Carry Your White Rag with Pride, and Other News


On the Shelf

Alice Neel, Self Portrait (detail), 1980.


  • Nothing like a blizzard to get you thinking about death. As I write this, New York is being engulfed in snow, as one day all of us will be taken by the icy grip of eternal slumber. So let’s look at how Alice Neel handled it, with a striking act of self-portraiture that, as Bridget Quinn writes, is unflinching in its gaze without losing any sympathy: “She lived long enough to capture one of the most knowing takes on aging ever made, up there with Rembrandt in its cold-eyed view of the sagging self. Eighty years old in this painting, made in 1980, the master portraitist has turned her unsparing scrutiny upon her own still-formidable self. Her fluffy white grandma updo—incongruous on a nude, to say the least—rhymes with the bright white rag dangling from her left hand. Meant for dabbing paint, according to some commentators, the rag is also a flag of surrender. But surrender to what? I expect they mean surrender to aging and the decline of the flesh. But what about the fact that after five decades of dedicated portraiture, this was Neel’s first real self-portrait? That after cajoling dozens of sitters—men, women, and children—to doff their duds, she at last joins them. She has surrendered to her own inspection at long last, there on the same blue-striped love seat upon which so many others sat for her. Here, finally, Neel sits for herself.”
  • At last, courtesy of Eric Benson, we know what it’s like to listen to Top 40 radio with Terrence Malick: “He’ll make these wild associations that really surprise me … You’ll hear him say something like, ‘I just heard this Jason Derulo song, “Talk Dirty.” I haven’t heard a love song like this before.’ And you’ll think to yourself, ‘That’s so weird, that’s such a shitty pop song.’ And then you’ll listen to it again and you’ll hear this Turkish lick, and you’ll say, ‘Actually, that seemingly innocuous pop song has something really cool to it.’  ”

  • Shahidha Bari appreciates the existentialists for any number of reasons, one of which is simply the brute fact of their charisma: “It’s true that existentialism isn’t always ‘easy,’ but it helps that many of the existentialists themselves were irresistible. As a young man, Sartre hurled water bombs from classroom windows, yelling, ‘Thus pissed Zarathustra!’ Simone de Beauvoir improvised elegant solutions to the straitened circumstances of life in Nazi-occupied Paris, wearing turbans when she could not secure a haircut, and sleeping in skiwear to save on heating. Albert Camus, who was investigated by the FBI at the request of J. Edgar Hoover (the file was mislabelled CANUS), could sit in the street in the snow, lamenting his love life, until two in the morning. He adored his cat, a creature blessed with the perfect moniker: ‘Cigarette.’ Tell me what’s not to love about these existentialists.”
  • Even if professional critics are someday a thing of the past, writes Alex Ross, we’ll never be able to do without arbiters of culture: “The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm. In a cultural-Darwinist world where only the buzziest survive, the arts section would consist solely of superhero-movie reviews, TV-show recaps, and instant-reaction think pieces about pop superstars. Never mind that such entities hardly need the publicity, having achieved market saturation through social media. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a tax cut for the superrich.”
  • S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders turns fifty this month; Hayley Krischer pays the author a visit in Tulsa: “When Ms. Hinton was sixteen, after failing creative writing in her junior year of high school, she wrote The Outsiders. The teacher who failed her was not happy that Ms. Hinton liked to mention this in every interview. She sold the book when she was seventeen. It was published when she turned eighteen. It has, quite literally, always been part of her life. For Ms. Hinton, the book is something of a time capsule of her own emotionally driven teenage angst. ‘I think that’s why it still resonates with teens, because they feel like that,’ she said. ‘Your feelings are over the top. You’re feeling and seeing injustice, and you’re standing up against it.’ ”