‘This stuff is coming’ – from New York

The New York Times Book Review devoted much of the January 2 issue to the topic Why Criticism Matters.  Six writers, critics themselves, offer a deluge of quotations by Alfred Kazin and moments of rhetorical beauty, but they still beg the question: “to whom?” As in the September 7th Critical Failure event at the Wheeler Centre, here are professionals arguing for their own validity in a publication that relies on its readers to value their production. High-fives and fist-bumps to Stephen Burn for attempting to puzzle out the place of online reviews and crowd noise in the literary conversation, and to Leonardo Sonnoli for an elegant illustration.

WNYC’s On the Media, no doubt inspired by our discussion of video games and art, devoted an entire episode to video games with its usual wit, depth, and breadth.  Jesse Schell’s discussion of how video game concepts could come to affect our lives wins the David Foster Wallace award for simultaneously inspiring horror and hope.

In a similar vein, artistic deserts demonstrate that the future is now.  The end, however, may be nigh.  Adam Gopnik reminds us of why it would be neat to be rich in the New Yorker, while this piece in the New York Times reminds me that there is a thin line between visionary and asshat.

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Concerts in Museums #1: Chanticleer at the Met

Friend of the factory, Sean Speer, goes to hear some dude-singing and grapples with the punctuation of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.”

“Do not fear the sound, it’s a breeze

Brushing leaves against the door.

Do not dread the murmuring seas,

Lonely waves washing the shore.

Sleep child mine, there’s nothing here,

While in slumber at my breast,

Angels smiling, have no fear,

Holy angels guard your rest.”

Suo Gân, Welsh lullaby


Dear Reader,

My girlfriend’s father was coming to town. He was flying in from Colorado and would be staying in New York City (Brooklyn, to be exact) for one week. Dad was staying with the girlfriend and I was to meet him for the first time while he was here. Girlfriend, dad, and I would be joined one evening by my girlfriend’s gay cousin and his boyfriend, the cousin’s gay brother and his boyfriend, and another cousin (female) who was married to a man who was the top fundraiser for his local Republican political club. To be sure, it was a motley crew.

Together, we would be going to an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a.k.a. “The Met.” The Metropolitan, for those who haven’t been or haven’t opened a coffee table book in the last half a century, is an enormous edifice, occupying exactly 1/32nd of the island of Manhattan and, within it’s four-hundred hand thick marble walls, lay the purloined treasures of most of the world’s cultures, stunningly arrayed in 2 million square feet of rarified air. It’s a magnificent testament to the initiative and ability of the American people to travel to foreign lands, meet foreign people, and loot all their best stuff. Only the British Museum has more ill-gotten booty and that’s only because they’ve been at it for a few more centuries.

The event was to be a concert.

The concert was a vocal concert.

No guitars.

No amps.

No instruments whatsoever.

Just singing.

Dudes signing. It was an all-male concert. Men who would be singing soprano.

An all-male, vocal, classical medieval music concert.

You know: the music monks sing.

An all-male, vocal, classical medieval music concert that would take place in the medieval section of the Met, surrounded by stone saints and plaster angels who were delicately and masterfully crafted over 600 years before.

The performing group was named “Chanticleer” after the rooster from the medieval literary classic: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales’ “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” (I believe the punctuation there is correct.)

Dear reader, part of the challenge of “art” is that we are all too frequently placed into a position where we are practically dared not to appreciate it. This was turning out to be one such occasion.

Fortunately, it’s a challenge people of my generation are used to and, frankly, “art” is thrust in our faces over and over so much every day that we’ve created defenses and tricks to deal with it. Our generation has entertainment that consists of nothing but a torrent of non sequitur references to other cultural references in an attempt to completely remove meaning from anything. Apparently, we find this funny. We grew up in a world where Ulysses was already half a century old. We have academics writing critiques of critiques of critiques. We don’t like people telling us what’s art and what’s not. Often it gets so damn complicated trying to figure out what we’re supposed to like and what we’re not. Everything is so laden with meaning.

Which is why, sometimes, it’s good to be simple.

Dear reader: it doesn’t get much simpler than Gregorian chant. There’s a reason it’s called “Plainsong.” The music basically consists of one tune. Not “one tune” as in “one song”, but literally one melody sung by all the men in unison. It’s as if John, Paul, George, and Ringo all came out on stage, each with a guitar in their hand, and all played exactly the same notes, in unison. There’s no complex interweaving of melodies, no crazy new scales, no complex mathematical reorganization of notes to challenge one’s composing skills. It’s just a bunch of guys singing one part.

But singing each note beautifully.

Chanticleer sang about a dozen songs. Some were the aforementioned Plainsong; others were slightly more complex pieces with different members of the group singing different parts. One particularly moving song involved a completely nondescript young-ish adult man who took the Soprano lead on a tune and sang like an angel. I started to get an idea of why the Italian Catholics would cut the testicles off little boys in order to enjoy music.

