Archive for the ‘Beaux Arts’ Category

Gotham Diary:
30 November 2012

Friday, November 30th, 2012

In the afternoon, I went to see Anna Karenina, Joe Wright’s film of Tom Stoppard’s dramatization of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. The Stoppard part is the most important, although Wright is to be praised for capturing the circus magic that makes Stoppard’s bigger plays, such as Jumpers, so thrilling. Stoppard doesn’t stop at writing a screenplay, with lines for actors to deliver in front of various deployments of the camera. He creates a contraption, rooted in vaudeville, of sliding screens and stylized gestures, that deconstructs and recomposes a dramatic problem in terms of spectacular ballet. It goes without saying that, what with Stoppard’s being the presiding genius, this ballet is anything but mute. Just as important, it is neither precious nor hermetic: Stoppard has no intention of bewildering or boring his audience. His play is a thinking machine (a machine in the antique sense — more ingenious toy than mechanized tool) that invites you to ponder Anna Karenina’s story and the world in which it was shaped. We all know how Anna’s story ends, but this rather grim detail, while it is stylistically foreshadowed, does not haunt the telling. Anna Karenina may be light-hearted or it may be heartless, according to your taste, but it is certainly densely-headed. Stoppard wants you to deal with what’s going on, not to worry about what’s going to happen. He steers you away from Anna’s doom, helped immensely by Keira Knightley’s furiously vital performance. When the time comes, the Anna who throws herself beneath the train carriage is no poor creature. Her face has just brightened with a slight, faint smile, for she has grasped a solution to her problem.

Ms Knightley’s performance plays out over a counterpoint of glittering high life in which Society is presented as gorgeous and graceful and caged. We can expect someone to write something brilliant about the way Stoppard and Wright have hit upon using the backstage machinery and lumber of a conventional theatre to signify confinement — not to mention doing the same with the boxes and stalls out in front of the proscenium. All but two of Tolstoy’s characters are content to live in this virtual prison; they have worked out deals that keep them in silks and soufflés in exchange for the observance of a more or less rigid decorum. The two exceptions are Levin (a very keen Domhnall Gleeson), who understands the cage to be an alien import from the West, foreign to true Russian values (about which, however, he is visionary when he is not sentimental: don’t try this at home), and Anna, who ceases to be able to live in the cage when  she is surprised by a romantic passion that is, certainly in this production, intensely erotic. When Levin and Anna are happy, the camera moves out of the theatre set and into the countryside. (Wright is to be applauded, again, for exterior shots that harmonize with the rest of the movie; they could so easily jar.) The difference is that Levin’s happiness is built on a foundation of property and masculinity — men are allowed to leave the cage from time to time, to philander or to shoot birds — while Anna’s has no foundation at all. Hers also lies beyond a range of burned bridges: when her life with Vronsky fails (Vronsky is played by the protean, here almost beautiful Aaron Taylor-Johnson with an authority beyond his tender years), she can’t go back to any other. You might say that the burned bridges are the broken bars of the cage: the prison life is supportable only if you’ve not, having stepped outside of it, considered never stepping back in. By showing us a bedroom that is little more than a gigantic crypt with an open coffin, the filmmakers leave no doubt in our minds that Anna really cannot go on living with Karenin. (Jude Law plays Karenin with what at first seems to be an august reserve, but as the camera continues to play over his face, you are reminded of his ghoulish performance in The Road to Perdition.) But there’s more to it than that, of course. Anna besots herself with the notion that Vronsky has become her true husband. This delusion overlooks the fact that Vronsky is going to have to become someone else’s husband. The only true husbands are the actual, legal husbands. This is, after all, the ancien régime: property rights trump personal claims.

All of this is beautifully illuminated by what I have called Stoppard’s contraption. Far from being a sob story about a beautiful, passionate lady who is crushed by a repressive society, this Anna Karenina is above all an entertainment. It is about the way people live, not die. It may be the most beautiful movie that I’ve ever seen; that’s certainly how I felt while I was watching it. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who choreographed the dances (and perhaps the entire film) and costume designer Jacqueline Durran both deserve Academy Awards.


In the evening, I went to see the George Bellows exhibition at the Museum. I shall have to see it again before venturing to say much about Bellows’s very distinctive impressionism, which manages to be post-impressionist at the same time; all I can say for certain is that his two portraits of “Mrs T,” an elderly society woman in Chicago, are Old Master stunners that would not suffer by hanging next to Sargents or Lawrences. There are many wonderful things — the presence of snow in Blue Snow, the Battery, which could have been painted only by somebody who knew how to put the chill of winter on canvas; the rock pool, lit as from within, at the bottom of the picture of the fisherman at Carmel Bay; the heavy but jolly ladies in their pastel dresses, climbing the park steps in Easter Snow — but I don’t know quite what to make of them, which is another way of saying that this exhibition of Bellows is obliging me to adjust my thoughts about the art of painting. His premature death (of appendicitis) at the age of 42 is deeply regrettable.

Gotham Diary:
31 May 2012

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

At MoMA last week, I picked up a copy of The Complete Untitled Film Stills, because I’ve liked this work by Cindy Sherman ever since it was new, even though I found the women that Sherman impersonated to be unattractive and sullen, and I can’t say that I really like any individual photograph. What I do like is the fragmentary suggestion of complete movies that I am free to create and re-create as effortlessly as I please. In this, the Film Stills remind me of Edward Gorey’s The Awdrey-Gore Legacy (so thrilling, when it was new, because one had never seen Gorey do color before — just as Sherman’s stills were in a gloriously dated black-and-white). Gorey’s book is like a board game discovered in an attic, missing important pieces as well as a set of instructions. You make what you can of it.

I did not buy the catalogue accompanying the Sherman retrospective, though. I knew that I would never look at it. There are a couple of images that I would like to have as postcards, all three of them featuring New York City backgrounds (two at the Cloisters, one at the Bethesda Fountain). All three feature women who appear to be rich and powerful, however ravaged by time; their contempt is complacent, if not content. As such, they differ from the run of portraits and other images in the show, which display every kind of wretchedness. I would never look at Sherman’s clowns, or her sexually compromised girls, or her parodies of Old Master paintings. These pieces are almost too immediately not interesting; I must be afraid of them as well. If I were drawn to them, I would find out eventually what it is that I feared.  

