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Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

Timbuktu’s Massive Book Heist, and Other News

April 25, 2016 | by

Abdel Kader Haidara in Timbuktu, 2009. Photo: Brent Stirton/National Geographic

  • Today in censored statues: in Italy, the fashionable thing to do with one’s nude statues is not to display them but to conceal them with some plywood or maybe a heavy drop-cloth or whatever else you’ve got lying around. The Capitoline Venus, which resides in the hall of the Capitoline Museums, in Rome, was boxed up last month to preserve the delicate sensibilities of the visiting Iranian president, but really this sort of thing happens all the time: “True, some discussions were had. According to one journalist, questions were raised about the conspicuous testicles of Marcus Aurelius’s horse in the equestrian statue which also graces the hall … This kind of artistic censorship is remarkably common in Italy, to the point of being frequently unreported. As journalist Giovanna Vitale has pointed out, for instance, it had been only five months since a nude by Jeff Koons in a Florentine palace included in the itinerary of sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed al Nahyan was concealed … And—in case you think it’s only heads of state of the Muslim faith who are reserved this peculiar treatment—it was eight months since posters of a Tamara de Lempicka exhibition in Turin ... were covered to save the Pope from certain emotional trauma.”
  • A few months ago, I used this space to hawk Saul Bellow’s ten-thousand-dollar desk, which was not, at the time, a hot seller. But things have changed. That desk is gone. As Bellow’s son Daniel explained to Atlas Obscura: “All of a sudden, everyone from famous journalists to doctors from the Mayo Clinic contacted him about purchasing his father’s desk … In the end, though, Bellow’s desk was sold to his son’s niece, who matched the top bid at the auction, and kept the desk in the family … The desk will be put in his niece’s new home in Hudson, New York. As for the money from the auction, Daniel says he is going to use it to build a kiln chimney in his new pottery studio.”
  • Faced with an al-Qaida invasion, librarians in Timbuktu oversaw a massive smuggling operation in which some 300,000 rare books and manuscripts were secreted away to safety: “The first thing we’re going to do is get them out of these big libraries. We’re going to take trunks. We’re going to pack them into trunks at night when the rebels are asleep, and then we’re going to move them in the dead of night by mule cart to these various houses—safe houses scattered around the city. And hopefully they’ll be safe for the duration of this occupation … They’re in about a dozen climate-controlled storage rooms in Bamako, the capital of Mali.”
  • In which Meghan O’Gieblyn decides to give Updike a chance, takes Couples off the shelf, and finds … many things she expected and a few she didn’t: “There was plenty in the book that lived up to Updike’s contemporary reputation: women who think things no woman would think (‘She had wanted to bear Ken a child, to brew his excellence in her warmth’) … There are many passages in which Updike’s prodigious gifts as a prose artist are given over to the effects of gravity on women’s bodies. Nobody can write the female body in decay quite like Updike. So clinical and unrelenting is his gaze, he manages to call attention to signs of aging that even I—someone in possession of a female body—had never considered. ‘Age had touched only the softened line of her jaw and her hands,’ he writes of Piet’s wife, Angela, ‘their stringy backs and reddened fingertips’ … What intrigued me most about Couples, though, was the sense of doom that undercuts the orgy.”
  • Jonas Mekas was the first film critic for the Village Voice, and a new collection of his critical writing reveals “an artistic time capsule of New York at a moment of crucial energy”: “There’s a live-wire spontaneity to Mekas’s writing, an excitement sparked by his sense of beauty, by his sheer pleasure in cinematic imagination, and it’s connected to a soulful sense of inwardness and empathy … What energizes his discussions and exhortations is the impulse behind the films, rather than the films themselves—the lives and dreams of the artists, the harsh demands placed on filmmakers by the effort to create homemade, self-financed, independent films, made by oneself and one’s friends. These are films that repudiate openly the conventions of the commercial cinema, the norms and limits on subject matter and representation, while the filmmakers submit to a horrific range of deprivations and afflictions for the sake of their art. In effect, Mekas offers, both in and as film criticism, extraordinary and enduring sketches of downtown lives.”

