Art for Art, Blast Furnaces for Truth, and Other News


On the Shelf


A wonderful thing.

  • “Art! Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’.” That’s one view, anyway, one that gained currency in Europe in the nineteenth century. But where does the defense of l’art pour l’art stand today? “Since art categorizable as ‘art for art’s sake’ is usually produced tangentially to hopes of making money, of reaching a large audience or of being immediately useful, it tends to be the darling of the many-degreed. And because art takes time to make, its makers are often those with a luxury of time—usually the wealthy, occasionally the poor. But there is a way in which art for art’s sake is the art most open to all comers, and the most (potentially) ethical.”
  • If you’re moved by the notion that art need serve no master other than itself, then you will all but certainly cheer the news that UNESCO has designated the Exeter Book as “the foundation volume of English literature, one of the world’s principal cultural artefacts.” The book, a tenth-century anthology of Old English verse, include poems such as “The Seafarer,” “The Wanderer,” and “Christ I,” which gave J. R. R. Tolkien the name for Middle Earth. But it also includes riddles, including this lusty tribute to, well, not what you’re thinking: “I’m a wonderful thing, a joy to women, / to neighbors useful. I injure no one / who lives in a village save only my slayer. / I stand up high and steep over the bed; / underneath I’m shaggy. Sometimes ventures / a young and handsome peasant’s daughter, / a maiden proud, to lay hold on me. / She seizes me, red, plunders my head, / fixes on me fast, feels straightway / what meeting me means when she thus approaches, / a curly-haired woman. Wet is that eye.”
  • It’s easy enough to blame economics and technology for the death of the weirdo local record stores of yore. But what if the real culprit is philosophical? “Genre itself—or, more specifically, genre affiliation as a means of self-identification—feels like another End hovering in the atmosphere this week. No one is asked to choose one affiliation at the expense of another. Instead, it is perfectly normal, even expected, that a person might have a little bit of everything stacked up in her digital library. The idea of ‘Other Music’ as it was conceived in 1995 is unknowable now.”
  • Speaking of philosophy, if there’s one thing I’ve always appreciated about blast furnaces, it’s their unyielding passion for truth. I was glad to learn that the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher agree: “In 2008, Hilla was asked, ‘But why furnaces and conveyor belts?’ She replied: ‘Because they are honest. They are functional, and they reflect what they do—that is what we liked. A person always is what s/he wants to be, never what s/he is. Even an animal usually plays a role in front of the camera … We studied this anonymous architecture, object after object, until we understood the enormous variety of the subject … We learned how blast furnaces worked, how they were constructed, what parts they had … And then it was easier to find out whether there was a front and back. At some stage we asked ourselves: Does a blast furnace have a face?’ ”