That’s the point, I concluded. It’s a test: can you be happy with the fact that these pictures have been mounted on the walls of an important museum? Can you take an interest in their exhibition? It was a test that I failed, at least in several galleries that I could not wait to exit. At the same time, I protested (to myself) that Sherman wasn’t telling me a thing I didn’t know. About shock. About self-display. About the yearning to be found gloriously, miraculously, and, against all the evidence, beautiful — a yearning entwined with a venomous determination to deny its gratification. Cindy Sherman’s recent work appears to be about unsuccessful responses to the problem of ageing, but what I see, as I wrote the other day, is “the misery of a plain, somewhat doughy adolescent girl whose brains were of no interest to anybody. (Least of all to herself.)”

At the same time, Sherman lays out an interesting challenge: where’s the male equivalent of this show? Where is the man who would flay his complicated identity as Sherman has done? And is there a call for such a demonstration? If nothing else, Sherman’s pictures shout to tell us that women are obliged to be unpleasant in order to be heard; if  they are not unpleasant, they’re catnip, and whatever it is that they have to say is baffled and silenced. Is there a masculine correlative of this oppression? I believe that there is; the manly version of Sherman’s show that I conjecture would concern itself with failure: the failure to perform, the failure to fit in, the failure to lead, the failure to be memorable. It is not clear to me how self-portraiture would be involved, but it would be involved; there is no other way to file Sherman’s report on degrading shame. I suspect that it would also make use, as Sherman has done, of the image factory’s tropes of cinematic glamor and advertised allure.

In the New York Review of Books, Sanford Schwartz writes, “But then Sherman’s work is engaging no matter what we think of it as art.” There’s the muddle. What does thinking of something as art entail? The question has bedeviled me ever since Sherman and her cohort of conceptual artists set out to replace disegno with critique. Before that, Duchamp’s fountain and the other sports of Dada were impish tricks, subverting nothing but the art-admirer’s pouter-pigeon posture. Conceptual artists have produced objects that work like texts, that mean to tell us something, but without being readily legible. I think of them, these objects, as icons of a civilization that the artist, in any case, cannot bear to understand. When I look at the grotesquely large panels of Cindy Sherman, I see someone confronting an awful world in which genuine kindness does not exist. I am sorry that she has had to go there.

Gotham Diary:
24 February 2012

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Last night, we went to a preview of the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (hereinafter “the Museum” — but you knew that), “The Steins Collect.” There are many points at which this show might engage my interest and attention, but they all fail. I don’t like the collection, I don’t like the Steins, and I don’t much like the show. The whole affair is a sealed tomb. I mention it not to complain, and certainly not to say bad things about the art and its collectors, but only to regret that such things happen.

There are one or two or three very nice paintings. There’s a Matisse from 1904 or so (I neglected to carry a notebook) of a wrought-silver chocolate pot that flirts, frankly beautifully, with Chardin. There’s a voluptuous still life by Hans Purrmann, Matisse’s student for a while, that I took at first to be the master’s, largely because of its handling of a textile. There’s a very sweet little view of The Bay of Nice, again by Matisse, that seems to quiver and tremble as if a chick is about to peck its way out — a chick by the name of David Hockney. There is a very curious Lady With a Fan, an early Picasso that’s apparently at the National Gallery in Washington, but neither Kathleen nor I could recall seeing it before; with the hand not holding the fan, the calmly stern woman, shown in profile, makes a Buddhist gesture of peace. This comports uneasily with her downtown manner; she really seems to be saying “Come back some other time, if you must.”

Lady With a Fan is not a particularly pretty picture, but it’s an interesting one.  There are quite a lot of pretty pictures that aren’t terribly interesting, all of them drily painted landscape sketches by Matisse. There are numerous images of Gertrude Stein, all of which made me wonder, “Who was this woman?” Overall, though, “The Steins Collect” mounts the largest array of dim and dull paintings that I have ever seen. I can’t imagine actually living with them all.


We’re still too close to modernism — of which Gertrude Stein was certainly a significant exponent in at least two ways, as a writer and as a critic — to judge it. There is a gash of internal hostility within the movement itself, pitting authoritarian simplifiers against playful futurologists. Seen in another light, this was a battle between totalitarians and anarchists. Neither totalitarians nor anarchists take much interest in the individual differences that sustain a rich society; on the contrary, the one thing that totalitarians and anarchists agreed about was a disapproval of individual differences, which they glibly dismissed as “narcissism.”

Gertrude Stein lived an anarchist’s life — easy to do if you’ve got plenty of money, but impossible without it unless you have a taste for explosives — yet her writing anneals the hermetic with the folksy, a combination that reminds me of Joseph Stalin. I tend to feel that Gertrude Stein ought to be interesting, but isn’t. This can be cxplained, perhaps, by the fact that Edith Sitwell got to me first.

Gertrude Stein assembled her collection in a ten-year period that came to an end on the eve of the Great War. It was during this time that Picasso underwent the full round of modernist convulsions. After the war, he emerged, in an intriguing parallel with his contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, as a neo-classicist. Modern art became a thing of the past, an achievement awaiting the world’s universal appreciation. I see Gertrude Stein, in her apartment at 27, Rue de Fleurus (near the Luxembourg Gardens), as a kind of hen, sitting on her brood of masterpieces, most of which turned out not to be. I have only one question: what would color photographs of her apartment have told us? The images of the flat that we do have suggest an unhygeinic griminess that well-brought-up Americans can’t have been comfortable with, unless of course they were making a point of it. The pictures on the walls of the Museum’s Tisch Galleries tell us that, Matisse aside, color was mistrusted by these artists and their patrons.


“The Steins Collect” is of course not just about Gertrude. Her brothers, Leo and Michael, collected as well — it was Michael and his wife Sarah who were partial to Matisse. I can imagine studying this show with a focus on who owned what. But first you’d have to care about something, either the Steins or these paintings, but I simply don’t care about enough of them.

