethorpe’s electrifying photograph Man in Polyester Suit is up for auction. That’s the one, you’ll recall, that features “a tightly cropped picture of the torso of a black man wearing a three-piece suit, with his large penis hanging out, like a Montgomery Ward catalog hacked by Tom of Finland, with an assist from Duchamp and Groucho Marx.” Twenty-five years ago, Mapplethorpe’s photography unleashed a righteous fury; Jesse Helms and other congressional fuddy-duddies called it obscene and wrote a bunch of angry letters to people. To own Man in Polyester Suit is to give the middle finger to such types, always and forever. I’m sorry I can’t afford it myself. But if someone were to wish to buy it for me as a gift …
  • Elizabeth Bishop met Clarice Lispector in 1962, and immediately set about trying to help the Brazilian writer to break out in America. But there was some kind of a hiccup, and things between them cooled: “It is notably odd that Lispector was not more interested in Bishop’s offer to foster relationships with American publishers; she had struggled to get the elite presses of Brazil to take on her books and would struggle to make money after separating from her husband … Bishop personally negotiated the relationships and letters of interests with these editors, but it seems that she never realized or acknowledged that the power she wielded, often with an air of superiority, was precisely what was offensive … The last time Bishop writes about Lispector to Lowell, she says, ‘She’s hopeless, really.’ ”
  • Whither e-reading? A few years ago, e-books were poised to take over the world—but reading on a screen has failed to live up to its promise, and e-books are just … kind of boring, especially on the much-vaunted Kindle. “Amazon has built seamless, efficient plumbing for digital books. But after a book has made its way through the plumbing and onto the devices, the once-fresh experience now feels neglected … I’ve found that it’s much more effortless to dip back into my physical library—for inspiration or reference—than my digital library. The books are there. They’re obvious. They welcome me back.”
  • If Nietzsche gave a commencement speech—I know, thank God he’s dead, and won’t—he might draw from a part of his Untimely Meditations, devoted to Schopenhauer as an educator, but littered with weird nuggets of quasi-self-help: “There is no drearier, sorrier creature in nature than the man who has evaded his own genius and who squints now towards the right, now towards the left, now backwards, now in any direction whatever … No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”
  • In John Keene’s collection Counternarratives, “every available form of literary irony—every possible way of forcing stubborn words to mean more than they pretend—­seems to be working at once.” Keene (“black, gay, raised in St. Louis, enamored with language, tormented by it”) is intent on using silence and absence in his fiction; his stories are full of missing texts. “This time, they are the reader’s assumptions and expectations, the dominant narratives—historical and political as well as strictly literary—with which we conjure the world and reproduce it, exclusions and erasures intact.”