Both the title and the trailer of Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (now playing in DC at the E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema) suggest that this will be the story of how a man becomes a fundamentalist: how a young-gun New York financier, humiliated and mistreated after 9/11, turns his back on America and returns to Pakistan to become an Islamic terrorist. This is not the actual story of the film. In a sense the movie has too much story for this summary, and the protagonist, Changez Khan (a changeable, intense Riz Ahmed), gets trapped in the conflicting interpretations by which other people file down his life into intelligibility.
Artinfo reported Wednesday that an old girlfriend of 1980s graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is preparing to unveil a trove of personal ephemera from their days living together in the East Village. The apartment, which Alexis Adler owns, is still decorated with Basquiat’s skeletal scrawls: a mural that reads “Olive Oyl,” a painting of crowns and the words “Famous Negro Athletes” on a door, and the word “Milk” on a radiator. Seeing that a mini-retrospective of Basquiat’s works at the Gagosian gallery is attracting over 4000 visitors a day, that his’s paintings regularly sell at auction for over $10 million, and that in 2012, for the second year running, sales of his paintings, clocking in at €80m, far outstripped the take of any other artist born after 1945, this is no empty news for New York City, and great business for Adler.
Basquiat’s heads are stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster, psychotic rage and despair leaking out of the skull. His later work became rude, childish, and weak. Perhaps fame undercut his sense of righteous fury. But aside from any consideration of the merits of his work, it goes to show that Andy Warhol’s sympathetic touch still reaches out from the grave and turns to gold all the labors of his reverent Maenads.
Basquiat didn’t find a critical audience until 1979, where he started making appearances on Glenn O’Brien’s (now the GQ style guy) cable show TV Times. Glenn was a early member of Warhol’s Factory, and editor-in-chief of his literary outlet Interview. Basquiat introduced himself to Warhol in 1980, and the two collaborated heavily after that. In Victor Bockris’s Warhol: A Biography, long-time Warhol assistant Ronny Cutrone describes the relationship:
It was like some crazy art-world marriage and they were the odd couple. The relationship was symbiotic. Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy’s fame, and Andy thought he needed Jean-Michel’s new blood. Jean-Michel gave Andy a rebellious image again.
But it wasn’t until in 1981 when an article, entitled “The Radiant Child,” appeared in ArtForum praising Basquiat that he came to the attention of a wider art audience. The author of the article was René Ricard, also an Andy Warhol protégé.
After Warhol’s death in 1987, Basquiat became isolated and depressed, and eventually died overdosing on heroin. Basquiat’s unhinged violence curiously balances Warhol’s soporifics. Warhol was a sort of anti-Tao, a placid centre unleashing chaos around him.
I leave you with a gratuitous illustration of Warhol’s seeming ubiquity: Andy Warhol met one of his “superstars,” the transvestite Candy Darling (who also committed suicide at a young age), in 1967 at a gangster-owned club called the Tenth of Always in NYC, while sitting with Velvet Underground lead Lou Reed. Candy was performing in “Glamour, Glory and Gold,” a play written by drag queen Jackie Curtis, another Warhol star. On stage alongside Candy and Jackie was one man, in his first-ever acting job, playing all six male parts. His name was Robert de Niro.
Eighteen years after sleeping in a box among jumbled artifacts of British culture in an exhibit by Cornelia Parker, Tilda Swinton, minor celebrity, is reprising her tumblrbait act, The Maybe, first performed in 1995, at the Museum of Modern Art. At unscripted times throughout this year you might find her outside the atrium.
The odd thing about the exercise is its total lack of ambition or humor or irony. The event (it is vaguely in the genre of performance art) doesn’t register its own banality. The most excitement the museum scraped from the exhibit was that it wouldn’t always be there. MoMA said in a public statement,
No published schedule for its appearance, no artist’s statement released, no museum statement beyond this brief context, no public profile or image issued. Those who find it chance upon it for themselves, live and in real—shared—time: now we see it, now we don’t.
The art world is either thrilled that their beloved Swinton is on display, or just dutifully descriptive of the emperor’s latest stunt. Jerry Saltz is laboriously non-committal. No-one, hardly even the museum, appears to be interested in the exhibit as a work of art. There are at least as many posts reporting the reaction of twitter to the event as reporting the event itself.