In the giftshop, there were copies of  Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, bits of which I read in The New Yorker. I want to read the book entire (it’s not long) while the Steins show is up; maybe I’ll learn to see something new. I’ll always be happy to see Matisse’s Still Life with Chocolate Pot again, even if, painted in 1900, it falls outside the modernist overhaul. It’s a souvenir of a way of life that was about to crushed in every dimension, but also a beacon that guides us to the possibility of recreating civil life, as well as a herald of the bourgeois regularity that Gertrude Stein never forswore.

Beaux Arts Note:
6 July 2011

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

It’s a slow afternoon, and I’ve nothing on my mind — nothing except this drawing by Poussin (detail). It wasn’t just Cy Twombley’s obituary that made me think of it, but of course that was part of the spark. I spent a lot of time (for me) with this drawing when it at the Museum in the spring of 2008. And I’m very fond of the last line of Pierre Rosenberg’s catalogue entry. “Two tiny figures at the entrance to the fortifications [not shown] provide an indication of the dimensions of these buildings from the environs of Rome, which one hopes will be identified someday.” Now, that’s scholarship.

Museum Note:
Talk About Bad Taste
17 May 2011

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Never, ever, have I found the Metropolitan Museum of Art as packed with people as it was today. Never! It was almost impossible to cross the Great Hall, so thick were the lines snaking back from the ticket counters. (The advantage of membership at any level is the convenience of getting an entry pin from the members’ desk, just outside the gift shop, without delay.) Upstairs, the line of visitors waiting to see the Alexander McQueen show stretched the full length of the Chamber of Horrors, all the way down to the Assyrians. I’ve never seen such a line!

Happily, Ray Soleil and I were interested in the Eighteenth-Century pastel portraits. No crowds there. Lots of lovely things, but lots of not-so-lovely things as well, including one piece of rather dreadful kitsch by Anton Mengs, the bust of an éphèbe with rancidly liquid eyes and a crown of roses — the template for a thousand ghastly late-Nineteenth Century candy boxes. Most of the beautiful things are French — a Nattier, some Coypels, a few Quentin de la Tours — but what caught my interest most was a pastel by Gainsborough, who didn’t do much in the medium. It’s a small, half-length portrait of the fourth Duchess of Marlborough. Her head and hair are finely modeled; her dress and lace shawl are a riot of impressionistic strokes. In reproduction — the Museum Bulletin for Spring 2011 is effectively this exhibition’s catalogue — the picture has an anemic air, because the palette is almost that of grisaille, with shades of blue and pink emerging only after your eyes adjust (the duchess’s face, it must be said, is grey); but in the life it is a formidably attractive portrait.

Among the Quentin de la Tours, there was a sketch for his portrait of Louis XV — a sketch that is fairly finished enough for most purposes. What’s striking about the artist’s portraits of the king is the care that they take to show the royal five-o’clock shadow. This can only be meant to reassure us that beneath the powder and the finery there pulses what Fossil calls a manly man. We are certainly not supposed to think that Louis needed a shave. The effect is quite indecent.

On our way to the pastels, Ray and I stopped in at the Rooms With a View show, which occupies a small quarter of the old-master special exhibition space. Like most shows with a theme, this one features works of widely varying quality, with the result that the really good things stand out all on their own, without your having to know anything about them. (If you want to know how great Mozart is, listen to Salieri or Gluck.) It’s no surprise to cross the room, drawn by a dream of romantic concision, and find that it’s the work of Caspar David Friedrich.

Two of the pictures are views from the Villa Medici — which still accommodates, according to Wikipedia, the French Academy in Rome — that feature St Peter’s and Castel Sant’ Angelo off in the distance, the Castel looking rather small in both. One is a painting (1817) by Jean Alaux, and one is a watercolor (1863) by Constant Moyaux. Both artists were Prix de Rome winners. We wondered what had become of the Prize, and were distressed to learn later that André Malraux put an end to it in 1968, that awful year for the French establishment. “Stupid,” said Ray, when I told him.

As you can see, those horrible concrete garden statues are still gracing the portal of the Duke-Semans Mansion at 1009 Fifth Avenue, right across the street from and a smack in the ey of the Museum. It would probably be going to far to say that the house is currently being gutted, but evidence suggests that the new owner has contracted for an extensive renovation. Since the statues of Feebus and Phlora were not the first things to go, we hope that they’ll be the last. We will miss them, mostly because, when they’re gone, no one will believe us when we say that they were ever there.

Gotham Diary:
Exhaustion from Diligent Service

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

The weather was awful — snow! — but I had to get out of the house. I had to get a haircut, but that’s not what I mean; I had to break out of the ordinary routines, which regular readers will know about my fiddling with since the New Year. The new ordinary routines are working well; they’re much more flexible thant the old ordinary routines. But they’re also much more conservative: the list of things to do is quite a bit smaller. In fact, it’s comprised of necessities. There has been no room in the routines for optional entertainments. That’s why, although I’ve been writing well and regularly, I’ve been circling my navel so far as subject-matter goes. I had to get out of the house in order to have something fresh to report. 

How conservative? My idea of “something fresh” was a trip to the Museum. Oh, boy; how exotic! Sad truth is: it has gotten to be exotic. I’ve been to the Museum once this year, and that was to take my grandson on his first visit — to get him out of the house on a cold day. He and I did not study the curios, exactly; from my point of view, the trip was all about him, not the Museum. 

Today, I vowed, I would go to the Museum and see something new. The Qianlong Emperor obliged. More about him in a minute. Even better, the Museum’s curators obliged. I saw something old — old and very familiar. In a show complementing the exhibition of knickknacks from the emperor’s retirement pavilion, constructed in the Forbidden City in the 1770s, the Museum has displayed one of the few treasures that I long to possess — a large painted-enamel ginger jar. The Museum has two of them; I’d be happy to let it keep one. (As long as they’ve got the pair, though, I wish that they’d turn one of them around, so that I could inspect the back.) 

