dimanche 27 novembre 2016

A Brief History of the Great Books Idea by Tim Lacy 2005

North American culture has embraced, rejected and, in recent times, re-embraced the idea of reading the “great books”. Allan Bloom’s “first volley in the culture wars” with the now infamous “Closing of the American Mind” published in 1987 was far from the beginning of the debate.
We can thank English Victorian poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) for laying down the notions that eventually lead to the establishment of  liberal arts colleges and reading groups that read “canonical” texts that disseminate “universal principles” to the “common reader” in order to promote the “common good”. If this language sounds familiar and if a little background to the debates is welcome, then I recommend a thoughtful little essay by Tim Lacy called “A Brief History of the Great Books Idea”.
Lacy’s essay takes us on a chronological journey starting with the England of Matthew Arnold and ending with the New York educator and social critic Earl Shorris (1936-2012) and his ongoing Clemente Course which has national (and now international) chapters that brings great books to the disadvantaged, exposing them to the edifying impulses “inherent” in great poetry, logic, history and moral philosophy.
As part of his overview, Lacy quickly and efficiently lays out the academic hesitations and shifts in public opinion that have led to serious but sometimes absurd and naive debates over appropriate content. Unsurprisingly, ideas of political economy authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are mentioned more than once: Lacy tells us that in the early 1930s, Charles Walgreen, founder of the drugstore chain threatened the University of Chicago with funding cuts if “subversive works”, which were “forced” on his niece were not removed from the curriculum. Walgreen lost out to the idea of open inquiry and Das Kapital is still taught at the university today.
Also on the lighter side is Lacy’s description of Dr Charles Eliot’s colourful career. He tells us, for instance, that Eliot (1868-1909), president of Harvard and editor of a “five-foot shelf of books” which contains the classics of Western thought,  believed that the set could offer a full liberal arts education to any adult willing to read from them for ten minutes a day. 350,000 sets were sold to households from 1909, when they were first issued, to 1930. Today, the set is available to download for free.
Finally, and on a more serious note, Lacy describes how the term “plurality of excellences” has in recent times, been substituted for the older idea of “excellence”, a shift that has necessitated a reassessment of “greatness”. Where “excellence” used to be found in largely Western, European and Victorian thought, the category has in the past 30 or 40 years expanded to include Eastern and contemporary texts. But what happens, Lacy asks, if “no central standard of excellence is imposed to construct the list (of necessary reading)”?
The debate over the very existence of “permanent, universal values and the persistence of the dream of a common culture” is of course ongoing and deep, and while Lacy’s essay only hints at the fractious nature of the dialogue, it is up to the interested reader and both friends and foe of Allan Bloom to thrash it out.

mardi 1 novembre 2016

Strangers from Abroad by Daniel Maier-Katkin 2010

It is generally acknowledged that philosopher Martin Heidegger effected a kind of paradigm shift in thinking about the world and about thought itself when he asked us to put aside western philosophy’s foundational binaries idea/object or mind/matter and formulated anew, the meaning of being and thinking, this time viewing all that exists through the specificities of time and history. His work led to philosophical movements as varied as phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism and post-structuralism, and yet since 1940 and rather frequently in recent times, his work has made news not only in academic circles where one would expect his ideas to be critiqued but in the popular press because new evidence regularly surfaces tying him more and more firmly to his pro-Nazi past. The fact that he was, for a brief period, a Nazi party member, wrote about the menace he perceived inherent in Jewish rootlessness and cosmopolitanism, and still had an intense love affair with his star Jewish student, Hannah Arendt, continuing to see her until her death, multiplies the dimensions of the story considerably. Add the fact that Arendt, herself the object of public scorn, forgave him for his refusal to recant his anti-semitism adds yet another extraordinary and certainly perplexing element to the history of this relationship. Understandably, much has been written about these two international figures, including a book by Daniel Maier-Katkin called Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, published in 2010. I recommend this book, particularly to those who enjoy psychological puzzles. And it can probably be agreed that the Arendt/Heidegger puzzle is amongst the more unusual of the recent past.
Stranger from Abroad lays out the controversies, introduces major and minor actors, theories, and provides quotes from many sources, including letters from the two protagonists but in the end it cannot resolve the Arendt/Heidegger enigma.
How deep was Heidegger’s anti-semitism? Did it go beyond personal opinion? Did it have philosophical ramifications? If the latter is the case (debates are ongoing), then what is one to do? Discard “Being and Time” and all those ideas that have been built upon Heidegger’s work?  And what of Arendt’s forgiveness of Heidegger? Was it willful blindness, naive adoration of a love object, or considered, rational thinking that kept her at Heidegger’s side?
Neither Maier-Katkin nor any other writer of recent times has been able to tell us.