The one humane bit of insight among the effusive detritus was from the New Republic. Jason Farago points out that Swinton earned her notoriety by being the subject of that original 1995 piece, the design of which wasn’t even hers, but one Cornelia Parker’s. In it she slept alongside Napoleon’s rosary, Turner’s watercolour box, Charles Dickens’s last pen, Robert Maxwell’s shoe lasts, one of Churchill’s half-smoked cigars, the manuscript of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting, Charles Babbage’s brain, and with Faraday’s Magneto Spark apparatus, among other things. Says Farago,
It was Parker’s work that made Swinton’s more than just a performance cliché, and without that context it’s hard to see the new The Maybe as anything other than an empty gesture by a movie star with an incomplete command of art history.
(A wikipedia contributor back in 2007 specifically disputed that Parker was the author of the original show, asserting that she merely helped Swinton prepare it. That assertion has since stood on Swinton’s wiki page, but the only reporting I have been able to find is from a piece by the Independent in 1995, which supports Farago.)
Secondly, Farago points out, the exhibition is curated by Klaus Biesenbach, a notorious populist in the tradition of Andy Warhol. The MoMA under Biesenbach has displayed its fair share of impassioned interactive depravity. But the tiredness of the sleeping Swinton suggests that those other peculiar exhibits were utterly banal as well, the humdrum titillation of being brushed by nude bodies as you walked through the exhibit, for instance, hardly worth mentioning.
Still, at least Swinton looks like David Bowie.
As an outsider, I’ve been utterly transfixed by the last two papal conclaves (at 36, the only ones I can remember)—the white smoke; the crowd of people, with their diverse faces, in St. Peter’s Square and the Road of Consolation; the sheer theater of waiting for a newly empowered man to emerge from behind a curtain. In its mystery and pomp and historical continuity, the election of a pope is an echo of the ancient that’s utterly absent (by design) in the vulgar rituals of modern democratic politics.
Not being Catholic, I couldn’t identify with the reporting on Vatican intrigue and “frontrunner” cardinals leading up to the conclave. I did not know Bergoglio from Scola from Erdo. Consequently, I found myself wondering, more than anything, which regnal name the eventual pope, whoever he turned out to be, would take for himself. I find this idea of symbolically re-christening oneself, and thus signaling to the world what kind of leader one intends to be, tremendously powerful.
In our own politics, we do this informally and hagiographically. Reagan was Goldwater II. Clinton was JFK II. Or Obama is FDR III. Imagine these men being able and expected to attach such names to themselves, and then to be remembered by them long after they’re dead.
The power of naming to shape or predetermine identity is a well-documented thing. We encounter it almost immediately in the Bible. God gives Adam dominion over the earth and commissions him to name the animals. In his first intervention into human history after the creation, fall, and flood, God assigns a childless elderly couple, Abram and Sarai, with the progenitorship of a special new people. Later, God renames that man’s grandson “Israel.” And much later, he takes the persecutor of Christians Saul of Tarsus and repurposes him as “Paul,” the greatest of all evangelists.
Shakespeare wrote of the power of names, too, as did Freud, who, the Argentine psychiatrist Juan Eduardo Tesone writes, believed that a given name places a child “in a genealogy that partly determines the place the child comes to occupy”:
The princeps function of the family is to give the child a place that generates otherness. It is through the interpellation of his given name that the child begins to recognize himself as a being-separate-from his parents. He answers to his given name long before he can say “I,” an ontological anteriority that confirms him in his own identity and precedes the possibility of his announcing himself with his personal pronoun separated from the “you.”
The characters of a Bruce Springsteen track reflect on the qualities of themselves that they wish they could excise: “Billy got drunk, angry at his wife / He hit her once, he hit her twice / At night he’d like in bed, he couldn’t stand the shame / So he gave it a name.”
But given names are not taken names. Before his election to the papacy, “Jorge” was unknown to 99.99 percent of the world. He was a blank slate. Now the world knows, and will remember, this man as “Francis” and associate with him the ethos of a revered historical figure.
A neat trick!
On a much smaller scale than the See of Peter, I think of the example of John Mellor, a son of postwar British privilege who, having rejected his roots, became a singer and took to calling himself “Woody,” after Woody Guthrie. Eventually, he renamed himself Joe Strummer—a nod to his ordinary Joe-ness and his penchant for strumming all six strings of the guitar, rather than the “fiddly bits” favored by arena-rock soloists. The arc of Strummer’s life is captured beautifully in Julien Temple’s documentary “The Future is Unwritten”. Owing at least in part to the power of his self-chosen name, I think it might be said that Strummer invented his true identity. (You can’t easily imagine a “Woody Mellor” as the frontman of the Clash, can you?)
Jorge Mario Bergoglio got to do something like that yesterday, and on a world-historical stage.