What I love about the jar, aside from its riotous tackiness, is its cosmopolitan flavor; in a vitrine with other Chinese decorative objects, it stands out as  foreign. And it is foreign. According to the label, one of the patterns beneath the illusory wrapping looks more Indian than Chinese. The technique of painted enamel was developed a few centuries earlier in Limoges. The Chinese, after all, didn’t invent everything. The Qianlong period (1736-1795) was unusually open to foreign styles; the Jesuits were still providing the emperor with a window on the West through which European styles were allowed to pass. One of the objects on display this afternoon — I don’t think that it came from the Forbidden City — was a perfectly frightful vase with long panels showing ladies in French court attire romping beneath parasols; the panels are “framed” with half-carat crystals. Unlike my ginger jar, it’s heavy and dreary and an embarrassment really. 

The conceit of the ginger jar lies in the incompatibility of the patterns above and below the trompe-l’oeil cloth wrapping; it’s as if the broken top and bottom of completely different jars had been glued together, with the swath of ribbony fabric concealing the join. You don’t notice this right away, though, because the cloth itself is so busy: layered fantastically in three colors, embroidered with a tiny pattern, and overlaid with floral emblems that don’t quite tuck into the folds. The whole thing comes this close to being one of those horrors that you used to see in the furniture showrooms on Grand street — when Grand Street was still part of Little Italy. With a ghastly tasseled lampshade. 

I can’t help thinking of the Qianlong Emperor as the Chinese Louis XV. Their long reigns overlapped considerably, and were characterized by an easygoing opulence and a nonchalant grandeur that inspired the production of a lot of beautiful things. (And their régimes were equally doomed, even if it took China more than a century longer to tumble into the abyss.) Of course we know a lot more about the French king than we ever will about the Chinese emperor; it’s not difficult to bring the lazy and sensual but warm-hearted and good-natured Louis to life, but the personal qualities of the Qianlong Emperor are so much rubble beneath the official transcripts of his reign, in which almost everything occurs as it was supposed to occur. (There are no reliable unofficial transcripts.) Poor Lord Macartney never got to have the tête-à-tête that would have allowed him to take the emperor’s measure; the wall of officialdom that blandly blanketed the empror was never breached. 

A nearby vitrine held an assortment of medium-sized lacquer dishes and boxes. I wondered, as always, what they are like to hold. The thought of what it must be like to have to keep a piece of lacquerware dusted led immediately to the guilty recollection that I’ve forgotten all about my resolution to re-read The Dream of the Red Chamber, also known as The Story of the Stone, all four Penguin volumes of which rest beneath my bedside table. I have Volume I in my hands as I write. A Taoist  is talking to a large, inscribed stone — a stone that has everything written on it save the authentication of a dynastic date. Somehow, the stone is going to be sent down to participate in the great illusion of human life — it’s probably best not to dwell on the mechanics. When does the story get going? If I could only get past this prefatory mumbo-jumbo….

I have been thinking lately that I ought to stop reading new books for a year and just re-read old favorites. The Tale of Genji. Austen, Eliot, and James. And Forster. And Waugh. The barber today asked me to recommend a book. He’s from Peru and he wants to improve his English by reading a book that is interesting but not too difficult. I almost suggested Vile Bodies. The language itself is not very difficult, as I recall. But the goings-onmight shock him, might sail right over his uncomprehending head. I recommended Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live, the book about Montaigne. Tito may never ask me to recommend another book, but it will be for a perfectly respectable reason. 

Ah, there’s nothing new here at all! It looks like I’ve fallen back on my old game, trying to write about the same old things with a hint of freshness. How well I’d have fit in at the Qianlong Emperor’s retirement pavilion,which was called, by the way, the Juanqinzhai — the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service.

Big Ideas:
Artistic Value

Monday, March 21st, 2011

At Ward Six the other day, J Robert Lennon tossed in a note about Tadzio Koelb’s deflating review (in the NYTBR) of Rebecca Hunt’s Mr Chartwell.  Koelb wrote,

Now England has seen the rise of “Mr. Chartwell,” a humorous and amiable novel about which such extravagant claims have been made — for its prose, psychological insight and emotional depth — that one might imagine a work to rival Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” instead of what is, in fact, well-packaged chick lit.

The end of Lennon’s note stuck with me: 

While I am enjoying the democratization of literary discourse that the internet has brought us, the trend Koelb describes is a consequence of the decline of newspapers and print magazines–hardly anyone is being paid to recognize artistic value anymore. And so, I fear, hardly anyone is bothering.

My first reaction was to protest: I’m not being paid, and yet I am bothering to recognize artistic value. My second reaction was to wonder if the first was actually correct. I’m conscious of being on the lookout for interesting things, and of trying to explain what it is about things that interest me that interests me. But: recognizing artistic value? I’m not sure that I believe in it. And it’s not as simple as doubting that “artistic value” exists. There’s the matter of recognition, too, the sense, which I think Lennon intends, of making an award. You pin a blue ribbon on something, and, voilà, it has artistic value. (The ribbon is what you have to say about it, and the quality of that ornament is for others to judge.) You go on to the next thing, leaving your little ribbon behind for all time. 

This old model of critical authority has almost completely broken down, not because we don’t have faith in people who make authoritative pronouncements (we’re if anything too credulous) but because we don’t have time for them. All we want to know is whether to read the book or not. Will our friends all be reading the book? There is no need for much of a ribbon; a letter grade will do. This is indeed what has happened in “the democratization of literary discourse.”  I’m unfamiliar with the string of admiring reviews that Mr Chartwell evidently garnered — I hadn’t heard of the book before reading Koelb’s review — but his description suggests an excited readership enthusing over a shiny bauble. I daresay that careful readers of those reviews were not deceived into thinking that Rebecca Hunt might take a place alongside Trollope and Tolstoy. They could probably tell that satisfaction was guaranteed by a plaubile patina of “history.” I’m reminded of Frederick Arbuthnot, the happily faithless husband in The Enchanted April, who writes sexy potboilers under an assumed name. 

He wrote immensely popular memoirs, regularly, every year, of the mistresses of kings. There were in history numerous kings who had had mistresses, and there were still more numerous mistresses who had had kings; so that he had been able to publish a book of memoirs during each year of his married life, and even so there were great further piles of these ladies waiting to be dealt with. 

What has changed since those days is that nobody is being punished for publishing critical flummery anymore; it’s unlikely that anyone is going to lose a gig because Tadzio Koelb has seen through a gushing review or two. The people who care about psychological insight and The Anatomy of Melancholy won’t be lodging complaints, because they won’t have been tricked into buying the book. 

