Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Images of England

October 24, 2010

A recent article in the New Yorker, about Cameron’s Big Society, analyzed the new Tory call for Austerity, and what exactly this Big Society entails apart from curtailing services and expecting the private citizen to step into the breach as the government recedes.

Two kinds of images most often come to mind when thinking of British Austerity. One is of post-war England, which Tony Judt wrote about so poignantly last May in the NYRB , and that Mike Leigh portrayed so starkly  in Vera Drake – that kind of stoic resignation to bare-bones living that makes you feel downright spoiled for having heat, food and a comfortable bed.

The other kind of image is of post-industrial England, especially its North.  The North, and the Midlands, have gotten to see themselves portrayed rather often the last few years,  poster children of England under and after the Iron Lady.  In 2006, This Is England (you can watch a great trailer for it here), captured the jobless, colorless landscape in the Midlands in the 80’s, during the Falklands and the reign of Maggie Thatcher (all with a great soundtrack). Through the angst of a little boy who has lost his father in the war, and who can’t seem to understand on whom to blame it, we watch the need of everyone he encounters to figure out how to live with their own frustrations and lack of choices and control over their lives.  A misfit himself, he befriends a group of local, friendly, fun, and mostly apolitical skinheads and then, ultimately, finds what he thinks is the right answer with nationalist, racist ones who feel like they have

“lost their  country” and know exactly whom to blame it.  

Not long after This Is England, Control, the Ian Curtis biopic, showed us its bleakest views of Manchester and England, emphasized by the film’s palette of black-gray-white.  While Ian Curtis’ state of mind and experience likely guided that choice, it was hard not to imagine that one might become suicidal just by living in that sooty landscape, in the shadow of large factories and row houses that at least in the movie did not seem like the kind of refuge you seek when you step inside your home and close the door.

More recently, in 2009, the epic Red Riding Trilogy (New Yorker review here), used post-industrial Yorkshire as the setting for its hard-boiled crime story. The resulting three films, which screened together at the IFC Center last year, were satisfyingly grim and violent but so visually lyrical and beautiful, with a proper soundtrack to match, that you did not want to fault the filmmakers for once again using northern industrial landscapes to create that effect. It might be easier to set a gritty police procedural in Yorkeshire than elsewhere, but is that so wrong? I wouldn’t mind seeing a whole new series set in Yorkshire in the 80’s or even today (England’s answer to Baltimore in The Wire?) Probably not right to romanticize it , but it is hard not to at the same time.

A current exhibit at the Amador Gallery, on 57th street in the Fuller Building also shows images of the de-industrialized North.  It is Chris Killip’s first commercial exhibit in the United States, which is surprising since he is one of England’s most accomplished photographers. It’s possible that his very direct criticism of Thatcher through his photography was seen as unfashionable as other, more subtle, modes of artistic critique took hold, much as Ken Loach is derided for his heavy-handedness. However, Killip’s work is too monumental and beautiful as an art form to dismiss as Old Labour propaganda. His book In Flagrante, based on his years photographing the northeast of England in the late 70’s and early 80’s, is seen as an iconic documentation of that period in England, and is considered by many the most important book of English photography from the 80’s. Killip won the Henri Cartier-Bresson award for it and it was republished last year by Errata.

While the photos in the Amador exhibit are  unflinching observations of a dour and depressed North, most are also arrestingly beautiful. One, called True Love Wall (taken in Gateshead, Tyneside, in 1975), is of a man with his back to us, looking at a brick wall, with newspapers flying past him like tumbleweed. If only for this picture alone you should go to the exhibit, because no reproduction can do it justice, the light reflecting on the newspapers has not been reproduced in any book or other image of the print I have seen. While there you can also flip through In Flagrante and read the essay in it, beautifully written by John Berger.

As Britain’s new government demands more of its citizens, it will be interesting to see whether the dynamics of England’s supposedly fading rigid class system of days of yore will come into relief again like under Thatcher, or, hopefully, class lines will be further blurred by a shared experience of these measures of Austerity.

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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.”

Russia Redux – Image is Everything

March 16, 2010

Russia has a very special relationship with its past. All nations have a selective memory when it comes to serving their nationalistic needs, but Russian revisionism is an art form Leni Riefenstahl must have envied. The Soviets mastered it and modern Russia is certainly reviving this creative spirit.

Last spring, taking the lead (or the order) from Putin, President Medvedev created a History Commission, to counter any unfair or untrue appraisals of Russian history, especially during WWII. And the revisionism is not only top down. As part of what seems like an effort to strengthen and reassert Russian society, Russians themselves appear especially eager to rehabilitate even their most ruthless villains (the ruthlessness is undoubtedly part of the charm). In a nationwide contest last year for “Greatest Russian,” Stalin fared frighteningly well, third from the top, ahead of Pushkin and Catherine the Great (Alexander Nevsky beat him and Pyotr Stolypin by a small margin).

