Sunday, November 24, 2013
I return to a perennial theme, one I have written about here and here: the raising of music by a group, to celebrate ourselves, so alone on this tiny vessel in the oceans of unlight. Spurred no doubt by the steepening slope of night here in the northern hemisphere (sliding as we are towards the solstice), I think communal song is our telos. Or certainly at the core of our purpose, if not the sum total.
Out of Nothing, Something... sing out the verse in us.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
I have been re-visiting The Armory Show all year, in this year of its centennial. Such a powerful outpouring of commentary and commemoration, including the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society and the primary sources now freely available online at the Smithsonian.
A hundred years on and many of the paintings remain as fresh and demanding as ever...but, as a whole, that which was revolutionary in 1913 long since achieved iconic status as the new mainstream. A well known and frequently told story about the triumph of Modernism, and its subsequent ossification (Post-Modernism being little more than another slosh of lacquer on a brittle old facade).
What intrigues me most is how The Armory Show, and all it stood/stands for, might now be used as a springboard not forward but backward towards new viewings and understandings of the Western art that came in the prior generation or two, all those artists and their imagery that Modernism first rebelliously and then imperiously washed away.
The place to start is from within the show itself-- besides the now-iconic names of Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, Kirchner, Munch, Braque, Cezanne and so on, then mostly unknown on American shores, dozens of other artists participated in the great event, many of whom were well known at the time and are now largely forgotten. Or, if not forgotten, pigeon-holed in the more obscure and neglected parts of the critic's dovecote.
Childe Hassam, the grand man of American art in 1913, the great lion, who had six paintings in the show, but who railed against Cubism and the other new movements that the show helped foster... Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose work may be among the most forged of any American artist, a back-handed testament to his popularity but who I imagine most artists today will have studied little if at all... Bessie Potter Vonnoh, later elected to the National Academy of Design and to the American Academy of Arts & Letters...Maurice Prendergast, a Modernist at heart but left stranded by art historians in the footnotes, not thoroughly identified with one or the other of the victorious battalions...I could go on.
How do we recapture the light of those brushes, the slant of those chisels, without reference to what flowed after, from the explosion (as it understood itself to be, and was so described by both friends and critics alike) that was The Armory Show?
Sunday, November 10, 2013
I have been thinking about titles recently, in particular really long titles, and what they can mean, or not. For instance, Rina Banerjee has created a spiky, insectoid sculpture, which she has given the title:
She drew a premature prick, in a fluster of transgressions, abject by birth she new not what else to do with this untouchable reach, unknowable body as she was an ancient savage towed into his modern present
Fiona Apple titled her latest album:
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Nathaniel Mackey calls the latest volume in his ongoing exploration of jazz, poetry and much else besides:
From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Bass Cathedral
Some of my favorites come from Marianne Moore:
"A Lady With Pearls, To A Blood Red Rook from Turkey, Who Has Depicted Her With Pathos In Surly Monotone."
"In 'Designing A Cloak To Cloak His Designs,' You Wrested From Oblivion A Coat Of Immortality For Your Own Use."
.... and so on (Moore is an especially rich source for lengthy, allusive titles).
Are layered, coruscant titles merely a conceit, or do they provide a necessary bridge into the work of art? I think of the ones above each as an ornate forecourt, promising treasures beyond the main gates. Eye- and heart-catchers, beckoning me in to a world I would not otherwise have visited, a world I likely will not understand even once I have been there but one I will be glad not to have missed.
Sunday, November 3, 2013
Enduring mystery: the vagaries of taste, the creation of the canon, who's in and who's out in the great salon. Why does one generation hoist up an author, or entire genres, artistic forms, styles, only to have following generations neglect and forget the same? Race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion all play roles, now well documented by scholars, a thousand thousand cases and analyses of bias explicit and prejudice unacknowledged. (Many were not and still are not invited into the salon in the first place, have been ignored or excluded rather than forgotten). Crucial work, with much more still to be done there; here I refer to the more humdrum, less sinister process by which-- even controlling for parameters such as race, class and gender--many authors dwindle into muted phantoms where once they were sinewed, full-throated voices in our minds. Dead letters, gone out of print, the purgatory of half-remembered prowess.
Thinking about that as I read V.S. Pritchett's wide-ranging, clever literary criticism. Well, start with Pritchett himself...who reads Pritchett these days? Not many, judging from the fact that I bought his complete collected essays (1991, from Random House), 1,319 pages, weighing probably 2 or 3 pounds, for about 5 dollars on Amazon...
For sure, most of his essays deal with writers seemingly (for now, at least) immune to the winds of neglect, but many names are already hard to recall, their work on a side-shunting: Arthur Morrison, J. Meade Falkner, Arthur Hugh Clough, Ronald Firbank, W.W. Jacobs ("wait, wait, that rings a bell...oh right, "The Monkey's Paw"...had no idea he wrote much of anything else"). More alarming is the realization that even grand lions--Anatole France for instance ("on the right side of the Dreyfus Affair, with Zola," you think, a bit sheepishly, "oh and yes, he was awarded the Nobel")--can sit increasingly alone at the party, at best recognized but now rarely approached, let alone engaged with.
Thankfully we have specialized publishers who act as the solicitous host, bringing us to the faded personage otherwise alone in the corner by the aspidistra: Capuchin Classics, NYRB Classics, Persephone Books, Chicago Review Press "Rediscovered Classics," to name a few. (Not to overlook in the spec fic field the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, given annually since 2001). And now a new actor enters the scene: the Internet. As Clive Thompson reminds us, the Internet nurtures ideas (good, bad, indifferent-- the propagation and testing is the point) ...and will help us reclaim lost glories, rekindle old loves, (re)discover voices once heard or who should have been heard when first they issued. The salon just got infinitely larger, the lights turned up, the host and hostess multiplies into endless squadrons...and now the library too has shed its walls and doors.
Perhaps as a result we will see a revival in the fortunes of James Branch Cabell, William Hope Hodgson (surely someone should make a movie of The Night Land?), Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, Manley Wade Hopkins, Frank Belknap Long. Two in particular intrigue me, as I believe they are over-due for rediscovery: A.E. Coppard, and Walter de la Mare.