So, then, what am I doing? I’ve already said, putting it with cheeky complication: I’m “trying to explain what it is about things that interest me that interests me.” What’s left out of that formulation is the time-stamp, which is always set to “right now.” What interests me now? It’s not necessarily what interested me last week or last year, or when I was in my twenties. And what interests me now has been shaped by what has interested me (recently, for the most part, but not always), so that my liking a book this week may be tied up in my having liked another one last week, or last month, or whenever. Far from being an unchanging authority who makes judgments according to some fixed protocol, I’m more or less impressed, literally, by everything that I read. It would almost be better to say that the book judges me. 

That’s what I was thinking on Saturday night, listening to Rudolf Buchbinder and Orpheus play Mozart’s D minor concerto — the most dramatic of the lot and destined to stand at or near the top of anyone’s ranking. I was trying out a new metric: the measure of a performance’s excellence is the extent to which it blots out all others. It would not occur to me, in connection with any actual concert, to judge the concerto itself.  I might say that it reminds me of my sheltered youth, when I could hardly imagine what real tragedy would be like; or I might wonder what the first audience made of it — I expect that everyone who stopped talking and listened was aware of unprecedented music; or I might quote Donald Francis Tovey (well, no, I couldn’t; Tovey didn’t write it up). But nothing in any of these passing, colorful remarks would address the music that Mozart wrote. I am no longer sufficiently conceited to believe that I have anything useful to add to the overflowing store of Mozart commentary. So much for his artistic value. As for that of the performance, my new metric keeps things simple. I can report that the horns had a bit of a flub in the Romanze — one that happens often enough to make its way onto recordings — but I don’t expect you to be find this news interesting.

Of Mr Buchbinder’s reading, I’ll say that it coincided with an ideal of the concerto that I carry around in my head. His playing was temporally acute (by which I mean that he kept time in an interesting way) and dynamically expressive (he used the shift between loud and soft to structure the thematic lines). His left hand was particularly gratifying: the low notes were always sonorously there, assuring us that the current of music was flowing through clear and capacious channels. But because I never heard a thing that I did not hope or expect to hear, I cannot say that it was the best imaginable performance of the concerto. I have to be content with pronouncing it extremely well done, and very satisfying to sit through. What I hope I’m conveying is that this “judgment” is really about me. Beyond a presumable level of competence, the performance of music is so peculiar to time and place, to the vibration of the air between player and listener, as to have the quality of magic. It makes no sense to attempt objective descriptions of such things. 

In his blog entry, Lennon mentions Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. 

I am still bewildered by the fact that nobody seems to have recognized Freedom as Jonathan Franzen’s worst book; it’s a lopsided domestic drama with a lot of timely and unnecessary sociopolitical nonsense slathered over it.  (FWIW, I enjoyed it anyway–but it is not up to Franzen’s usual standard.)  In that book, we were seduced, I think, by its ambitious title, its environmental subplot, its political undertones.

Worst book? That’s more impish than intelligent. “Least successful,” perhaps — and I say that not because I agree with Lennon about Freedom but because there is no call to speak of the “worst book” of a writer who always turns out excellent, sometimes extraordinary, work. I do agree that there was a lot of tedious hype about the novel last spring and summer, and that the novel was tedious to write about because one couldn’t begin without clearing away at least some of the critical lumber.

What matters more, in Lennon’s commentary, is that he enjoyed the book even though it wasn’t, in some way or other, good enough. What is the point of Jonathan Franzen’s maintaining his “usual standard” if readers will like what he writes even if he doesn’t? What is this standard, this excess beyond enjoyment? Let’s talk about that. 

Dear Diary: How Everybody Felt About 2009

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

© 2009 Tom Waterhouse

(Except me. I had a great year, really; I was the spring in this guy’s step.)

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009


¶ Matins: Just what we all need: China produces and sells more than 12,000,000 cars in a single year.

In a sidebar, Jorn Madslien reports that Shanghai Automotive Industries owns a majority share of Shanghai General Motors’s venture in India, leaving (American) General Motors to take “a back seat.” (BBC News)

¶ Lauds: A very interesting comment from Felix Salmon, writing about productivity/price differentials between the fine-arts and photography markets. The former has split in two, with mass-marketed items buoying a “an elite circle of valuable works.” The dynamic hasn’t been tried in photography.

¶ Prime: Alex Tabarrok writes about Project Cybersyn, an economic regulator waaaaay ahead of its time. (Marginal Revolution)

¶ Tierce: How to account for same-sex liaisons in terms of natural selection? The investigation promises to be complex and counterintuitive. Also: resistant to cross-species generalizations!

Gore Vidal has always insisted that there is really no such thing as homosexuality; perhaps he’s right after all. (New Scientist)

¶ Sext: What you need to know in order to navigate the tricky holiday shopping season: it will cost $395. (The Onion; via The Morning News)

¶ Nones: New, and with more than T-shirts: Ottomaniacs!  One thing seems clear: Turkey is finally emerging from Atatürk’s secular tutelage, a nation with imperial memories. (NYT)

¶ Vespers: At HuffPo, Alexander Nazaryan proposes Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland as the American novel of the passing decade. We heartily concur, and we nominate Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End as runner-up.  

¶ Compline: Witold Rybczynski reports that academic architects still don’t like Christopher Alexander’s patterns. (Slate; via Arts Journal)

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009


¶ Matins: At New Geography, Aaron Renn looks at the outmigration of the middle class from “cool” cities, and attributes it, persuasively, to the failure of civic responsibility among “global” elites.

Clearly, the current models for organizing metropolitan areas are wholly inadequate. In our view, layers of government (state, country, local, school district) ought to be replaced by types of government: highly coordinated networking authorities (transit, power, hospitals) coexisting with highly localized service providers (schools, clinics, and parks). (via The Morning News)

¶ Lauds: Cityscape critic Blair Kamin is surprised to be supporting the destruction of a shed designed by Mies van der Rohe. The accompanying photograph is a bit of a tease: the shed hides behind a fence. (Chicago Tribune; via Arts Journal)

¶ Prime: PIMCO’s Mohamed El-Erian finds in the Dubai debt standstill “a reminder to all: last year’s financial crisis was a consequential phenomenon whose lagged impact is yet to play out fully in the economic, financial, institutional and political arenas.” We knew this, but it’s great to hear it from an eminent fund manager.

