Archive for April, 2010

Art: What Is It Good For? Why Do We Like It?

April 26, 2010

(And Why One Bookstore Makes NYC A Better Place)

In a city that has not been known for its bookstores in quite some time, one bookstore seems to almost single-handedly defy a more recent law of physics – the downward spiral of the publishing industry. At McNally Jackson, on Prince Street, the staff recommendations remind you of forgotten literary treasures and introduce you to new ones, and the weekly roster of readings and events provide the type of public space New Yorkers crave and need like the denizens of few other cities (there is a reason the Highline has struck exactly the right chord in this city; apart from the nearly magical reclamation of an old rusty track and unexpectedly nuanced new design, it gives New Yorkers room to breathe and be near each other by choice).  Spending time in McNally Jackson almost makes Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was The Rage – about the literary, book and smoke-filled salon world of post-WWII Greenwich Village, where he, among many others, opened bookshops for a pittance — not quite as mythic and wistful. For a few moments the reader can close her eyes and pretend that Broyard’s New York still exists.

One of the many events and activities McNally Jackson offers, both to enrich the community and compete with Amazon, is the monthly meeting of its art book club. The last two books the group read and discussed – The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich and The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton – help guide both expert and amateur through the role and evolution of art in this world, in two very different ways. Not unlike printed books today, art has often had to fight to prove its place as more than just a cultural flourish, and these books are good ammo.

Though it is most often contemporary art that comes under a scornful gaze, the question of “Why is it art?” and the fearful sense that one “doesn’t get it,” has always kept many away. Few people have answered these questions more elegantly and invitingly than E.H. Gombrich in his classic, The Story of Art.  Like his A Little History of the World, the prose in this mini-history is intended for a young adult reader, but in a way that is so gentle, clear and unpatronizing that you would have to fight hard not to find yourself totally charmed at any age. The Story of Art is a primer on how to look at art and its history, but one can keep returning to it, either as a reminder on how to fall in love with art again, or merely to look at the book’s gorgeous color plates.

While Gombrich makes the case for art by appearing to let it speak for itself, Denis Dutton places art on the evolutionary map to show just how intrinsic it is to the state of being human. Dutton seems intent on showing how universal so many aspects of art are, and that they do not develop because of socialization alone (or even mostly), but rather are a natural product of evolutionary adaptations. Most major evolutionary biologists and psychologists, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Pinker, have more or less concluded that art is a tangential byproduct of evolutionary adaptations, but Dutton, a philosopher of art, makes a compelling, if not completely convincing, argument that art is more central. He makes his best argument for the role of fiction and the “brute fact of the pleasure and universality of storytelling… why the mind is designed to find stories interesting.”  He quotes Joseph Carroll, a “literary Darwinist” who says “But like dreams, and unlike other forms of conscious conceptual order – science, philosophy, scholarship – literature taps directly into the elemental response systems activated by emotion. Works of literature thus form a point of intersection between the most emotional, subjective parts of the mind and the most abstract and cerebral.”

Gombrich and Dutton help describe and explain why art exists, what role it has played through the centuries, and how it has arrived at this point in our and its evolution. Whether or not art has any further “’practical” use seems moot and yet there are some good answers to even this question. In her essay, On Style, Susan Sontag writes about art and morality: “For it is sensibility that nourishes our capacity for moral choice, and prompts our readiness to act, assuming that we do choose, which is a prerequisite  for calling an act moral, and are not just blindly and unreflectively obeying. Art performs this “moral” task because the qualities which are intrinsic to the aesthetic experience (disinterestedness, contemplativeness, attentiveness, the awakening of the feelings) and to the aesthetic object (grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, sensuousness) are also fundamental constituents of a moral response to life.”