Little Match Girl

April 13, 2016 | by

A nineteenth-century illustration for The Little Match Girl.

The first time I remember lying about why I was crying was in second grade. I’d burst out sobbing in the middle of social studies and, rather than admit I’d been thinking about the plot of “The Little Match Girl,” I claimed vaguely that there was some problem at home, prompting a humiliating private lunch with my teacher and a parent-teacher conference. You’d think that would have cured me.

But being upset about nothing is galling. It’s hard to explain to a stranger on the subway that no, tears are actually rolling down your cheeks because of an episode of The People v. O. J. Simpson, or a piece of music you’re not even listening to. Read More »

Here’s to Hearing the Hum, and Other News

April 11, 2016 | by

A visualization of the Hum made by Louviere+Vanessa, who broadcast audio files through a digital spectrometer then print them onto handmade Japanese kozo paper Dibond-primed with gesso, covered in gold leaf, and coated with resin. Photo via New Republic.

  • Though his criticism can be acid, and though it sometimes deploys words like gassy, Michael Hofmann isn’t “a lit-crit Johnny Fartpants,” experts say: “As he sits in an incongruously rowdy Hamburg bar, all shy eyes and nervous hands, one is reminded that he is also a poet and translator: a humble servant of words, not just their sneering judge. In smooth RP tones that belie his German parentage, he explains that none of his hatchet jobs were written out of personal animosity … ‘I have a sense of the enterprise being ecological,’ he says. ‘There is so much excessive praise and excessive interest in the books world, and it’s all too focused on too few people. If you cut things down to scale, you do something good.’ ”
  • Tinnitus is more than a condition. It’s a worldview. Or so it is if you’re among the lucky 2 percent of the population who can hear the Hum, widely reported as “a low, distant rumbling, like an idling diesel engine, mostly audible at night, mostly noticeable indoors.” Colin Dickey looked into it: “Hum sufferers have been consistently written off as either delusional or simply suffering from tinnitus … It’s important to remember that there’s so much we still don’t know about how hearing works. We know low-frequency waves can cause pain, nausea, and other deleterious effects on humans—indeed, the United States and other governments have long experimented with using sound and vibration as nonlethal weapons … Add to this the fact that since the early twentieth century we’ve been bombarding the atmosphere with all manner of frequencies and waves. Rather than dismiss Hum hearers as delusional tinnitus sufferers, the question that might be better asked is why don’t more of us hear it?”
  • There’s an argument to be made that any and all instances of the Hum are in fact to be pinned on Tony Conrad, the experimental filmmaker and drone-music progenitor, who died last week at seventy-six: “After his graduation in 1962, Mr. Conrad briefly worked as a computer programmer and immersed himself in New York’s experimental music scene. As part of Mr. Young’s ensemble, he performed seemingly improvisational pieces that involved holding notes for what might have felt like hours at a time. Some audiences found the music maddening; others were exalted. ‘It appeared as if Schoenberg had destroyed music,’ Mr. Conrad said … ‘Then it appeared as if Cage had destroyed Schoenberg. Our project was to destroy Cage.’ ”
  • For aesthetes, the mug shot provides a great reason to avoid a life of crime—it’s so unforgiving, so permanent. A new exhibition at the Met, “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play,” looks at its history: “In the 1870s, a Parisian policeman named Alphonse Bertillon pioneered the mug shot as part of his ‘anthropometric’ system of criminal identification based on minute physical measurements. For no pay, he spent his free hours examining inmates at La Santé prison, using calipers and rulers to record the length and width of prisoners’ fingers, noses, foreheads, and mouths … If one measure of a photograph’s power is the extent to which it inspires us to fill in the circumstances around it, then the mug shot of a 1930s Baltimore shoplifter is a small masterpiece of portraitist art. A woman in her late forties, with whitening blonde hair, turns slightly away from the police photographer’s camera with a mix of melancholia and trapped defiance. The flesh around her left eye is badly bruised, a messy black puddle that spills along her cheek and temple. Who slugged her—the department store security guard, the arresting cop, the shopkeeper himself, or an intimate friend? Her lips are thin and subtly crooked, her jawline is just beginning to sag. The life before (and after) the picture rushes in on you in an imagined story of filled-in time.”
  • Violette Leduc was a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir, and yet she seldom appears on syllabi—why? “A journey through Leduc’s rejections, documented in her autobiographies La bâtarde (1964) and Mad in Pursuit (1970), lay bare the insidious gatekeeping that money and masculinity exert on literary inclusion, then and now. Leduc was born poor and illegitimate; her mother is the help, her father is the heir and she, the child of their furtive union, is unwanted … De Beauvoir spent her time earning the title ‘intellectual.’ Her story is one of early erudition, acing exams, stunning philosophical acuity and a romantic (if also conveniently strategic) alliance with Sartre. In Leduc, she sees the authenticity that she theorizes, and in playing midwife to her self-exposition she seeks the vindication of her philosophy. In existentialism, we are all free to choose, exercise our radical free will; the constraints of past experience can be shaken off, truth told and freedom achieved. Leduc’s life, told in her writing, has to be evidence of the truth of this. De Beauvoir’s feminism, unleavened by any literal struggles with the whims of men, needs Leduc’s literary liberation to prove its practical application.”