In our own front yard, Wall Street’s influence inside the White House needs to be muzzled, if not baffled. (Telegraph; via Marginal Revolution)

¶ Tierce: Michael Bond briefly but lucidly reviews Eli Berman’s Radical, Religious and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism, a new sociological study that, notwithstanding its title, sees beyond the religious angle. (New Scientist)

¶ Sext: Nico Muhly, writing from Amsterdam, finds “a sort of childlike pornography” in Nederlands orthography. (This vanishes when you learn how to pronounce things.) He is also “obsessed” by the common digraph, ij. (via Snarkmarket)

¶ Nones: Predictably, Sunday’s election in Honduras settled almost nothing, even though Porfirio Lobo appears to have won more or less fairly. The Honduran Congress will vote today on whether Mel Zelaya will finish out his term in office. (NYT)

¶ Vespers: n case the popularity of a current blockbuster has you wondering if you’d like to read the book, Jenny Turner not only reconsiders her review in the London Review of Books but also supplies a list of blogs that offer highly entertaining spoilers about the later novels in this peculiar series.

¶ Compline: Having got wind of special treatment for denizens of the eastern-most block of West 61st Street on Thanksgiving Day, Clyde Haberman investigated in person. His worst fears are confirmed. (NYT)

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009


¶ Matins: Tyler Cowen’s thoughts about Swiss minarets are appropriately complex. Referendums are deplorable, because they open the door as nothing else does to prejudice. “…knowing how and when to defuse an issue is one very large part of political wisdom.  The Swiss usually pass this test but this time they failed it.” (Marginal Revolution)

¶ Lauds: The painter Francis Bacon could write well enough, but, John Richardson informs us, he could not draw. (NYRB; via 3 Quarks Daily)

¶ Prime: Felix Salmon, with the help of a commenter called Dan, advances a new theory of investing — one that is market- (and liquidity- !) shy.

¶ Tierce: 350 years of important publications by the Royal Society, celebrated at a new site, Trailblazing. (MetaFilter)

¶ Sext: In the rarefied world of dissertation-land, is one woman’s prudence another man’s paranoia? (Chron Higher Ed; via The Morning News)

¶ Nones: The Vatican continues to regard its affairs as lying beyond the writ and ken of civil authorities. “The Vatican should apologise for failing to co-operate with an inquiry into sex abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland, a Dublin bishop has said.” (BBC News)

¶ Vespers: The Clutter murder, 50 years on. (Ed Pilkington at the Guardian)

¶ Compline: Shock and Awl: Choire and Balk both driven batty by current events. Choire returns from Thanksgiving weekend viscerally alert to the Idiocracy afoot in the land. “Craziness: it’s not just for wingnuts anymore.” Meanwhile, Alex has Lady Gaga issues.

Although both pieces are nicely funny, the two pieces are salt and pepper as to coherence. Choire, slightly hysterical perhaps, nevertheless sticks to his topic. Balk, in contrast, is almost grotesquely inconsequent. But that’s why we love him!

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, November 26th, 2009


¶ Matins: Kenneth Davis writes about the first Thanksgiving to be given on land that would one day be part of the United States — by Huguenots in Florida. Their base, Fort Caroline (named after Charles IX), did not last very long; nor did they: the Spanish eradicated everything in 1565.

Mr Davis’s litany of religious persecutions in America exhorts us to regard Thanksgiving not as the commemoration of a hallowed past but as a celebration of how far we have come from our dark origins — and a reminder of how far we have yet to go. (NYT)

¶ Lauds: Charis Wilson, Edward Weston’s most notable muse (and his only “art wife”), died last Friday in Santa Cruz, aged 95. (Los Angeles Times; via Arts Journal)

As it happens, we’ve been reading about Charis Wilson in Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses. Great reading!

¶ Prime: We’re not terribly interested in the recent privatization of Chicago’s parking meters — or, rather, we weren’t until Felix Salmon decided to look into the matter. His conclusion: the city didn’t do too badly, and the contractors are idiots. The detail worth noting is that what Chicago’s alderman wanted, of course, was to raise parking meter prices without being accountable.

¶ Tierce: The Aesthete unearths the strange figure of George Sebastian, an adventurer who married American money and used it to builid Dar Sebastian, still a breathtaking edifice in Hammamet, Tunisia. (An Aesthete’s Lament)

¶ Sext: We love a good prank as much as anybody — probably more, as long as we’re not the victim — and so we’re rejoicing at the news that The Awl now has a whole department devoted to reviewing “pranks and their aftermaths.” Okay, they have Juli Weiner, who we hope is still enrolled in a good college.

¶ Nones: William Finnegan’s New Yorker excellent report on the situation in Honduras is not, sadly, online, although an abstract is available. For regular readers who have been following the matter here, there is little substantially new in the piece, and in fact we were gratified to read that coup leader Roberto Michelletti, in television appearances, “tends to glower, and speak from the side of his mouth, like Dick Cheney.” However, we hadn’t encountered anything like Mr Finnegan’s thumbnail of the constitution that ousted president “Mel” Zelaya wants to replace.

¶ Vespers: We’ve read Lauren Elkin’s review of Jeremy Davies’s Rose Alley several times now, and while we’re not certain that we want to read the novel, we’re intrigued by Ms Elkin’s account of it. (The Second Pass)

¶ Compline: Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings) takes “a look at what the Intenet is doing for learning, curiosity, and creativity outside the classroom.” There’s a lot about TED, which appears to be better understood in Europe than it is here. (Good)

To see how traditional education appears on the Internet, have a look at the Syllabus of Dr E L Skip Knox’s fully online course, sponsored by Boise State University, in HIST101 — The History of Western Civilization. (via MetaFilter)

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, November 19th, 2009


¶ Matins: Driving while intoxicated, and with a child in the car, will be made a felony, according to a law that has passed the New York State Assembly. Interlock devices, which block ignition when the driver’s breath carries faint amounts of alcohol, will be required for drivers convicted of driving while intoxicated. (NYT)

¶ Lauds: Lucy Lu recently celebrated the first anniversary of Met Everyday, her online report of visits to the Museum. Her list of ten things that you must see (or wings that you must visit) is personable but not surprising — with the exception of the modern-art item.

