The Daily

On the Shelf

Portraits by Kitty, and Other News

June 21, 2016 | by

A 1978 photo from Kitty’s, a South African portrait studio. Courtesy the Walther Collection. Image via The New Yorker.

  • I don’t keep a diary. I prefer the raw material of anxiety, guilt, and neurosis—my “special sauce”—to remain entirely unprocessed in my brain. But for those who diarize with reckless abandon, there emerges a question of audience, as Elisa Segrave writes: “Compulsive diarists are ambivalent: we want to be private but we want our thoughts to be appreciated. When Jean Lucey Pratt, some of whose diaries have been published as A Notable Woman, began her first in 1926, aged sixteen, she wrote: ‘This document is private.’ But as her life unfolded and she realized that her career as an author was not going to take off, she started to treat her diaries more seriously. On Christmas Day 1934, she wrote: ‘7 p.m. A diarist must do what other writers may not … His purpose is special and peculiar. He has to capture and crystallize moments on the wing so that future generations will say as they turn the glittering pages, ‘This was the present then. This was true.’ ”
  • Charlotte Brontë and Thackeray met once for a tremendously awkward dinner, and in the 165 years since, people have clucked at the severe dress she wore to the encounter: plain blue and white, buttoned up to the neck. (Her contemporaries would’ve gone in for something more low-cut—in silk, maybe, or velvet or lace.) New analysis suggests that Brontë had better fashion sense than history has credited her for—but the dinner itself was still nothing to write home about. “The dinner, with other literary and artistic guests invited to meet the best-selling author, was an abject failure. Conversation faltered, and [Thackeray] later recalled her shocked look as he reached for another potato. One guest recalled it as ‘one of the dullest evenings she ever spent in her life’ … One guest, desperate to break the silence, asked Brontë if she was enjoying London. After a long silence, she finally replied: ‘Yes; and no.’ ”
  • Luke Mogelson teases out that nauseous link between journalism and Schadenfreude: “I do my best to observe things firsthand … This approach, despite its obvious journalistic advantages (you’re less likely to get stuff wrong), can frequently put you in awkward positions. You can find yourself, for instance, visiting a river every morning hoping to find a murder victim. Most foreign correspondents I know would probably object to my use of that word, hoping. They would probably say that we don’t want bad things to happen; we just want to witness them if they do. It’s a legitimate distinction, but one that, in the field, can feel semantic. In the field, we are actively, aggressively seeking to see with our own eyes the reality of war, famine, disaster—and who isn’t at least somewhat gratified when he discovers what he’s sought, at least somewhat disappointed when he doesn’t?”
  • I see you’re smiling, Internet user—you’re probably pretty jazzed about that new form of creative expression you’ve found! But I’m here to tell you that it’s doomed to commodification. Witness the death of the emoji and the GIF: “When emojis and GIFs are filtered through the interests of tech companies, they often become slickly automated … Buying into these features means giving tech companies the power to shape our creative expressions in ways that further enrich the companies themselves. A limited emotional range helps collect data on users’ states of mind. Twitter advertisers can now target users based on the emoji they tweet … The commodification of digital culture has engendered more explicit corporate branding, too. On Snapchat, where users embellish their selfies with emoji, crayon scribbles, and elaborate ‘lenses’ that cover their faces with virtual masks, marketers like McDonalds are seizing the opportunity to write their messages across people’s faces.”

The Color of Dirty Death, and Other News

June 20, 2016 | by

The ugliest color of them all.