dimanche 4 septembre 2016

Raphaël et la Fornarina XI, from La Série 347 by Pablo Picasso (1968)

In the span of 12 days in 1968, when he was 87 years old, Pablo Picasso made a series of 25 etchings that depict erotic episodes involving Raphael and his mistress Margherita Loti, known as La Fornarina (The Baker’s Daughter). Because it is Picasso and Picasso was a committed, promiscuous and successful borrower of style and subject matter originating from multiple places and historical moments, a small investigation, even a cursory one of these two dozen etchings yields names and references as varied as Michelangelo, the Vatican, Jean Auguste Ingres and psychoanalysis.
This little study is built upon the story of Raphael and his appetites, which is entertaining in and of itself but the story also offers a convenient way to mention some of the foundational ideas about sex, art, and inspiration held by Picasso.

First, we can say that Picasso’s statement “sex and art are the same thing” suggests ideas of sexual energy, sublimation, creativity, paraphilia, all terms familiar to us as post-Freudian subjects. In fact, it can be argued that when Picasso draws Raphael painting a portrait of his mistress while simultaneously making love to her (Raphael has paintbrush and easel in hand while he penetrates Margherita), Picasso is making art in order to sublimate sexual energy. In short, the artist, the exceptional man, can have it both ways: the paintbrush and the phallus can both satisfy and be satisfied.
And what of sex as compulsion? In several of the etchings we see Pope Julius II, sometimes sitting on a throne, sometimes on a chamber pot (his behind in full view), sometimes hiding behind a curtain, watching, and sometimes in full view of the lovers in action. Picasso’s message is clear: while the office of the Pope is meant to confer respect to the man who represents divine power on earth, this pope is a voyeur who permits the forbidden (sexual gratification — his and his employee Raphael’s — against the codes of Catholic orthodoxy), making him and his office mere objects of fun.
The other figure that lurks in these sketches, often hiding underneath the bed, is Michelangelo. The story (from Giorgio Vasari) goes that Raphael, curious, needing inspiration, viewed the work in progress in the Sistine Chapel without permission and proceeded to copy the style. Michelangelo never forgave him for stealing, uttering “Everything he knew he learned from me.”. Three hundred years later, Jean Auguste Ingres borrows from Raphael, painting “Raphael and The Fornarina”, using his own mistress Madeleine Capelle and justifying his borrowing by asking, “Is there anyone among the great ones who has not imitated? Nothing is made with nothing.”. A century and a half later, the Ingres painting provides Picasso inspiration: he too, sketches the lovers, claiming “good artists copy, great artists steal”. Perhaps Picasso is saying that a good artist merely transports theme and image from one canvas to another, one age to another, but a great artist transforms previous art so that it suggests a new and different understanding of life.
In these 25 sketches Picasso plays with ideas of patrimony, ego and method and besides challenging us, he makes us laugh a little.

jeudi 21 avril 2016

The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir (1954)

Despite the overwhelming consensus amongst its readers (from its initial publication in 1954 to present times) that “The Mandarins” by Simone de Beauvoir is a “classic” novel, mixed assessments of its literary value persist. Divergent views are inevitable, in part, because “The Mandarins” overlays political opinion, historical detail and philosophical debate on to the fictional form. For many readers, including myself, too much is being asked of the novel: the large political and sociological problematics that occupy so much of this book undermine the storyline and the psychological rendering of character, making the novel, at times, tedious. Some reviewers find “The Mandarins” to be a soapbox for political ideas or an apologetic for Stalinism and not at all a genuine work of fiction that seeks to understand how people experience a complex world. Critic Norman Podhoretz writes in 1956 that the novel is essentially just a critique of American capitalism. Unfair! The book is more nuanced than that: many of the characters in the novel struggle with the problem of divided loyalties. They ask if one can maintain one’s allegiance to an ideology that has been thoroughly compromised, and at what cost. I prefer critic Anna Banti’s contention that “The Mandarins” is really “an essay that is novelized”, where characters struggle with complex issues.