50 previously unpublished poems by Rudyard Kipling will be included in a massive three-volume collection of his complete poetry, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press. (Complete, of course, until someone discovers another unpublished poem. The energetic man wrote over 1,300 and gave many brief forgotten lines away as gifts.)
We all owe thanks to the scholar responsible for this new collection, Thomas Pinney, who has for years been scrupulously editing authoritative collections of Kipling’s assorted letters, prose, and poetry, and has personally hunted across the country for many of these new poems.
You can read the press release here, though for added value Alison Flood at the Guardian has scooped a few lines from the new poems, and included in her post a terrific complete poem called “The Press”, which no doubt draws on his contempt for American journalists. The American press hated Kipling for his taciturnity, but he hated them more. Here’s an excerpt of a magnificent passage from his little-known PJ O’Rourke-style work, American Notes, where he speaks his mind to a Chicago reporter who crashes funerals to interview the widows and overturns wreaths to see who sent them.
HE (with his note-book ready)—…How do you regard it?
I—It makes me regard your interesting nation with the same shuddering curiosity that I should bestow on a Pappan cannibal chewing the scalp off his mother’s skull. Does that convey any idea to your mind? It makes me regard the whole pack of you as heathens—real heathens—not the sort you send missions to—creatures of another flesh and blood. You ought to have been shot, not dead, but through the stomach, for your share in the scandalous business, and the thing you call your newspaper ought to have been sacked by the mob, and the managing proprietor hanged.
Alison Flood gets wrong Kipling’s lines from his “Epitaphs of the War”, “If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied.” She attributes them to his regret at his enthusiasm for the war, but that’s wrong. George Simmers at an excellent little blog, Great War Fiction, has this to say:
Let’s just admit it up front, the Oscars are a boring exercise in Hollywood self-congratulation. And let’s not get worked up that the First Lady blessed the best picture recipient either, even if she was standing in front of uniformed soldiers and the movie was about the CIA. Augustus had Virgil, let’s not begrudge Obama Ben Affleck.
No, to me the Oscars are just like TV on Saturday mornings; only worth watching for the cartoons.
Excuse me, “animated shorts.”
Unsurprisingly, Disney won with their cloying seven-minute “Paperman,” directed by longtime Pixar animator John Kahrs. As far as I know, the Academy didn’t reconsider their decision after the producer reportedly started throwing paper airplanes around the concert hall.
All the nominees were excellent though, and you should check ‘em out. The Simpsons short reprises an early episode where Maggie gets dropped off at the Ayn Rand daycare. ”Adam and Dog,” by Minkyu Lee, though longer than the typical nominee, was my favorite (embedded above). It’s about what it sounds like it’s about, and is quite beautiful.
(Fair warning: there’s a naked cartoon Adam in the video, but they didn’t have no fig leaves in Eden.)
A woman with flaming red hair, sunken eyes, and a Cyclopean chin materializes on several canvases of the superb pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in DC, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900. If you have ever found yourself helplessly mesmerized by the neurotic hyperrealism of the Brothers, one look at her face should be enough to shock you out of medie-Victorian dream land. Her unfortunate aspect is testament to human weakness and the impossibility of making a perfect work of art.
To this day one is tempted to chalk up admiration for pre-Raphaelite work to aesthetic adolescence. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was only 18 when he wrote The Blessed Damozel, the most famous and representative of poems to emerge from their movement. As late as 1984 the NYT could write, “the revival of Victorian art as a serious genre, instead of being treated as a joke for most of the 20th century, has been slow and its total rehabilitation is still anything but assured.”
The work of rehabilitation is even now incomplete, but this new exhibit, imported from the Tate Gallery in London, embellished by NGA curator Diane Waggoner, goes far towards completing it. It adds to the paintings the array of sculptures, poems, stain-glass, murals, and tapestries with which the Brotherhood decorated the private drawing rooms of their political patrons. You see that they were aiming at a complete overthrow of the English mannerist aesthetic, inherited from Raphael and elaborated in England by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Brothers did for the fine arts what Wordsworth and Keats had done for poetry.