¶ Prime: Tom Bajarin’s discussion, at PCMag Mobile, of the impact of Vooks on publishing suggests to us that the author of a plain old book could do as well as a Vook developer, delivering a formatted text as an “app,” and collecting 70% of the price. (via The Tomorrow Museum)

¶ Tierce: We’ve heard of the Ithaca Hours, an alternative local currency, but we can’t imagine how anything like it would work in Manhattan. But who cares: it would be gorgeous, if these bills designed by students at the School for Visual Arts were in circulation. (via The Best Part)

¶ Sext: Will Sam Sifton be the next editor of the New York Times? It’s a very interesting rumor, considering that the gent has just been assigned to reviewing restaurants for the newspaper. We’ll say this: he has certainly dusted off the genre.

¶ Nones: For a quick and snappy resume of Palestinian politics at the moment, you probably can’t beat the Beeb’s summary. (BBC News)

¶ Vespers: V L Hartmann bumps into Joan Didion in the street — almost — and observes that in her carriage as in her prose, the author of The Year of Magical Thinking is not like “the old ladies you see up here on the East Side that are all stooped over.” (The Morning News)

¶ Compline: Conserving Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, an earthwork at the edge, and sometimes beneath the surface, of The Great Salt Lake. (NYT)

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009


¶ Matins: Monica Howe writes about a problem that appears to be on the increase: drive-by porn and its variants. You’re sitting in some sort of traffic, minding your own business, when the guy next to you…. (Washington Post; via The Morning News)

¶ Lauds: Yasmina Reza, in town to promote her directorial début, Chicas, with Emmanuelle Seignier — and to catch the first cast’s final performance of God of Carnage — talks to Speakeasy about all of that, and her friendship with Ms Seignier’s husband, Roman Polanski.

¶ Prime: Felix Salmon continues the debt-bias discussion, evaluating two reasons not to tax interest payments, and, not surprisingly, dismissing them even when he agrees with supporting arguments. (That’s what makes this discussion so interesting.)

¶ Tierce: The extraordinary Mandelbulb. We’ve been so hynotized by the latest in fractals that we’ve neglected to share.

¶ Sext: What to read next? Well, you could let your dreams determine the title — if you were Philip K Dick and strong enough to read “the dullest book in the world.” (Letters of Note)

¶ Nones: With a grim sort of relief, we note that intransigence is still the prevailing note in Honduran politics. (BBC News)

¶ Vespers: Terry Teachout encounters a stack of his new book(s), Pops, at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. He registers his reaction as closer to Mencken than to Hindemith. (About Last Night)

¶ Compline: Two lawyers from the Genomics Law Report consider the “intriguing question” of how personal DNA data might be handled in the event (an event in Iceland) of a direct-to-consumer’s genomics company’s going bankrupt. (Genetic Future; via Short Sharp Science)

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, November 12th, 2009


¶ Matins:  Matins: Darshak Sanghavi, a pediatric cardiologist and the health-care columnist at Slate, writes lucidly about medical-malpractice litigation. The tort-based system is broken, but it works, sort of. Dr Sanghavi likens it to a casino — terrifying doctors as a class while overcompensating a handful of plaintiffs — but he also attributes significant drops in patient injuries to lessons learned. (via The Morning News)

¶ Lauds: Two public spaces that people will know better from photographs than from visits: The National September 11 Memorial & Museum (when and if) and the White House. The latter, which is indeed a house, requires periodic replacement therapy, in the form of “redecoration,” a word that, Martin Filler tells us, Jacqueline Kennedy didn’t like. (via Felix Salmon and The Morning News)

¶ Prime: Felix Salmon reminds us that nothing is riskier than a market in which everyone shuns risk.

¶ Tierce: Muscato remembers his family’s observance of Veteran’s Day.

¶ Sext: Two pieces that were printed side-by-side in the Times, and ought to have appeared in the same fashion online. Food colleagues Kim Severson and Julia Moskin are Jack Sprat and his wife about Thanksgiving. For Ms Severson, it is all about turkey. For Ms Moskin, the turkey is a turkey. The bitchery is quite amiable.

¶ Nones: We’re not quite sure why the offer would help negotiations along, but the UK will return 45 square miles of sovereign territory on Cyprus to — to whom? We can remember when Cyprus was in the news every day. Remember Archbishop Makarios?  (BBC News)

¶ Vespers: Dan Hill’s review of Alain de Botton’s Heathrow book, A Week at the Airport, is long and serious but hugely compelling, inspired to be challenging where the book under review leaves off. For example, after quoting the passage about an interview with an airline CEO that stressed the fact that neither the CEO nor Mr de Botton works in a profit-making industry, Mr Hill cocks an eyebrow. (City of Sound; via The Tomorrow Museum)

¶ Compline: David Dobbs argues for replacing the “vulnerability” model of genetic variation with an “orchid” model. The older thinking holds that variants increase their carriers’ vulnerability to disorder. The new idea acknowledges vulnerability but also inverts it, seeing heightened access to special skills. (The Atlantic)

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009


¶ Matins: “Terrifyingly cavalier” — we expect that Elizabeth Kolbert is right to respond to SuperFreakonomics with alarm. Shooting SO2 aerosols into the atmosphere through an eighteen-mile hose does not sound like a promising solution to the problem of global warming. The Two Steves look to be in need of adult supervision! (The New Yorker)

¶ Lauds: In the future, will the great nudes of fine art sport fig leaves and other coverings that, as the spectator desires, may be made to fall away? Does Marcel Duchamp’s rather nasty peepshow, Étant Donnés, cap a Renaissance tradition? Blake Gopnik’s second blush. (Washington Post; via Arts Journal)

¶ Prime: Steve Tobak addresses a home truth: “Don’t Make Your Customers Deal With Your Problems.” He’s talking to business people, of course, but we substitute “readers” for “customers” and go from there. (Corner Office)

