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 »

The Blue-shirts

September 29, 2015 | by

Xi Jinping at the China Victory Day Parade in Beijing earlier this month. Photo via Jalopnik

China’s president Xi Jinping has just left the U.S. after his first state visit, though you’d hardly know it to read the papers; his stay was overshadowed by a certain pontiff. Americans, if they know Xi at all, have likely seen a certain image of him from earlier this month in Beijing: he’s standing in a sleek open-roofed black car, riding past a huge crowd of people waving tiny Chinese flags. He looks almost sheepish, or bored, or, more likely, hot. The weather that day pushed ninety degrees, and Xi is wearing a high-collared black jacket that toes the line between a traditional Chinese tangzhuang and a Western-style suit.

The occasion was a massive military parade (perhaps better translated as a showing of the troops) in Beijing, in early September, which marked the seventieth anniversary of the Chinese defeat of invading Japanese forces, known in the West as the end of the WWII and here as the “Anti-Japanese War.” There were two main articles about the parade in the English-language China Daily at the time, one about the “beautiful lady” troops (with a special photo spread of smiling young women in uniform) and one a feature on a pair of older generals who had lost more than ten kilograms each in their effort to get into fighting shape for the parade.

The Chinese coverage was more along these lines: “On the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the victory, we commemorate the heroic and indomitable Chinese people, fighting bloody battles and making tremendous sacrifices, defeating ferocious Japanese invaders and safeguarding China’s independence and national pride.” (That’s from the People’s Daily.) Read More »

New Myths

September 25, 2015 | by

Sir Harrison Birtwistle and David Harsent’s operas breathe life into old stories with new perspectives.

Elizabeth Atherton and Mark Padmore in The Corridor at Aldeburgh Festival. © Aldeburgh Music. Photo by Clive Barda

Opera can sometimes be a gory feast: Strauss’s Salome kisses a severed head before being slain by Herod’s soldiers, Britten’s Peter Grimes drowns at sea after being chased by an angry mob, Tippett’s King Priam is murdered after his entire family has either abandoned him or perished, while Puccini’s Tosca leaps to her doom after her lover is shot by a firing squad. All that violence is usually the bloody result of a quest for love and liberty. Indeed, as Sir Harrison Birtwistle and David Harsent’s latest chamber opera, The Cure, demonstrates, the moments we think will be our happiest often turn into our most tragic.

In The Cure, Jason and Medea have returned to Iolcos with the golden fleece so that Jason can finally reclaim his throne. But Jason’s father, Aeson, is on the verge of dying, and so Jason asks Medea the witch for yet another favor—as though killing her own brother to help Jason escape from Colchis hadn’t been enough. “I will give you children,” he says, “Give Aeson back his youth.” Not because Jason loves his father, but because he wants the old man to celebrate his triumph and “sing and dance with us.” It doesn’t get more egotistical than that. Nobody asks the old king whether he wants to drink from the fountain of youth; they simply force it down his throat: Read More »

The Disasterpiece

September 17, 2015 | by

The saga of Scary Lucy.


Illustration by Ellis Rosen.

In a no-frills park in Celoron, New York, where Lucille Ball grew up, there stands a four-hundred-pound bronze statue with a puss that’s been likened to Darth Vader, the demonic doll Chuckie, and Kim Hunter in her Planet of the Apes makeup. Scary Lucy, as the figure has been dubbed, bears no great resemblance to the comedienne who once hooked America with hennaed poodle bangs and balletic slapstick.

In early April 2015, some six years after Scary Lucy was installed, the local paper ran a story about the village seeking funds to improve or otherwise replace the statue. The A.V. Club picked up the development the next day, and nationwide coverage followed, from the New York Times (“NY Village Wants to Give Its Lucille Ball Statue a Makeover”) to Gawker (“Drunk, Leering Lucille Ball Statue Menaces Small Village”) to NPR (“In New York, A Sculptor’s Got Some S’plaining To Do”).

It was funny. But it was more than that. The black magic of statuary is in how the fact, myth, and memory associated with its flesh-and-blood celebrity can get canned inside it. Spark that with controversy, and presto: Lucille Ball’s Bronze Age. Read More »

An Inglorious Slop-pail of a Play

September 8, 2015 | by

Alfred Jarry, cruising.

When the French playwright Alfred Jarry—born on this day in 1873—was fifteen, he enjoyed lampooning his physics teacher, a plump, inept man who so amused his students that he became the subject of Jarry’s first attempt at drama, Les Polonais, staged with marionettes when he was still in short pants. Père Heb, as the physics teacher was called in it, had a prominent gut, a retractable ear, and three teeth (stone, iron, and wood). These features by themselves make him a distinctive figure in the history of French drama. But years later, Jarry revived Heb—as all responsible playwrights do with their juvenilia—making him somehow even more ridiculous, even more obese, and putting him at the center of Ubu Roi, a play so contentious that its premiere, in December 1896, was also its closing night. It lives in the annals of drama because it offended almost everyone who saw it. In this, it prefigured modernism, surrealism, Dadaism, and the theater of the absurd. Read More »

Cheddar, Cheever, and the Burbs

September 1, 2015 | by

An illustration from Muriel Stanek’s How People Live in the Suburbs, 1970.

Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.

The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.

Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:

The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.

This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me. Read More »