Rambling Through Rio, and Other News

March 11, 2016 | by

Kurt Klagsbrunn, Dama acompanhando a corrida no Jockey Clube (detail), Rio de Janeiro, 1945. Image via Aperture/Museu de Arte do Rio

  • Today in zits: if you like to spend your free time watching grotesque pimple-popping sessions on YouTube, you’re not alone. (I may or may not have dedicated an hour to zit vids in the very recent past.) Sandra Lee, a dermatologist, has turned her science into art, posting “extraction” videos and picking up 850,000 subscribers along the way: “Sensing an untapped audience, Lee began posting more videos of things popping from the skin, and her audience gradually grew … Her online fans didn’t seem to mind the ick; in fact, many of them relished it. Some fans reported that their mouths inexplicably watered when they saw a particularly juicy pop; others claimed that they found the videos so soothing that they used them as a sleep aid. Lee began setting videos to punnily titled music, like Duke Ellington’s ‘Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me).’ ”
  • Milking the rest of it,” a new poem by Dorothea Lasky, is rich in bodily fluids, too: “Turn the faucet on / Turn the breast on / Emptied completely of milk / With the tiny hoses in a row … ”
  • The photographer Kurt Klagsbrunn captured the people of midcentury Rio as no one else could: as a stranger. Ali Pechman writes—“A Jewish Austrian refugee, he arrived in the city in 1940 and photographed its people and places until 1960, the year the government decamped for Brasília … He took no less than 100,000 photographs of his new city. The austerity of his early pictures quickly gives way to crowded street scenes with a focus on character, whether a trolley fish seller, a carnival samba dancer, or a Carioca walking her dog in Copacabana. A chic young journalist eyes the camera suspiciously as two white-coated waiters dote on her; a grisly greengrocer looks on tiredly from inside his shop … The photographer’s own off-kilter sense of humor is never out of sight.”
  • Today in critical shrugs: a critic shrugs. That critic is Barry Schwabsky, who understands the degree to which his role is in flux: “I have to admit that the critic’s loss of power doesn’t worry me much. I don’t see my job as mainly that of making or breaking artists’ reputations, or of informing collectors or curators what they ought to buy or exhibit. If they don’t listen to me, fine; I have other responsibilities toward art … If there is a crisis in art criticism, it has to do instead with an inner transformation in the nature of art itself. What if art no longer requires a public—that is, someone like the active spectator Duchamp spoke about? That would be a conundrum, for the critic would no longer have a position from which to evaluate art. It’s not impossible, and it’s not even a new idea: Back in 1966, for example, Allan Kaprow called for “the elimination of the audience”—for participation rather than a merely “empathic response.” In recent years, in great part as a result of their revulsion toward the financialization and globalization of art, more and more artists have been taking this idea seriously, avoiding the audience and instead working only with participants, with collaborators and communities.”
  • Meanwhile, in China: everyone is really into this rom-com about a mermaid. It’s called, appropriately enough, The Mermaid, and it’s just become China’s highest-earning film of all time. How, you ask? One word, my friend: environmentalism. “The Mermaid is not pure escapist entertainment. The ills it addresses—environmental pollution and rampant speculation against the backdrop of a widening income gap—are impossible-to-ignore facts of everyday experience for a Chinese audience. The film opens with a montage of documentary-style footage: sludge pouring from factory pipes, oil-smothered animals, dolphins being herded up for slaughter …  It serves a cathartic function, providing an anxious Chinese audience with an opportunity to laugh at their daily injustices, pairing an everyday violation with a larger dose of fairy tale, one in which everything will work out in the end.”