The highlight of the concert for me was a rendition of “Suo Gân.” This is a song most people recognize from a movie about a child during World War II (who would later grow up to be Batman and fight robots from the future). It’s a Welsh lullaby whose title literally means “lullaby.”

Suo = lull.

Cân = song.

See? Simple.

And, like all lullabies, the song is essentially about a mother and child, keeping safe, and sleep. The truth is, all of us, at some level, want to be safe. We want comfort. We desire child-like wonder and beauty. The best art reminds us that it’s as simple as a human voice, simply sung.

The fact that the concert was in the Met didn’t matter. The fact that we were surrounded by medieval artifacts while listening to medieval music didn’t matter, either.

We sat in our chairs.

We closed our eyes.

We heard men sing a song of a mother to her child.

We loved it.

Continue reading

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Not Paying Attention to the Arts

A follow up to last week’s post on different ways of paying attention to the arts.  Gene Weingarten’s 2007 Washington Post piece, “Pearls Before Breakfast” makes us ask the same questions about art and its appropriate contexts, this time upside-down.  What happens when we take art out of its frame?


In Washington , DC , at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes.  During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.  After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing.  He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About 4 minutes later:

The violinist received his first dollar.  A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At 6 minutes:

A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

At 10 minutes:

A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly.  The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time.  This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent – without exception – forced their children to move on quickly.

At 45 minutes:

The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while.  About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

After 1 hour:

He finished playing and silence took over.  No one noticed and no one applauded.  There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world.  He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.  Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

This is a true story.  Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities…


Paying attention to the arts

Three ways of paying attention in the arts –

1.  Classical music: “It’s just music.”  Yeah, but it still requires some close, one-thing-at-a-time attention.  If you can remember what that means, here’s Benjamin F. Carlson on how “the purpose is to enjoy,” and how “face-melting harpsichord riffs” can be relevant again.

2.  Video games need your attention.  According to Todd Patrick in the New York Observer, they get it: “”You want to write a novel? Who’s going to read it? A bunch of people in grad school? Fuck that…Everybody plays video games.” With the real-life writers moving from movies and print to games, they might be even harder to ignore.

3.  Sometimes art doesn’t ask.  It just shows up.

One of each, once in a while, please.

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Photography #1: Lee Friedlander (America by Car)

Friend of the family, Leigh Wells, has something to say:

Lee Friedlander’s exhibition at the Whitney consists of one hundred and ninety-two densely hung, black & white photographs from his trips across the US in rental cars. The photographs span two rooms and take a great deal of time to look at. These extra minutes we often don’t spend reveal a surprising breadth, disguised by a simple, if not banal, premise: pictures from a driver’s seat.

Despite having gone once before to see Lee Friedlander’s America By Car (huffing, puffing, and leaving after a quick glance), I really enjoyed this show on a return visit.  The Whitney exhibition text notes “the brilliantly simple conceipt of deploying the sideview mirror, rearview mirror, the windshield, and the side windows as picture frames within which to record reflections of this country’s eccentricities and obsessions at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” There is truth in that statement, but what makes the work even more significant is its indirect comment on the culture of photography.

The number of writers and photographers who have traveled across the United States, beit by car, train, by hook or by crook, is both inspiring and oftentimes disheartening for emerging and established artists. If the challenge of art is to create the new, there is not a drop of new blood left in the idea of making work while traveling from here to there (not to say that the work itself may not somehow be unique or worthy). Our generation of photographers is among a number of others that teethed on Robert Frank’s The Americans, Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures, and works by the FSA photographers (Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Russell Lee to name a few) who traveled the American west. So is it interesting to any working photographer that Lee traveled across the US, regardless of how much we may respect his work? Nope.

Ignoring the knowledge of Friedlander’s presence, I observe how the shifts and subtle changes in the images present new scenarios and a new person behind the driver’s wheel each time. More than this, I think of the car as the photographer’s steed, the key to our adventures and hunt for the extraordinary in the banal. The presence of the cars’ windows as frames within the image remind me not of our postmodern lust for enframing, but how traveling in a car is connected with our experience of seeing and its role in our lives as photographers. The car, be it rental or a Honda Civic in its last miles, has been our trusty steed and imperfect savior.

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The Present Moment: Spencer Finch in Washington

Not interested in abstraction? No problem. (photo by Rob Shore)

I strongly support museums that are open to the public where the hoity-toity and hoi polloi can wonder and feign understanding together. As of this week, we also wholeheartedly support the Spencer Finch exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  His installation/thingamajig, ‘Sunlight in an Empty Room,’ hangs in the rotunda as apparently fluffy and fun as cotton candy, but more satisfying.  The other room is filled with things – scotch tape, photographs, paint, fluorescent bulbs – that are as diverse as a group exhibition and about as abstract as a weather map.  This is art through popular science, or perhaps the other way around, but it’s mostly a lot of fun without being dumb.