  • Start your week off right: take a long, hard look at the world’s ugliest color, Pantone 448C, aka “opaque couché.” Redolent of baby shit and capable of summoning all kinds of grime in the mind’s eye, 448C is powerfully ugly: “The agency GfK Bluemoon had 1,000 smokers select the colors they found most visually repellent. Respondents overwhelmingly associated Pantone 448C with words like dirty, death, and tar. The Australian federal government initially referred to the color as ‘olive green,’ but changed their terminology to ‘drab dark brown’ after the Australian Olive Association expressed concern for the reputation of olives. After the study, Australia made Pantone 448C the predominant color on its mandatory plain packaging for tobacco products … Since 2012, smoking in Australia has, in fact, decreased.”
  • Talking with Sofiane Hadjadj, cofounder of the Algerian publishing house Editions Barzakh, at a bookseller in Algiers: “Young Algerians are eager to write, but most see it ‘as a form of therapy’, Hadjadj said (not unlike their counterparts in Europe and America). There aren’t many who can both describe their daily reality and achieve the necessary distance to transform it into narrative … Arabic literature generally is at an ‘inflection point’, according to Hadjadj. The great leftist writers of the 1960s, such as Elias Khoury and Sonallah Ibrahim, who had a strong vision of society, have been succeeded by a generation with more questions. ‘Should one write about oneself, about the world, about globalization, about jihadism?’ Hadjadj asked. ‘You need a somewhat stable vision of society to write a novel, but it is changing all the time, and we don’t understand it.’ ”
  • Francis Alÿs’s new paintings depict life in Ciudad Juárez, so to look at them is to ask that age-old question: Is art at all useful in helping us come to grips with massive acts of violence and suffering? “It might seem unlikely that an artist like Francis Alÿs would be able to engage in any meaningful way with life in Ciudad Juárez. He is known for a poetic and absurdist mentality, sending a peacock as his representative to the Venice Biennial of 2001, for example, or arranging for a troop of Household Cavalry to march through the center of London in 2004. Yet the sensitive and understated works on display here pack a powerful punch … The centerpiece of the exhibition is a striking film of Mr. Alÿs slowly kicking a flaming football through the dark night of downtown Ciudad Juárez, attracting stares from locals and scaring away stray dogs as police sirens wail in the distance. The vision is haunting, and the details picked up by the camera as it tracks his progress make reference to the city’s many problems: the sex trade, the drug trade, the ambiguous role played by the police. Perhaps the beautiful but oblique film is guilty, as Sartre put it, of reducing cruelty to the abstract. But then so do statistics.”
  • Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire are remembered for their Book of Greek Myths, from 1962—one of the most popular children’s books of all time. But they made a much less well-known book about America, too, and it’s appropriately mythic: “ ‘Virginia was once a wilderness,’ the D’Aulaires write. ‘Wild beasts lived there, and swift Indians ran through grass and swamps’ … Columbus’ story gets treated even more like a fairy tale. ‘There once was a boy / who loved the salty sea,’ it begins … Like any mythological hero, the D’Aulaires’ George Washington has powers beyond those of ordinary men. He’s stronger than other boys and rides his horse more skillfully. He can hurl a rock across the width of the river. He’s shot, but unharmed. Lincoln is also demigod-like, when they tell of how he ‘wrestled with the strongest and toughest of them all, and threw them to the ground.’ ”
  • Today in the ironies of intellectual-property law: a new suit contends that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” belongs, in fact, to us, just as the land supposedly does. But all the land in America isn’t actually in the public domain, and the song might not be, either. “[The suit] is aimed at liberating a song known to generations of schoolchildren who have raised their voices to sing about a free country belonging to one and all, sprawling ‘from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters’ … Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 in response to the Irving Berlin song ‘God Bless America,’ which he felt inadequately addressed land and wealth inequality … In 1945, he published the song with a copyright notice that was never renewed … As a result, that copyright would have expired—and the song would have entered the public domain—twenty-eight years later, in 1973.”

With Some Help from My Invisible Friends, and Other News

June 17, 2016 | by

Georgiana Houghton, Glory be to God, ca. 1868.