The Thunder Runs Again, and Other News

March 9, 2016 | by

The Bristol Old Vic’s thunder run. Photo courtesy Bristol Old Vic

  • Today in the gender binary: using data collected from e-book readers, a start-up called Jellybooks (inspires confidence, no?) has decreed that “men decide much faster than women if they like a story or not.” The company’s founder, Andrew Rhomberg, spoke to the Guardian: “If an author wants to hold on to a male reader, they have ‘only twenty to fifty pages to capture their attention,’ according to the research. ‘No room for rambling introductions … The author needs to get to the point quickly, build suspense or otherwise capture the male reader, or he is gone, gone, gone.” (I didn’t make it to the end of the article.)
  • On her mother’s side, Alex Mar is descended from Juan Ponce de León: yes, Mr. Fountain of Youth himself, conquistador extraordinaire, slaughterer of innocents. Mar has taken a hard look at her ancestor: “The currency of his name, I guess, has made him the only distant ancestor who warrants mention. I’ve heard him spoken of in two registers: in the Grimms’-fairy-tales voice reserved for children, a tone that says, Oh yes, it’s all true and isn’t it incredible?; and in that faux-modest way of adults, that way of deliberately sounding lighthearted about a thing that makes you proud—a thing you’re convinced gives you an edge … Most historians seem to agree that Juan Ponce de León is one of the more humane of these European settlers, treating the locals he absorbs into his enterprise more like indentured servants than slaves. But what does that mean? How thinly do we have to slice these moral distinctions to see the difference? … Do we inherit darkness, even at a few centuries’ remove?”
  • At the Guggenheim, Francine Prose looks at the work of the Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, whose mural How to Work Better you may have seen at the corner of Houston and Mott Streets in New York: “The kind of humor captured in the How to Work Better mural—simultaneously playful and sincere, mingling the banal and the profound, attentive to the contradictions, ironies, and accidental beauties of the world—pervades the Guggenheim show … The two- and three-dimensional works, videos, and films manage to be rebellious without being strident, to be witty and cerebral without ever seeming pretentious or coy, to challenge traditional notions of what art is and can do, and to comment on the society in which we live without making us feel that their principal focus is provocation or attacking our politics and social order.”
  • The Bristol Old Vic, a British theater, dates to 1766, and it has the special-effects technology to match. To summon the sound of thunder, for instance, they roll a bunch of wooden balls down a pine-pitch chute built into the rafters. This “thunder run” had been out of commission since 1942—but now it’s back: “Theater historian David Wilmore was enlisted to carry out test runs, and over three days the Bristol Old Vic technical team learned how to use the old-fashioned sound device … Most thunder runs disappeared with the advance of new technology, and other theaters used less cumbersome methods from the start, like metal thunder sheets rattled offstage. These were often joined by rain boxes, which consisted of dried peas rolling through a long structure with ledges nailed inside, and a wind machine, featuring a rotating cylinder of wooden slats covered with fabric.”
  • What if critics dropped the whole burdensome critical apparatus—the long ledes, the cool authority, the markers of taste—and told us about their dreams? Reviewing Rebekah Rutkoff’s The Irresponsible Magician, one critic sees a way of casting off the constrictions of the book review: “I dream, sometimes, that I am reading—just reading—and as I approach the lower pages of a long PDF, my computer’s battery flashes an urgent red. My more exciting dreams lead me on quests to find some precious object or escape some nefarious force. It’s the normal sort of dream-stuff, but for one crucial thing: my dreams always unfold in cavernous and deserted buildings. In my dreams I navigate endless corridors, traverse indoor gardens, and paddle through underground canals. The landscapes I dream up resemble nothing more than malls. Rundown, or even abandoned malls … Commerce snakes its way into each dream-mind’s working—snakes in, loops round fragments of sensation and assembles them as sense. It urges us—as do family, society, language, and law—toward an inner consensus.”