But as Leni Riefenstal, Sergei Eisentein, and the clever men they served, well understood, it is images that are most effective at recreating reality, at impressing a more a agreeable and convenient version of past and present. Especially in a nation reared on religious icons and Socialist Realism posters, the savvy manipulation of images has always gone hand in hand with effective state control.

In this month’s ARTnews, Konstantin Akinsha writes about the evolution of the portrayal of two of Russia’s oldest and holiest heroes — Saints Boris and Gleb, depicted countless times over the centuries in gorgeous gold-plated icons. The two achieved martyrdom in the 11th Century by refusing to preempt an assasination plot by their fratricidal brother to claim the throne. They accepted their fate without a fight. This legacy can be seen in icons from the few centuries subsequent to their death, where they stand side by side, peacefully. However, by the war-scarred 15th century, this serene, somewhat fragile depiction did not suit Russian ambition and reality – newer, more appropriate depicitions made warriors of the brothers – now depicted on horseback, ready to lead their men into battle.

Boris & Gleb

With the resurgence of the Orthodox Church as part of Russia’s reassertion of its identity as strong and fearless, iconography of its martyrs and saints has regained importance. A current show at the Louvre called “Holy Russia,” provides ample proof, including the fact that the director of the Louvre sought the church’s blessings and support for the exhibition (even though nearly all of the objects were borrowed from public museums).

Seizing on the power of the image and the power of the church, Putin’s tinkering with the legacy of Boris and Gleb should then come as no surprise. According to Akinsha, last year during a visit to the studio of a famous Russian artist, Putin set his sights on an image of Boris & Gleb and declared, “We have to fight for ourselves, for our country, but Boris and Gleb sacrificed themselves without a fight. They can’t set an example for us.”

Sin City (Oscars Postscript)

March 10, 2010

So which is Hollywood’s greater sin — rewarding cheeseball blockbusters with serious praise, or rewarding itself for its political awareness with equal seriousness?

The critics tore into “Avatar” for its simplistic political allegory about the environment and corporate greed that portrayed the noble savage as both white man’s burden and salvation. But in his essay in the current New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn wonders why the critics concentrated on the political and ethical issues of the story rather than on whether or not it was original.  Why decry the use of antiquated stereotypes for ethical reasons but not artistic ones? It does seem that the latter is accepted and forgiven (and probably expected) while the former is not. The two are not equally offensive, and perhaps they shouldn’t be.

But the critics seemed to have missed the point completely with the other cheeseball movie that won significant praise last Sunday night: “The Blind Side.” And “The Blind Side” doesn’t have the gorgeous, exuberant 3D world that made the  plot of “Avatar” easy to accept and sit through. While the critics did slam “The Blind Side” for its heavy-handed and sappy delivery of a true story, they neglected to take it to task for its much larger problem. It was a sappy and heavy-handed movie about a rich white woman in the South with an earthy take no prisoners attitude (whom Sarah Palin undoubtedly adores) who decides to take in a black boy and save him from what would surely have been a less privileged life.  That he ends up a successful professional football player seems to only thicken the problematic plot. While it is based on a true story (one that I was kind of shocked to learn was written by Michael Lewis) and the real life family are undoubtedly wonderful, generous people, it is a bit bizarre that the major critics didn’t find fault with the story of a poor black boy finding salvation through white people and through football. When I saw the preview I actually could not believe  this movie was produced and then could not believe its trajectory. Best Picture nominee? Best Actress Oscar? 

The Academy seems to have awarded Sandra Bullock the Oscar for her role as America’s New Sweetheart, and that’s nothing new,  Julia Roberts won the America’s Sweetheart Oscar for her earthy heroine role in “Erin Brockovich.”  But usually that type of Oscar is awarded for a role that is pseudo-political in a very uncontroversial way, or is a fun somewhat cinematically serious romp (like Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line” and Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love” ). This movie seems to fall into the pseudo-political uncontroversial camp, but it really isn’t. While individual moral actions are probably more important than one’s politics, the tone of the story seems to have more of a Tea Party appeal of “real America” and individual action as a way to buck the broken system.  The critics stood up for the Navi by criticizing  the antiquated stereotype of the noble savage  but did not find  fault with “The Blind Side” where real people in a real America are portrayed.

At a roundtable discussion on Charlie Rose before the Oscars,  that included A.O. Scott from the New York Times and several other prominent movie critics from Slate and Salon, this issue did not arise once.  Actually A.O. Scott predicted that “The Blind Side” might be the dark horse for best picture (!) . Of course that does not equal endorsement but he also didn’t qualify his prediction and did not find fault with the movie on this level in his review in the Times

“The Blind Side” is perfect  for trying to decide which sin is greater — rewarding a  hammy script and hammier acting vs. Hollywood praise and self-congratulation for a movie that is actually ethically and politically kind of appalling. That the Academy considers itself “liberal” and “progressive” underscores how out of touch it seems to be and creates perfect fodder for people like Andrew Breitbart — canny conservatives who pounce on the easy targets of the politically naive and self-righteous folks on the left.  It’s ok to be a celebrity with a cause, it’s actually probably even a good thing, sometimes a great thing. But really? The Blind Side?