  • In 1871, Georgiana Houghton debuted her “spirit drawings,” a set of abstract watercolors that she made with the encouragement of her “invisible friends.” People were scared: “What she put on display was unlike anything any Western artist had made, or any member of the British public had ever seen. The watercolor drawings, a little larger than A4, were intricately detailed abstract compositions filled with sinuous spirals, frenetic dots, and sweeping lines. Yellows, greens, blues, and reds battled with each other for space on the paper. The densely layered images appeared to have no form, and no beginning or end. There was no traditional perspective to enjoy. There was no mythological subject to interpret; no moral narrative to read, and no hint of portraiture or landscape to scrutinize.”
  • It’s been a while since we thought about how worthless most literary depictions of sex are, so let’s think about that some more: “Literature about sex, no matter who has written it, is almost always terrible, and everybody knows it … In writing my own book full of sex, there was almost no one I could turn to for inspiration. There wasn’t a single book I looked to and thought, ‘What I’m trying to do is write sex like she did or like he did.’ There weren’t even movies and TV shows I felt had handled it the way I wanted to see it done. You know what movies and TV shows are really brilliant at capturing? Bad sex. They’re great at doing awkward, depressing, uncomfortable sex scenes where everyone is sort of strangled in the sheets … The other thing that movies and TV shows are good at nailing down is the kind of phonily intense sex scene in which the involved parties are grabbing fistfuls of hair and grunting and slamming each other around because their passion, their chemistry, is so overpowering it can’t be softened by courtesy, affection, or fear of causing actual physical harm.”
  • To read the medieval poem “Pearl” requires a fairly sophisticated knowledge of the New Testament. But just go ahead and read it anyway. You will still like it, as Josephine Livingstone explains: “There is something about the very strangeness of the poem that magnifies its emotional power. When we look at a Byzantine mosaic, for instance, we may not grasp the precise meaning of its images without scholarly help—but that remoteness lends such artworks the marvelousness of something just beyond our understanding. In his new translation of ‘Pearl,’ Simon Armitage, who is currently the Oxford Professor of Poetry, conveys that feeling of the almost-but-not-quite comprehensible, the feeling that can make medieval art at once eerie and wonderful.”

Designing Black Power, and Other News

June 16, 2016 | by

Larry Ratzkin’s design for Black Power.

  • Tall orders for graphic designers: in 1967, Larry Ratzkin was tasked with designing the jacket for Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s Black Power, meaning his assignment was essentially to turn a whole political movement into a book cover. And he succeeded, as Josh MacPhee writes: “The cover was simple yet profound: a white field, the center crowded—almost to exploding—with the giant words Black Power in a thick, slab-serifed type. The authors’ names and book subtitle stack above and below, in a more elegant, thin sans-serif. That’s it. No images, no frills … The cover to Black Power is surprisingly successful, such a simple treatment—almost elegant—for a text that caused massive conflict and defines the transition from the non-violent Civil Rights Movement to the much more militant Black Power Movement in the United States. The initial 1967 Random House first-edition dust jacket was created by Larry Ratzkin, a well-known graphic designer who turned out upwards of a thousand book covers … All U.S. editions of Black Power in the almost fifty years since its initial publishing … have used facsimile re-creations of Ratzkin’s original design … This has to be the most seen and trafficked cover of Ratzkin’s long career, yet it is never associated with him.”

Attack of the De-Constructivists, and Other News

June 15, 2016 | by

Rusakov Workers’ Club in Moscow by Konstantin Melnikov, 1927–28.

  • In Moscow, meanwhile, constructivist landmarks are suddenly slated for demolition as Russians struggle to decide which parts of their past are worth preserving: “ ‘They operate by ticking boxes, but you cannot judge a building in this way,’ says Marina Khrustaleva, an expert on constructivism … ‘By the 1930s, [constructivist buildings] were already rejected for being insufficiently decorative and too western,’ says Khrustaleva. During perestroika, she adds, the architecture was associated with the worst of the Soviet past … Russians’ bad memories of the 1920s, [Alexandra] Selivanova suggests, keep them from appreciating early Soviet architecture. ‘People associate this period with hunger and social experiments,’ she says. Stalinist architecture is more popular: ‘It’s festive and reminds people of the propaganda films of the 1930s and 1950s, which still make an impact today.’ ”
  • And while we’re on comedy: “Punching up and punching down are relatively new pop-political terms … So it should come as no surprise that they have become entangled with our current national panic over political correctness, which, apparently, not only has created a ‘humor crisis,’ but also is why we can’t properly fight terrorism, control immigration, or make unruly college students read Alison Bechdel and eat faux bánh mì. Western democracy itself hangs in the balance, depending on who happens to be lecturing you at the moment … The question it raises—Who has the moral authority to punch down?—is a messy one, and one rarely asked of those who appear to punch up.”