Debating Dracula’s Roots, and Other News

February 9, 2016 | by

Photo: Greg Willis

  • Breaking news: Bram Stoker’s great-grand-nephew has rejected a scholar’s recent claim that Dracula hailed not from Transylvania but from Exeter. “People will be surprised and sometimes shocked by my findings, as most of what they now hold true will be proven to be false,” the scholar said humbly. “It’s a bit like finding out who Father Christmas really is.” Dacre Stoker retorts: “Everyone tries to find something a little bit new or different about Dracula, even now, 118 years after it was published, which is wonderful ... But to me it is a bit of a stretch to argue that Dracula came from Exeter.”
  • Maurice White died last week, prompting Sam Lipsyte to remember “some odd family history”: “In 1975, when I was eight, a film called That’s the Way of the World was released in America. Harvey Keitel starred in the story of a hotshot record producer’s struggles with art and mammon. The screenplay was written by my father, the sports journalist and fiction writer Robert Lipsyte, and the soundtrack was by Earth, Wind and Fire, who also appear in the movie as the Group, a band with a groundbreaking sound but not enough commercial appeal … White called my father a few years ago and asked him to write the liner notes for a reissue of That’s the Way of the World. They had some long conversations my father cherished.”
  • Today in improbable connections between Oscar contenders and classic American lit: Mark Mangini, the sound designer for Mad Max: Fury Road, says he put together the film’s aural palette with Melville in mind: “I had this notion that the truck itself was an allegory for Moby Dick … We wanted to personify it as this giant, growling, breathing, roaring beast … It had to be grounded in reality, but we wanted it to be more than that, so we designed whale sounds to play underneath all those truck sounds to embody the real sounds and to personify it … We go into a beautiful ballet-like slow motion sequence as the War Rig upends and turns on its side and crashes. All those sounds, there are no realistic sounds there. Those are all whale sounds and actually slowed-down bear sounds,” He said. “What we wanted to say to the audience was, ‘This is a death. This is the death of the great white whale.’ All you hear as it rolls over in slow motion is the final death rattle of a dying creature. It just felt like the right sound to use.”
  • A. O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism provides critics with an unprecedented, mouth-watering opportunity to review criticism itself. Christian Lorentzen is up to the task, so much so that he went on a road trip with A. O. Scott just to talk about it: “ ‘To the extent that there’s a polemical thrust that this book has,’ Scott told me, ‘it’s a fairly simple one: in favor of thinking. It’s against the notion that we’re just supposed to have fun. Turn off your brain and eat your popcorn. I’m offended by that. If someone is spending $200 million to make and market a movie, there’s no way you can say, “That’s just nothing.” Plus, it’s two hours of your own life, $15 of your own money, and all the dreams and emotions you bring into the theater with you. Why empty out your own experience? Why be passive about it? Why accept it on the terms that it’s given to you? The book is a plea to be more active, more engaged, and more thoughtful.’ ”
  • Remember when Malcolm McLaren released an opera record? I don’t either, but Stephen Akey does, and he remains really fond of the thing: “If on the radio that day I hadn’t heard Malcolm McLaren’s gleefully debased six-minute version [of Madame Butterfly]—identified by the disc jockey as the first of six workings of Puccini on an album by McLaren called Fans—I might never have known grand opera at all … Fans survives McLaren’s brazen talentlessness because the concept animating it is so ingenious and because McLaren was smart enough to hire accomplished musicians to execute the concept … It may be that Fans is little more than a clever novelty item with classical pretensions, but I think that McLaren’s cleverness points to a profound intuition about opera, namely, that it is (or at least can be) a music of the masses.”