What it isn’t is free – and this is important in a town divided between dedication to economic liberalism or central administration of public goods.  The Corcoran, a private labyrinth housing a college, library, and gallery, charges admission. Our $10 won us an 87-minute wander through galleries whose cumulative effect paled, inevitably, in comparison with the embarrassment of riches at the National Gallery.  We loved Spencer Finch and enjoyed ourselves, but were left wondering if we’d enjoyed ourselves enough when the other option is more famous and doesn’t charge admission.

Buyer’s remorse and rational economic choices have a strange and fuzzy place in and around the arts.  Museum admission is a private contribution to a public good – you give so we all get, so it’s somewhat disingenuous to measure outcomes in numbers.  Still, we paid about $1 for every 8 minutes 42 seconds at an enjoyment quotient somewhere between a round of beers and a sunset.  Worth paying, yes, but a far cry from a rational economic decision when Alexander Calder, Georgia O’Keefe, and Jackson Pollack jostle for space in just half of a museum down the road where no one takes your money at the door.

A numbered way of looking at something other than blackbirds.

The perception that we need to choose one ultimately better option, however, assumes a single standard and competitive institutions.  Like our political parties, the National Gallery and the Corcoran have different mandates and missions but they are more alike than different. One is the storehouse and showpiece of a country’s treasures to which we get a lifetime pass through a small annual fee – our taxes.  The other is a jack-of-all-arts in a beautiful and distinct building that sells day passes.  Unlike the elephants and asses, however, there is a space for each and on a mid-autumn lark, we were fortunate to appreciate both.

Their peaceful coexistence is a reassuring reminder that at least one part of Washington has a difference of opinion that leads to a better experience for all of us. Part of that experience is Spencer Finch, a further reminder that the right now, with all of its angles and overlapping colors, is impermanent.  In the competition to capture the present moment, if there must be a competition, we choose Spencer Finch at the Corcoran over Democrat and Republican.

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Museums #2 – A Quality Start

In the Southern Hemisphere, 'sport' is a plural noun.


It’s a beautiful day for art here at the hallowed ground of the Ian Potter Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Melbourne. We have an intriguing match-up –  Art + Sport – in the Basil Sellers Art Prize.    Basil Sellers, an Australian businessman, has given 110% in this one.  He’s got $100,000 on the line, and this is winner-take-all.

There’s no love lost between the medium and the subject, but I’m expecting a real barn-burner. The sports-mad city of Melbourne has always rallied around sport, but art is a real up-and-comer.  A crowd of just one is one hand today, but you can feel the electricity for this battle of epic proportions.

The Commercial Break

Today’s match-up is brought to you by a populist blend of public transportation, a brewery, an articifial turf provider, and those television screens that play continually in office tower lobbies.  Our sponsors remind you that you can take the pigment to the people, but they might prefer a pigskin.

The Main Event

Collectively, these artists are five-tool players – they can do it all, from sculpture to film, dioramas to paintings.  I’d love to take this exhibition one piece at a time, but there’s not much time left on the clock.

At the end of the day, I’m going to have to go with the judges on this one – Tarryn Gill and Pilar Mata Dupont prove there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Art’ with an incredible team effort.  Their Gymnasium 2010 is really the defining piece of the show. They’ve stuck to the fundamentals, but you can’t teach inspiration.  The beauty and gentle satire of Gymnasium is really something.

AFL Goal Umps rate art quite highly.

You also can’t say enough about the photography of Ponch Hawkes.  Today wasn’t her day, but a career in art is a marathon, not a sprint.  She’s on a mission to turn the testosterone driven world of sport on its head and someday soon she’ll be getting the respect she deserves.

The Sideline Reporter

Before the game, there were some that thought this exhibit was pandering to a popular audience. Potter Museum coach/Chair Julie Ann Cox, however, knows that a good offense is the best defense. In the play-by-play catalogue, Cox says that the Basil Potter Prize “emphatically challenges visitors to the Potter to reflect on a theme central to Australian history and contemporary society.” She really knows how to silence the critics.


I still don’t know the rules for cricket or why anyone would ever voluntarily cycle competitively, but there’s no question about it – these artists are hitting on all cylinders. Art + Sport has some inspired performances and, if the crowd gets behind them, it’s going to be a whole new ballgame.

Final Score: Like sport, Art + Sport is colorful, lucrative, and occasionally chaotic.  It’s also a critical look at the often-underexamined public ritual of sport.  As the promotional materials say, Art is the winner.

Thanks to http://www.sportscliche.com and a childhood wasted watching Sportscenter for their invaluable contributions to banal language.

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