As simply a novel, a work of the imagination, free of polemical intent, some readers still find it wanting.  On Good Reads, I read comments like, “It is a big, baggy thing in need of an editor and a plot arc” and “the novel is full of flat characters whose voices are scarcely distinguishable, awkward dialogue and insipidly clunky internal monologue”. I, too, admit to finding the characterization sometimes tedious: too much time is spent watching Paula lose herself to mental illness, Nadine to adolescent angst, and Anne to self-doubt. However, the novel offers us a chance to see how people in post-war France and to some extent America (Anne spends time with her American lover Lewis in the United States) were beginning to react to changing social and sexual mores.
I would suggest that while “The Mandarins” is too long (700 pages) and repetitive, lacks a plotline and is short of suspense (although a murder takes place in the penultimate chapter but is oddly immediately forgotten), the work remains important. German reviewer Francois Bondy speaks for many of us when he writes that this book is really a “roman a clef” and should be read as a complement to de Beauvoir’s memoirs, a record of an important cultural movement rather than purely as a work of fiction.

mercredi 11 novembre 2015

Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana 2015

What might the effect of seeing modern interpretations of New Testament material be firstly, to a 21st century audience and secondly, to an audience visiting Florence, the great centre of Renaissance religious art? Surprise? Disapproval? Bemusement? One might rightfully ask, do serious artists still paint or sculpt works based on Christian themes or biblical events? If so, can they ever be anything but ironic?

An intelligent and serious exhibition of late 19th century to mid 20th century Christian art is on display at the Strozzi Palace in Florence. It is brilliant. The curators, working with a half dozen themes, choose works that interrogate the theology, competing ideologies and aesthetic questions that captured the imaginations of a century of European artists. Paintings, sculptures, models of church decorations and a video displaying modern church architecture are assembled in dedicated rooms, each of which treats a separate theme or New Testament event. Artistic styles and interpretations of a single event vary, sometimes significantly, but all the juxtapositions produce largely positive responses.

Take Adolfo De Carolis’s Madonna, Praise be to You for the Light You Shed on Earth (1900) and Edvard Munch’s Madonna II (1895-1902). They couldn’t be more different: Carolis’s blond Madonna, angels and baby are decorated in gold leaf, draped in rose and beige tunics, and a gold brocaded blanket is suspended behind the holy couple. Ethereal, serene, saccharine sweet. Munch’s work comes from a completely different psychic place: his Christ child, foetus-like and unsettling, appears at the corner of the canvas looking at his mother, her eyes closed, nude, in a dream-state while all around her at the edge of the painting swim a dozen sperm. Who, then, is the Madonna? Is she a sexless embodiment of beauty and purity or a Freudian neurotic?

In the Crucifixion paintings, opposing styles and meaning are displayed, also to great effect.
Emilio Vedova’s Contemporary Crucifixion: Cycle of Protest no.4 (1953), while completely abstract, performs a kind of magic by transforming a beige canvas painted over with black vertical and diagonal strokes which occasionally intersect and smudge, particularly at the centre, where rough white lines also intersect, into a kind of crucifixion scene. The small smear of red paint at the foot of the “cross” is not accidental. In its way, this painting may suggest the “death to life” gift that Christians believe resulted from Christ’s Passion. It may also radicalize the meaning of the Passion, exhorting the viewer to “shout to action in this world” — Vedova did not dissociate art from politics. Perhaps Jesus was a revolutionary.
In the same room hangs White Crucifixion (1938) by Marc Chagall, a painting that art historians describe as a Jewish work of art despite the fact that the central figure is Jesus Christ. Jesus the Jew, depicted in prayer shawl and head cloth (note, not a loincloth and crown of thorns) is a martyr, a holy man but not the Christian redeemer. His hanging body is surrounded by scenes representing the persecution and flight of Jews from Eastern Europe between the two world wars. Is this the other side of the story, the original Abrahamic faith dialoguing with its two successors and world history?

