The Talking Heads of Yesteryear, and Other News


On the Shelf

Robert Heinecken, TV Newswomen (Faith Daniels and Barbara Walters) (detail), 1986; image via Aperture


  • Get a load of this, people—it’s the story so unbelievable, so astonishingly perverse, that George Eliot’s family doesn’t want you to know about it! I’m talking about the size of her hands—or of one of her hands, anyway. Kathryn Hughes has the hot scoop: “One day in the 1840s a young woman in her midtwenties was talking to her neighbor in a genteel villa on the outskirts of Coventry. At some point in the conversation Mary Ann Evans stretched out her right hand ‘with some pride’ to demonstrate how much bigger it was than her left. It was the legacy, she explained, of having spent her teenage years making butter and cheese on her family’s farm, eight miles outside the city … Over the next fifty years George Eliot’s increasingly genteel descendants periodically issued stern denials about the great novelist’s labors in the dairy. There was, they maintained, nothing remotely odd about her right hand: it had done nothing more taxing than practicing the piano and taking tea.”
  • In times of deep suffering and anguish, solace can take unusual forms. Sleeping pills, for one. Or a long talk with an old pal. Or maybe just an enormous grid of old televisions reminding you that things have always been shitty. The Getty Center, opting for the latter, has opened an exhibition called “Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media,” which will console you with the terrors of administrations past—most of them perpetrated before the advent of social media, when the news was still fake, just in a different way. Travis Diehl writes, “One of the Television Political Mosaics (1968–9) by Donald R. Blumberg, like televisions splayed out on a contact sheet, includes row after row of vintage talking heads from the vetting of Richard Nixon’s own unlovable cronies. Others in the series superimpose a faltering transmission of then-candidate Nixon’s profile into a black and gray miasma. Further Zen might come from Blumberg’s Television Abstractions (1968–9), a picture of a grid of sixteen TVs, all tuned to static. The white noise has never been worse, yet this exhibition offers critical insight for those who would turn today’s cameras on today’s screens.”

  • After September 11, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security wasted no time trampling on civil liberties and furrowing its Bushy brow at visitors from the Middle East. Jon Lee Anderson recounts one story that feels, already, hauntingly familiar: “An Iranian friend told me about something that had happened to one of his relatives. He was a poet and a teacher, and had been invited to a literary conference in Los Angeles … He landed in Los Angeles International Airport, only to be stopped at immigration, taken away, and placed in a detention cell. The poet was frightened and bewildered; he did not understand what was happening to him. He pointed to his visa and showed his invitation letter, but the immigration officials were rude and unhelpful. He spent two weeks in detention before he was put on a plane and deported, without any explanation for his ill treatment. The poet returned to Tehran in a state of extreme anxiety and depression. He decided to tell nobody about his ordeal.”
  • In which Wallace Shawn shakes off his complacency and urges the theater to abandon its complicity with “total oblivion”: “Plays began as political. The Greek plays were about communities and cities and kings and queens and how a country was run. We went through a brief period in the United States of somehow being so prosperous and secure that we forgot that we lived in the world, and plays were about what was happening in somebody’s kitchen … Speaking as someone who has devoted a lot of his life to doing some things that would certainly fit into the category of pure entertainment, that’s how I have lived. I’ve been paid for that. But complacency is a very serious problem. Too much soothing entertainment isn’t good for a person. If you admit that a play or a TV show or a movie can wake somebody up, you have to at least admit that possibly some plays or TV shows or movies might put people to sleep and help them in their quest for total oblivion. Personally, I would rather go to bed and have someone bring me a cup of tea. I don’t have a desire to go out and get arrested or something like that. But it may be necessary.”
  • And last, because it’s never a bad time to inveigh against the confluence of wealth and celebrity in the arts, here’s Edwin Heathcote on the deleterious rise of the starchitect: “Starchitecture, although it is a recent and ugly coinage, is the emblematic architecture of the media age and its template has been set for at least a century. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier. Or, perhaps, go back even further, to Andrea Palladio or to Michelangelo. Clients have always wanted to be associated with star artists and the commissioning of a palace, house or church from a great architect has traditionally been the ultimate expression of conspicuous consumption … The real danger inherent in the wholesale adoption of starchitecture is an arms race of the spectacular. Starchitects have often achieved their success not only via design but through charisma, charm, contacts and the ability to present a proposal succinctly, compellingly and convincingly. Often the easiest thing to present is a one-liner, a simple original idea that flatters the client that they are getting a distinctive work of genius yet one which comes with the risk-reducing guarantee of pedigree. The process works against complexity, which is difficult to present and represent. There is no nuance, only the sledgehammer of the self-conscious icon.”