A Staggering Array of Folk Art, and Other News

June 14, 2016 | by

An elephant pull toy from 1830–80, on display now at the New-York Historical Society. Image via The New York Review of Books.

  • When I’m on the job, I use periods in my writing all the time. They’re part of the buttoned-up, G-rated approachability that makes me such an asset to office culture. But when I’m off duty, you better believe the periods are the first thing to go, am I right? As Jeff Guo has noticed, “The period is no longer how we finish our sentences. In texts and online chats, it has been replaced by the simple line break … The modern line break is like the medieval punctus—an all-purpose piece of punctuation that inserts pauses wherever we’re feeling it. And the period has gained expressive powers after it was laid off from its job marking the ends of sentences. Now it’s an icy flourish we deploy against frenemies and exes. We should celebrate these developments. Writing is becoming richer. This is an exciting time. Period.”
  • And in German-Turkish relations, grammar is playing a pivotal diplomatic role: “With impressive courage, a hip-hop band called Einshoch6 left their native Munich to keep a longstanding date on June 4 and, as one of them modestly put it, ‘set Ankara on fire’ with a concert and teach-in. Young Turkish German-learners took lessons in how to turn tongue-twisting Teutonic sounds into the verbal pyrotechnics of rap. Their trademark is combining rap vocals with classical instruments (or electronic versions of those instruments) and strong percussion … Along with their own exuberant, random ravings they have experimented with rap versions of the poetry of Goethe, and their whole output is an unlikely by-product of the intense classical-music culture of south Germany. But they send out a message that mastering compound verbs and case-endings needn’t be done with a long, studious face.”
  • Hey, kid. Wanna get into the picture business? Don’t go to Tinseltown. It’s for chumps and floozies. Get yourself a one-way ticket to Marrakesh: “Morocco shares many of the advantages that first drew filmmakers to California: year-round sunshine, diverse landscapes, great old architecture and abundant available extras. Just recently Morocco and Britain signed a treaty giving each other reciprocal tax subsidies for film and television production. And since the UK and Morocco are in the same time zone, they keep the same business hours. My fascination with film was kindled in the New York editorial offices of a literary magazine, The Paris Review. My then boss, George Plimpton, recounted over lunch one day an adventure he had had long before—one of his stunts in participatory journalism—when he shipped off to Morocco to play a Bedouin extra on the set of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.”
  • Because your year in the arts isn’t truly complete until you’ve seen an old elephant pull toy in the same building as a roach motel, visit the New-York Historical Society, where a new exhibition features folk art from the collection of Elie Nadelman: “The more than two hundred objects on display range from clipper ship figureheads (‘It was not just a sailor who carved this but an artist,’ Nadelman remarked of a ravishing gilded eagle with detachable wings) to miniature carved animals, amid a trove of carefully selected pottery, exquisitely detailed needle-cases, and an early, ingenious earthenware roach motel—the glazed, funnel-shaped opening of which traps roaches lured inside by molasses. This staggering array of material is complemented by a dozen or so of Nadelman’s wondrous figurative sculptures, fashioned in weathered cherry or mahogany and often given an overlay of seemingly aging paint.”
  • In writing a book about indentured servitude in British Guiana, Gaiutra Bahadur faced a major research dilemma: no firsthand accounts existed by women. “Since indentured women were, for the most part, illiterate, they didn’t leave behind written traces of themselves. Just as there isn’t a single existing narrative from a woman or girl who survived the Middle Passage, the rare first-person accounts of indenture—there are three—are all by men. The stealing of the voices of indentured women, born into the wrong class, race and gender to write themselves into history, was structural. How could I write about women whose very existence the official sources barely acknowledged? To enter their unknown and to some extent unknowable history, I had to turn to alternative, unofficial sources. I looked for clues in visual traces and the oral tradition: folk songs, oral histories, photographs and colonial-era postcards, even a traditional tattoo on the forearms of elderly Indo-Caribbean women.”