The paintings are difficult to assess. They beg to be regarded as serious, thoughtful, and exciting to the imagination, but to the degree the electric greens and purples of Arthur Hughes stimulate they eye they perversely escape the mind. Their first important critic, Walter Pater, could say nothing better of Rossetti than that his meanings are “always personal and even recondite, in a certain sense learned and casuistical, sometimes complex or obscure.” Here Feeling is illuminated and embalmed. True Love is drowned, rejected, or doomed. Most of the paintings tell striking stories, but, with some exceptions from William Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown, rather than offer an interpretation of the story they attempt to render their hermetic power. Read More…
“Love of one is a barbarism; for it is exercised at the expense of all others. The love of God, too.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Woolly Mammoth is a D.C. theater company known for edgy playwrights and subject matter—Mike Daisey vs. Apple, the JonBenet Ramsey case, things like that. In its current production, Danai Gurira’s The Convert (playing through March 10), Woolly takes on an even more daring topic: conflicted, but real, Christian faith. It’s a terrific, intense, and genuinely provocative show which earns every minute of its three-hour running length.
The Convert is set in 1890s Rhodesia. Its all-black cast includes Christians and animists and in-betweeners, compromisers and rebels and scammers. It begins when a rural girl, Jekesai, flees an arranged marriage. She takes refuge at the home of the local missionary (a sincere but worldly man, who aims to break the color line by being ordained to the Catholic priesthood) and converts to Christianity in a rush of need, high emotion, and garbled prayers.
Over time Jekesai—renamed Esther—becomes the missionary’s favored protégée. She knows the Bible backwards and forwards, and her faith is deep and vivid. The Convert is a play capable of using its head and its heart at once: We’re shown Jekesai/Esther’s mixed motives. We come to understand that her faith, like that of virtually all new or relatively-untested Christians, is faith in many things at once—in her own abilities, in her “Master” the missionary; and, I think, in a certain sense that the world’s injustice has limits. But she also has genuine, fiercely strong faith in Christ.
The first parts of the three-act play explore the heartbreaking choices and compromises Jekesai/Esther makes or refuses to make. She breaks from her family because she’s told that she must: they’re pagans. She takes the missionary seriously—maybe more seriously than he takes himself, as it turns out—when he says that he had to choose a new father for himself after his conversion. But she allows him to counsel her to compromise the Gospel when it comes to racism. He warns her that she can’t correct whites when they make mistakes about Scripture, and although she tries to argue that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, (importantly) male nor female… in the end she gives in. Read More…
When the artistic director of the local Jewish theater, Theater J, spends half the program notes apologizing for putting on a production of a right-leaning playwright, and consoles the audience with the thought that the playwright might occasionally say something that hinted at the truth, one hopes the play will be better than the narrow minds the audience are presumed to possess.
The play is “Race” by David Mamet, which premiered on Broadway in 2009 and is now making the rounds in the regional theaters. Coming from a playwright who thinks that we are at our most human when we act like swine, it’s about race in the same way that his plays are about anything—an exposé of humanity’s worst prejudices and self-deceptions. A clerk demands to know, “Do you think blacks are stupid?” and her boss replies, “I think people are stupid. I don’t think blacks have an exemption.”
The commentary on race relations itself is shallow—blacks feel shame, whites feel guilt—although the sympathetic titters from the crowd at such fare as a black man cheerfully announcing, “all black men hate whites” suggest the artistic director wasn’t far wrong in his assessment of the audience—nor was Mamet.
The play is staged entirely in the lobby of a law firm. A rich white man, Charles, goes to the firm of two male partners, one black, Henry Brown, one white, Jack Lawson, and their black female clerk, Susan, hoping to employ them to defend him from a young black woman’s charge of rape. The partners, having heard that he parted ways with a previous firm, suspect that his case is unwinnable. When Susan erroneously accepts a check from Charles, and Henry and Jack become legally obligated to serve as his counsel, their schemes for winning the case are repeatedly assailed by a stream of evidence that Charles is guilty, or, what will make their case far harder to win, that he’s a racist. Under the lines of this detective-story plot, the racial prejudices of the play’s four characters unfold despite their best efforts to conceal them. The unnamed woman who filed the complaint against Charles never appears, and progressively recedes from memory, as Charles’s guilt appears to have nothing to do with whether he really committed the deed, but whether it is possible to avoid prejudging him based on his skin, wealth, and sex—and yours. The meaning of new evidence is deconstructed into the meaning of how it is perceived. Read More…
On Saturday an exhibition dedicated to portraits of the painter Edouard Manet opened at the Royal Academy in London to largely strong reviews. Primed to see a parade of characters memorialized for posterity by a realist master, a visitor may be struck by how brief and sketchy the characterizations are and wonder at how this limitation only improves their aesthetic. The figures glow with the luminosity of the painting: the faces are part of the furniture, the eyes are often no more than two black beads. The sitters, even the famous ones, have offered their bodies to the service of color and form. (All except Georges Clemanceau, who said of his, “Manet’s portrait of me? Terrible, I do not have it and do not feel the worse for it. It is in the Louvre, and I wonder why it was put there.”)
