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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

another world

People have been wondering whether Sacha Baron Cohen will be able to continue doing Borat or his other characters in the wake of his widespread fame. The question is somewhat short-sighted in that it assumes a more universal cultural consciousness than actually obtains in the world. No doubt many more people now recognize Baron Cohen in his various guises, but networks of information and exchange in this country, as in every country, have few, if any, connection points.

Let's take an example, and here I'm assuming that everyone reading this in 2006 is a cosmopolitan of one stripe or another. One of the top-selling authors in American history is alive right now and his name is Tim LaHaye. He attracted the attention of The New Yorker last year, so he won't be totally unknown to my readers, but he has been around much longer than that and his Left Behind series of books has sold 63 million copies, according to his website. 63 million copies and I have never seen a single one despite teaching literature and writing for a living. I don't even know anyone who has read one of his books.

We tend to live in our own little echo chambers. We surround ourselves with people and media that reflect our taste and that cater to our needs. And that's okay. Frankly, I don't want to read the Left Behind books. They probably have as much to say about religion as Ben-Hur. I recently got a copy of the gnostic gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi and I'm looking forward to reading that, but again, that is a work editted by a scholar according to standards of academic textual scholarship so it, too, reflects my world.

The point is, all the people out there who shun the supposedly debauched world of the Hollywood elite probably don't know any more about Borat than you, dear reader, know about Tim LaHaye. The same is true of people who just don't see that far beyond their world. In the 1990's I asked my grandfather if he knew who Michael Jordan was. He did not. I was only mildly surprised. Why the hell would James Baker know Ali G? Does James Baker seem hip to you?

As for the Tim LaHaye industry, they are now selling Left Behind videogames. From the official website:
"Finally, we have an inspirational game for the marketplace that challenges game makers' beliefs that gore is better, by introducing one of the first high-quality games with a positive moral message. No blood, no gore, just great fun!" said Troy Lyndon, co-founder and CEO of Left Behind Games.
The Associated Press ASAP calls it " … perfect content for a video game. " … a positive moral message," states AOL.com

(Yes, that is the punctuation at the Left Behind site.)

A videogame with a positive moral message. Somehow, I think they're missing the point of videogames. And yes, there will be much more to say about æsthetics and didacticism in the future.

Monday, November 27, 2006

climbing trees

Since I have David Byrne on my mind so much this week, I decided to start reading his new book Arboretum. I begin my work most days the same way: I inspect (or read) a few pages of an art book or exhibition catalogue and then I closely read a sonnet twice. Doing this serves as a ritual to start the day but it offers much more.

Working my way incrementally through a book of discrete units, either paintings or sonnets, leads to a different appreciation than plowing through the book in a few sittings. The knowledge I gain feels coquettish. It lingers for weeks and months, always promising more and always making me return for another brief glimpse. I don't get to reach closure until I have proven my dedication, and if I falter by not showing up for a few days, it will take that much longer to reach my goal. It also grounds my reading and viewing experience in some deeper place in my mind. The three architectures of the sonnet—Petrarchan, Shakespearean, and Spenserian—have been slowly burned into me over many hundreds of days.

So today I started David Byrne's book of tree drawings the same way: I read only the preface and will look at no more than three to five drawings a day. It's a book of connections that is already leading to new sets of connections for me as a reader. The drawings take the form of trees apparently showing genealogies of ideas and practices, but closer inspection shows that the associations are fanciful. And yet they are irresistible. The links between Priests, Mullahs, and Rabbis to Literary Critics in drawing 26 are obvious enough, but Record Collectors, Flower Arrangers, and IT Designers? And (WTF?) Fly Fishers? You get the idea.

The drawings indulge an attraction I share to the forms of scientific inquiry and order while overlooking any mandate of investing these forms with the right kind of content, in this case positive scientific knowledge. In the preface he refers to the motivations for the drawings as 'Commands to myself to make mental maps of imaginary territory.' One thinks readily of Basquiat's faux indexes, strange histories, and riotous Roman numbering in paintings like Jawbone of an Ass (1982). (Click on it at the other site for enlargement.)

Why do forms lure us even when deliberately emptied of their historically and culturally appropriate contents? A patent drawing of a hamburger. Architectural plans for a sneeze. Or, like Basquiat, copyright symbols and notary public seals invoking a fanciful, alternative officialdom. Is part of this impulse a bow to the authority of culturally prestigious practices? Why do we enjoy the traffic in symbols and forms even after we have drained them of their traditional meanings?