Divine Beauty represents a positive trend in cultural studies, art history circles and curatorial practices: their new and bold efforts are helping us reinterpret form, function and meaning in art in the 21st century.

dimanche 13 septembre 2015

Due Considerations, John Updike, 2007

John Updike’s “Due Considerations” is a hefty book of essays and criticism written between 1999 and 2007 and compiled by the author himself. Like his previous compendiums, the articles give due consideration to subjects of a cultural nature, “à la Updike”. As always, the language is elegant, the learning is evident, the humour is original, and Updike is open, stating his opinions and prejudices directly while also inviting us to join the conversation.
All of these markers of a good essayist are evident in his article, “Invisible Cathedral: A Preview of the New Museum of Modern Art” (2004) where he poses a series of questions and asks us to respond to them. He sets the stage for the discussion by telling us that he is at the site of the as yet uncompleted new MoMA where all evidence points to a museum that will be “immaculate, rectilinear, capacious and chaste” and then wonders if perhaps more can be asked of a modern museum. Updike tells us that this museum is designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, a man who brings his eastern sensibilities to the project and lets slip that Taniguchi told the museum trustees, “Raise a lot of money for me, I’ll give you good architecture. Raise even more money, I’ll make the architecture disappear.” Updike describes the effect that the building has on him during his tour of the site and confirms that “everything subtly floats”, the walls “dematerialize”. But is this “nothingness” ideal, he asks. After all, this museum does not present an “arresting silhouette like Frank Lloyd Wright’s top-shaped Guggenheim or Frank Gehry’s titanium extravaganza in Bilbao”, rather, it forms “an invisible cathedral”. Next Updike shifts focus, adding another element to the question “what more can be asked of a museum?” by suggesting that the original cathedral (the Christian cathedral) now shares its cultural capital with the art cathedral (the museum). He maintains that the new cathedral is invisible and highly self-conscious because art, “by its glow (allows us to) bask in the promise of a brighter, more lasting realm reached by a favored few - Saint Vermeer, Saint Pollock, Saint Leonardo.”
What are we to make of Updike’s conflation of the sacred and the secular, the ancient and the modern? Updike doesn’t tell us what to think, but in the end, he does suggest that an earlier MoMA, which housed a “relatively intimate collection of human-scale works in non-palatial rooms” was one of the museum’s charms and maybe this cathedral “may have sprouted too many chapels...We shall see.”

mercredi 19 août 2015

Perception in Our Town by Thornton Wilder (1938)

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is a deceptively simple play, using the ordinariness of small-town American life, configured in the classic (conservative) “birth, marriage and death” narrative to examine subjects ranging from Puritan ethics to existential questions to ideas about the nature of perception. The play proposes that perception is always partial, subject to change and limited by the one-directionality of time. Memory, however, provides for perception to expand our understanding of life. Memory helps us travel back and forth through lived experience thereby helping us make sense of our existence. The play suggests to us that while the meaning of what we perceive the moment we live an experience is partial, revisiting that moment can grant us better understanding, even wisdom. Emily Webb begins her journey to enlightenment when she dies and revisits a particular already-lived day in her youth. Here she is simultaneously experiencing past and present: she talks to other wise (albeit dead) fellow townsfolk at the cemetery and as she relives part of a day in her past she talks to the seemingly omniscient Stage Manager. When she tells him, “I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.” she is reiterating something that we all suspect: nothing is ever fully known. When Emily asks the all-important question, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? - every, every minute?” a short time before the play ends, the Stage Manager replies:”No...The saints and poets, maybe - they do some.” This must be Thornton Wilder’s philosophical guiding principle in abbreviated form: let us frequent the sage and the artist amongst us!