¶ Tierce: Eric Patton writes about the trip to Rome that he took with his parents last month. (It was last month, wasn’t it?) (SORE AFRAID)

¶ Sext: Rudolph Delson has been making his way through the library of vice-presidential memoirs. Yesterday, he reached Tricky Dick. (The Awl)

¶ Nones: It isn’t very neighborly of Cambodia’s Hun Sen to welcome Thai renegade (and former prime minister) Thaksin Shinawatra into his cabinet, as an economic adviser — and on the eve of a regional summit, at that! Thailand has recalled its ambassador, and its government “has expressed anger and embarrassment over the deal.” (BBC News)

¶ Vespers: Aleksandar Hemon fumes and steams about the posthumous publication of Nabokovian fragments. We can see why: the great writer intended for unfinished works to be destroyed at his death (in 1977). But the intentions were very naive, and possibly insincere: surely Nabokov was capable of destroying them himself after realizing that he would not live to finish his last project. (Slate; via Arts Journal)

¶ Compline: Simon Baron-Cohen argues that the elimination of a distinct Asperger syndrome diagnosis from the next edition of the standard psychiatric handbook (the DSM) — a move under consideration by the editors — would be premature at best. (NYT)

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009


Beginning today, the full text of the Daily Office appears at Portico. To continue reading the entry for a given hour, simply click on it, or click here to see today’s entire Daily Office.

¶ Matins: Manisha Verma’s essay on Jon Stewart’s effectiveness as a de-fogger suggests that Comedy Central may have discovered the cure for television. (3 Quarks Daily; via The Morning News)

¶ Lauds: The sale of the Lehman Brothers art collection, although it brought in twice the projected total, demonstrates the wishful thinking behind much art investing. Quite aside from the fact that Lehman was not in the business of purchasing artworks in order to profit from their resale (as indeed it was supposed to be doing with its other investments), the proceeds of the sale are but a drop in the bucket of Lehman’s bankruptcy — $1.35 million as against $250 billion. (Bloomberg; via Arts Journal)

¶ Prime: Steve Tobak doesn’t buy the theory, advanced by The Daily News, that Galleon-Scandal insiders Hector Ruiz and Bob Moffit were lured to their doom by a comely lass called Danielle Chiesi — but that’s only because he doesn’t think that she’s much of a “cheerleader.” (The Corner Office)

¶ Tierce: Michael Williams looks back to the days when he delivered firewood on autumn weekends. (A Continuous Lean)

¶ Sext: Meanwhile, Choire Sicha takes his lorgnette (or is a loupe?) to a new line from Michael Bastian that Michael Williams probably won’t be covering: Homeless Chic. $525 just for long underwear! (The Awl)

¶ Nones: The man who helped to take “primitive people” off the map, Claude Lévi-Strauss, died on Friday. (NYT)

¶ Vespers: A long appreciation of Cheever’s Journals from Geoff Dyer — a writer of very similar lyrical gifts. Mr Dyer persuasively ties Cheever’s craftsmanship as a published writer to his repressed homosexuality, and sees both as prisons. (Guardian; via Critical Mass)

¶ Compline: Nick Paumgarten advises us to abandon our hopes for multitasking, which “doesn’t work. You just perform each task less efficiently.” (The New Yorker)

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, October 8th, 2009


¶ Matins: Christopher Shea surveys the world of Letterman Apology Evaluations.

¶ Lauds: Soon to be arriving on your iPhone: an original picture by David Hockney.

¶ Prime: Versace will close its three outlets in Japan.

¶ Tierce: Linguist John McWhorter frolics and detours at  Good: The “For Themselves” Love Drug. (Did we say “linguist”?)

¶ Sext: “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, as long as both are covered with a sharp, original, Awly take.” The Awl turns five months, sixteen days old. Two days ago.

¶ Nones: And you thought Honduras was this boring provincial story. Ha! Bet you didn’t even know the word Chavista! (We didn’t.) As in “Chavista authoritarianism” and Cold War think tanks — in Washington.

¶ Vespers: Levi Stahl reviews the Man Booker winner, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, at The Second Pass.

¶ Compline: Amazing study about city people with guns — and how much more likely they are to be shot dead.


Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009


¶ Matins: Confidence in the once-almighty dollar is eroding. This could be a very good thing, in many ways, if it weren’t for those pesky Treasury Bills.

¶ Lauds: On the strength of Ken Tanaka’s write-up, we’ve just ordered a copy of On City Streets: Chicago, 1964-2004, by “unknown” photographer Gary Stochl.

¶ Prime: The subprime movie crisis: surprise, surprise, easy money left Hollywood unprepared for a very dry season. (via Arts Journal)

¶ Tierce: Jason Dean’s very snazzy ABCs of Branding.

¶ Sext: Box wines: nothing to sniff at.  (via Felix Salmon)

¶ Nones: The Honduran attempt at a bloodless coup is getting bloody — thanks to the return of the coupé.

¶ Vespers: Patrick Kurp waits, along with Phyllis McGinley, for “The 5:32.”

¶ Compline: Coming soon to the Internet: FTC disclosure rules.


Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009


¶ Matins: What can you do to save the Galápagos Islands’ ecosystem? Resolve to stay away, and to urge your friends to do likewise. Don’t count on Ecuador to manage the growing mess.

¶ Lauds: Stuff White People Like takes on Banksy, Thomas Kinkade.

¶ Prime: Scott Shane: “Do Friends Let Friends Open Restaurants?” The answer is obvious, of course, but the brief discussion is interesting.

¶ Tierce: Jenni Diski plays Auntie Family, faux-outraged about those gay penguins

¶ Sext: Doodle away the afternoon with Vodkaster’s “subway map” of the 250 Best Films. (via reddit)

¶ Nones: Irish voters approve the (slightly revised) Lisbon Treaty.

¶ Vespers: Eric Banks writes about an uncomfortable truth in “Poe’s Fading Star.”

¶ Compline: A tale that seems to come out of Dickens or Trollope or perhaps even Cruikshank or Rowlandson: while Simmons Bedding faces bankruptcy, the private equity investors and the former CEO walk away will amply-filled pockets.