Boxing, Race & Obama (And David Remnick’s New Book)

April 10, 2010

In a recent conversation at the New York Public Library about David Remnick’s new book about Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates asked Remnick whether there was an analogy to be made between Remnick’s experience as an American Jew and Obama’s experience as an African American. On the contrary, Remnick insisted, pointing out that he acquired his cultural identity at the kitchen table, his family and community’s idiosyncrasies seeping in almost unnoticed. Obama, on the other hand, had to actively seek out his identity as a black man in America since he was raised by a white family in a state with a negligible black population.   Remnick’s book revisits the conversation about Obama’s racial identity – both self-imposed and perceived – and the role his racial identity plays in shaping the discussion about race in America.

Remnick has had some experience writing about iconic black American men and their redefinitions of “blackness” on their own terms.  In his seminal book on Ali, King of the World, Remnick deftly explores Ali’s transformation from Cassius Clay – the middle class young boxer from Louisville, with grand aspirations – into Muhammad Ali, the larger than life boxer on the world stage with even grander ideas about boxing, race and a keen understanding of his role in both, arguably as keen as Obama’s.  In King of the World, Remnick writes about Cassius Clay after his entry into the Nation of Islam: “…whether the press understood it or not, (Ali/Clay) had quietly forsaken the image of the unthreatening black fighter established by Joe Louis and then imitated by Jersey Joe Walcott and Floyd Patterson and dozens of others. Clay was declaring that he would not fit any stereotypes, he would not follow any set standard of behavior.  And while Liston had also declared his independence from convention (through sheer don’t –give-a-shit truculence), Clay’s message was political. He, and not Jimmy Cannon or the NAACP, would define his blackness, his religion, his history.”

There are few better prisms through which to observe race in America than boxing. Several books have grasped this notion especially well :   Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward, about the first black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and more recently, Sweet Thunder about Sugar Ray Robinson, by Wil Haygood.  And Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, perhaps most poignantly and famously, wrote about Sonny Liston as the kind of black man white America was only too willing, for too long, to ignore. Jones wrote this homage to Liston in reaction to other writers’ praise of Patterson, and their contrasting abhorrence of Liston. Norman Mailer and James Baldwin lauded Patterson’s gentle strength and fortitude and rejected Liston’s brutish, unrefined persona.  Jones, on the other hand, had a rather different appraisal of Sonny Liston and rejected what he saw as the passivity and preciousness of Patterson.  In an essay, originally published in 1964 and now part of a Jones collection titled Home, he writes of Liston:

(He was) “the big black Negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world…He is the underdeveloped, have-not (politically naïve), backward country, the subject people, finally here to collect his pound of flesh.”

While Jones eventually gravitated towards Ali, his riff on Liston tore open the positive perception and acceptance of the more mild-mannered Patterson and the attendant dialogue about race, which seemed due for reappraisal in an era where established identities and myths were exploded on a daily basis.

Both that defining era and today were strikingly present during Remnick’s and Coates’ conversation last week, as they similarly were during the last presidential race. Coates himself embodies the several tones present in every discussion of race, since his father was a Black Panther and came of age in that era, after serving in Vietnam.  Apparently Coates’ father even chided his son for drinking from the Obama Kool-aid (though Coates senior did eventually vote for him as well).   And the best example of the old guard’s relationship with Obama was summed up perfectly in Remnick’s anecdote about Bobby Rush’s imitation of Obama’s acquired “black” strut, openly mocking what Rush sees as the President’s inauthentic way of coming by being black.

Obama is, very much, the consummate politician, and has succeeded in remaining just opaque and vague enough to withstand scrutiny visited on less canny pols. Especially as compared with American history’s great black boxers, this makes it much more difficult to assess his racial identity, since it is hard to tell where the true man begins and the politician ends. Yet Remnick, who acknowledges Obama’s keen machinations in many other parts of his life, does not attribute any calculating tendency as part of Obama’s self-constructed racial identity, which is a bit surprising.  Everyone’s identity is a construction to varying degrees, so it seemed odd  that Remnick would go to great lengths to stress Obama’s authenticity as a black man, and also seems besides the point. Remnick should perhaps instead emphasize what he did so beautifully in his Ali book, and invoke Obama as a reflection of American perception of race today and what is possible racially and what is still not.