Manet is often hailed as the vanguard of the avant-garde. Luncheon on the Grass repelled the jurors of the Paris Salon in 1863, Olympia disgusted the public in 1865, The Railway was ridiculed in 1872. He experimented with painting his light colors directly onto off-white canvas in order to eliminate the illusion of perspective, created by his immediate predecessors, that arises when the canvas is prepared with a dark matte. He abandoned the traditional style of chiaroscuro, the art of shading shapes with fine gradations of value in order to reproduce their three-dimensional contours, in favor of bold swathes of luscious blues and blacks. The bathing figure in Luncheon (not to be confused with 1868 Luncheon in the Studio) is larger than she ought to be. The locations of the reflections in the mirror in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère make no physical sense, the characters multiplied as in medieval continuous-narrative paintings, the viewer, ingeniously, brought in as one of the characters in the scene.
What a betrayal then, of the militants of modernism, that Manet was by turns surprised and despondent at his repeated rejections at the hands of the academy, the critics, and the public. At the outrage that greeted Olympia in the Salon, where the painting had to be elevated high above a doorway to protect from the crowds who looked ready to tear it to pieces, Manet complained to his long-time friend Charles Baudelaire, “Insults are beating down on me like hail. I’ve never been through anything like it,” to which Baudelaire replied, “Do you think you are the first man put in this predicament? Are you a greater genius than Chateaubriand or Wagner? And did not people make fun of them? They did not die of it.” Baudelaire, whom T.S. Eliot called a great moralist, was busy two hours a day preparing his toilet, encouraging artists to embrace the fleeting triviality of la modernite, and relished the opprobrium of lesser men. Gustave Courbet, a proud realist painter who had entered the Paris scene a decade before Manet, vigorously courted rejection by the academy. Manet had adopted Courbet’s methods, even innovated beyond them, but he did not adopt Courbet’s iconoclastic spirit.
The two major early works that shocked Paris, Luncheon and Olympia, were both styled on classical models. The composition of the three sitters in the first are copied almost exactly from a drawing by Raphael, the Judgment of Paris, a figure of which was inspired by Michelangelo’s creation of Adam at the Sistine Chapel. Olympia has several precedents, most importantly Titian’s Venus of Urbino. His quotation of the classics argued for the equal seriousness of the art of ideal beauty and modern sexuality, rather as Courbet’s 233 square feet Funeral at Ornans had argued for an equivalence of art on historical themes, for which massive canvases were typically reserved, and depictions of dramatic scenes in simple modern life. If the establishment read rebellion into his paintings, it was a rebellion they themselves had incited. The overt eroticism of Titian’s Venus had by the 1860s been denuded of the redeeming features of Renaissance philosophical humanism. Parisian salonistas made do with the haute-couture vulgarity of Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, which, in contrast to the Luncheon, got the establishment stamp of approval in 1863.
Though Manet’s paintings continued to excite controversy, none excited as much as his early works, and they were not intended to. Even his more difficult work began to be featured at the Salon. Daring his most outrageous pieces in the beginning, he had a created a sort of rhetorical space within which, following those early exhibitions, he took pleasure making high art out of real life. The Royal Academy exhibition makes fine inroads into the range and simple dignity of the majority of his life’s work, which for the most part memorialized, with little comment or criticism, the pleasures of the bourgeois life around him. Most of the portraits are not raw portrayals, but formal portraits. The great Railway makes no sense as a picture of a woman and a girl standing next to a railway station. The little girl’s dress is too pretty for soot. The flattened space behind the two figures operates as a classical backdrop rather than an urban landscape.
There is an admirable humility in Manet’s corpus that separates him from his contemporaries. He turned down an invitation to join a dissident art exhibition held by Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Degas, and other budding impressionists. He preserved that artistic integrity in which art must flow from the soul of the painter, and without which art is merely brittle canvas splashed with resin and oils, without succumbing to the self-satisfied pleasure at the contempt of the ignorant that characterizes the soldiers of the avant-garde.
This is not to say Manet was free from petty conceit, nor, though a Frenchman, from the tangled mess of French pronunciation. His first encounter with Claude Monet, with whom he became lasting friends, was in the third person. During the exhibition of 1865, many people were congratulating Manet on his wonderful seascapes. Confused, he found his way through the exhibition to two canvases, The Mouth of the Seine at Honfleur and The Pointe de la Héve at Low Tide, signed by one ‘Monet.’ Manet demanded to know “who is this Monet whose name sounds just like mine and who is taking advantage of my notoriety?”