There is something both seductive and rebellious about draining traditional forms of their assigned content and then using those forms to dress up alternative material, particularly when that material is nonsense. Or when the re-assignment raises questions about the validity of cultural authority in the first place. David Byrne has proceeded by this method before, as in The New Sins, his pseudo-catechism. We will have to see over the next few weeks where his tree drawings take us.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

double intertextuality

Yesterday I went to the MoMA to see the Manet and Brice Marden exhibits. The first one, called Manet and the Execution of Maximilian, is a deep archive of the famous image, presented alongside a reunion of Manet's representations of it. The other works include photographs of the firing squad and the execution site, other artists' representations of the scene, and other fascinating pieces including a later Manet work on the suppression of the Paris Commune where he borrowed his own visual composition from the Maximilian. The only thing missing was Goya or a reproduction thereof. Couldn't they even put up a postcard of Goya's Third of May 1808 for visual comparison? Not everyone is as Goya-obsessed as I am becoming.

Marden, too, based a painting on a Goya but in a totally different vein of borrowing: he only took Goya's colors. This has to be seen to be appreciated. Here is Goya's The Countess of Carpio, Marquise de la Solana. And here is Marden's D'après de la Marquise de la Solana.

What can one say about the Marden other than, Cool?

troubled necessary viewing

Tonight I saw 'Two Rode Together' (1961), a tempermentally uneven western by John Ford starring James Stewart. Thematically, it revisited the white captivity themes of 'The Searchers' but with major differences. One could say a lot about this film but to whom? I doubt most people have seen it. They ought to, particularly if they think seriously about 'The Searchers'.

As a film, it's surprisingly poor for John Ford. The compositions are flat; there's too much exposition, delivered in static-frame long takes; there are artless shadows in some of the outdoor scenes. Writing-wise, its mood shifts too suddenly and too many times. Worse, it takes on a cornucopia of issues, all of which it shies away from exploring in any depth. As soon as anything gets hot, the story brushes past the difficulty or offers hokey resolutions.

Despite the film's many flaws, its racist pathologies are fascinating. The plot involves a mission to recover white captives from the Comanches, or to resign the lost to being, shall we say, beyond the pale. Stewart's character is thoroughly mercenary, at least until he turns in a different direction late in the film, but this is not otherwise a western where, as in 'Fort Apache', the white cavalry, under bad leadership, commits the treacherous acts that lead to conflict. Here the Native Americans are the bad guys, and their cultural and sexual taint renders their white captives un-integratable as returnees to white society. If any film scholars are reading this, I urge them to give this film the attention it is due as a thematic sequel to 'The Searchers'.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

better living through consumption

It's funny. Only yesterday did I buy my first original work of art, yet today all I can think about is building a collection. Although I bought it out of genuine interest and will likely keep it a long time as my first acquisition, I can now readily think of art objects in the alienated terms of investment and exchange value. And why not? I've always been susceptible to the visceral and sublime sensations that art can provoke, without ever being romantic enough to forget that art is a job performed by professionals. ('Being creative is a job.' Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense, liner notes, 1984.)

Collecting, of any sort, has an odd relationship to self-identification. Some people are critical of the idea of consumption as a mode of identity-formation, but there must be something to it. I'm indifferent to the morality of such a notion. It is neither to be celebrated nor disdained. For better or for worse, we express ourselves, in part, by what we buy. But that is surely only a small part of how we invent and re-invent ourselves. Doting on one's cats says more about oneself than wearing Kenneth Cole suits. It's fun to shop, especially in a spirit of pagan shamelessness, but having a bit of perspective never hurt anyone either.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

incipient art collector

I bought my first original artwork today. It's a drawing by David Byrne from his new work on display through November 25 at Pace/MacGill. David Byrne was actually there today with his parents, but I did not want to intrude on his private family time by being a pesky fan. A few years ago I regretted not buying one of his tree drawings. Today I paid the price, literally: his chair drawing cost me more than double what his tree drawing would have cost back in 2003. I decided today not to make the same mistake again.

I have to admit to some trepidation followed by elation followed by doubt at buying a work of art. Once I decided to do it, I knew I could not afford it right now but I had to do it. Then I was jubilant to own something by an artist whose work and way of thinking have influenced me since my teenaged years. On the way home I started to think I had overpaid. But now I'm cool with it and eager to receive it and hang it in my apartment.

For someone who usually pooh-poohs the idea that art changes people, I have to admit that David Byrne is probably the one artist whose work has most influenced my own thinking. I was unhealthily ultra-serious as a youth, and here was this guy, whose music I loved, who had found a way to be both earnest and ironic at the same time. I've never heard anyone associate David Byrne with Oscar Wilde, but there's a similar wiliness about their public conduct. How else are we to understand his admiration of Microsoft Powerpoint and its Auto-Content Wizard? We can laugh at Powerpoint and office culture all we want: they are easy targets. Yet there is something perversely fascinating about them. Isn't there? That strange rhetoric of mine whereby I blur the line between sincerity and irony owes a lot to David Byrne.

The drawing I bought, which won't be delivered until the exhibition ends, is a chair with a very large rectangular back. I chose it because the proportions of the back reminded me of Richard Serra's steel plates. I doubt that's what David Byrne had in mind when drawing it, but that's what made it stand out for me from the others. How exciting.