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In case you missed it

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Jun 19, 2015 10:15 AM


Description: Shared:BEN:BLOG POSTS:06.19.2015 ICYMI:Fenton_1-062515_jpg_600x648_q85.jpg

Waddesdon Manor, UK/Historic England/Bridgeman Images

Recent links of note:

Country house picnics (with some ace opera attached)
Guy Dammann, The Specator
Only the English could turn the high art of opera into an excuse to have a drunk picnic. Guy Dammann presents a humorous take on the very-English phenomenon of the country house opera picnic. From Glyndebourne to Garsington, the English like nothing better than a muddy romp in black tie, with opera serving merely as an entertaining diversion.

Bloodless Headers in Lifeless Papers
Stefan Kafner, City Journal
A remembrance of legendary New York Post headline writer V.A. Musetto (of “Headless Body in Topless Bar" fame) leads Kafner to assess the lamentable state of newspaper headline writing in our modern age. While not every headline must be a zinger, we surely can do better than “Isis Vows Revenge.”

The Rothschild Taste
James Fenton, The New York Review of Books
Fenton explores the persistence of le goût Rothschild. He determines that, despite some incongruities, the value of their taste is evident, and that the family “score[s] highest when you can tell that they see the point of being Rothschilds…They like to do things well, but they prefer to do them really really well.”

Meet the Banking Regulator with an 8,000-Mile Commute
Max Colchester, The Wall Street Journal
How many central bankers do you know who take calls from their citizens on talk radio? And how many do you know who travel 8,000 miles to the office? Until now, the answer was assuredly none. The Journal helps us get to know Chris Duncan, the island of St. Helena’s Chairman of the Financial Regulatory Authority.

The Labour leadership election is an oasis of boredom
Frankie Boyle, The Guardian
Add another strike against Britain’s embattled Labour Party. Not only is the Party entirely lost, it is now to be led by bores, who, in the words of Frankie Boyle,“have few redeeming features, or features of any kind. They work most successfully not as politicians, but as a sort of broad-ranging challenge to satire.”

From our pages:

Doing as the Romans do
William Logan
On recent verse.

 

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Singing the middle-class blues

by James Bowman

Posted: Jun 17, 2015 02:58 PM


Hillary Clinton on Roosevelt Island

One sympathizes, naturally, with the incomprehension of Ella Whelan of Spiked Online when she writes of Hillary Clinton’s Roosevelt Island speech as follows:

She claimed she would be running ‘for all Americans’ and presented herself as having come from a history of hardship. Apparently, Clinton’s late mother, Dorothy Rodham, had a relatively tough start in life. . . Yet, in the context of the Great Depression, Clinton’s mother’s tale is not that startling. And, unlike a great many people of that period, Dorothy Rodham’s life turned out all right. In fact, Clinton’s own bid to join the oppressed club seems a bit of a stretch as, in her own words, her mother and father worked to ‘provide [her family] with a middle-class life’. Why then is Clinton so hell-bent on presenting her past as a misery memoir?

But what Ms. Whelan fails to understand is that “middle-class” in America today doesn’t mean middle-class anymore. In the political and media codes of today, which have so largely displaced the rational discourse to which the English of our forefathers was so admirably adapted, to be middle-class is ipso facto to be a victim—if nothing else, a victim of “the rich,” “the one-percent,” or the “millionaires and billionaires,” whose good fortune is now routinely supposed to have been illegitimately won at the expense of everybody else.

That’s why the more aggressive, or “fighting” side of Mrs. Clinton’s appeal on the same occasion, was so largely directed against those unnamed “billionaires and corporations” whose tax cuts, enacted by Republicans out of sheer greed, have supposedly impoverished those lower down the economic scale, and whose money is said to be corrupting the democratic process with the help of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. No doubt on the principle that the best defense is an offense, this attack on the rich is designed at least in part to deflect Republican criticism of the Clinton family’s own riches and the highly dubious means by which they have been acquired. But such transparent cynicism would hardly be possible without the groundwork done by the media over the past two decades and more in continually singing, not the “song called ‘Yesterday’” that Hillary says the Republicans are singing, but the middle-class blues.

Do you doubt me? Just look at this story from last weekend’s Washington Post. “How theme parks like Disney World left the middle class behind,” the headline promises to tell us. It seems that, since the admission fees at Disney World, etc., are up by more than the rate of inflation, it must follow that they have “priced middle-class families out.” True, attendance is also said to be up, but somehow that never troubles the reporter, Drew Harwell, with the obvious question of who, if not the middle classes, is attending in such numbers? If what is implicit in such reasoning had been made explicit in the headline—“Only the Rich now able to afford Disney World”—the absurdity of the proposition would have been apparent. But the Post, like the rest of the media—like Hillary Clinton—now expects the media audience to be willing to take it for granted that the mere mention of “middle-class” carries with it—as does that of “women,” gays, and racial or ethnic minorities—the suggestion of victimization. They also know that these would-be victims do not need to be told who their alleged victimizers are.

 

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The Bloomsday book

by Lucia Ryan

Posted: Jun 16, 2015 03:45 PM


 

Today we celebrate Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses unfolds. In recognition of the holiday, we spoke to our colleague Nola Tully, whose eBook Ulysses Bores Me So: First Reactions to Joyce’s Masterpiece, is just out from Random House. A compilation of quotes, essays, and articles about Joyce’s modernist masterpiece, the collection follows Tully’s 2004 book yes I said yes I Will Yes (Vintage), and offers us a peek into the minds of great readers, including Joyce’s contemporaries.

TNC: What inspired you to compile these reactions to Joyce's work?

TULLY: My interest in literature. I had actually just done a writing program in fiction and was working in publishing. Dan Tucker at Sideshow Media produced yes I said yes I will Yes in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday and it was a nice opportunity to focus on Joyce. The story of the publication is so interesting, and my book is really about the history of the publication. It’s not a textual analysis of Ulysses. I had fun looking at it from that side.

TNC: Do you have any favorite pieces in the book? Did certain pieces surprise you?

TULLY: There’s a bunch! For instance, Virginia Woolf was very critical — her response was interesting and funny to read. And Edmund Wilson was amazing. And Judge Woolsey. You know, after the book was published it was banned in the United States. Random House went to court to defend it, and they did win, and Ulysses circulated in the States. But Judge Woolsey’s decision is so eloquent and his writing is really amazing.

TNC: What was your own reaction to the book?

TULLY: Admiration. Awe. Ulysses is not easy; it’s an interesting book in that way. It’s a challenge. The fact that Joyce writes it from such a realistic and day-to-day perspective makes it somehow universal.

TNC: Do you have any advice for readers who feel daunted by it?

TULLY: I think you can read a lot of the surrounding annotations or even books like this to get you interested in it. That’s really the challenge: picking an angle that makes it more fun.

TNC: How do you feel that the book is still relevant today?

TULLY: It was an incredible moment in the history of literature and the arts. So much was changing and if you want to understand where we are now, you need to go back and understand how we got there. And Ulysses is a pretty towering work. Aside from all the contextualizing and historical perspectives, it has merit as a work of art.

TNC: What did you enjoy most about the project?

TULLY: The quotes were really fun to work on: gathering them and sifting through them. Really parsing it out and seeing how monumental Ulysses was. You know, there’s a quote from Malcolm Cowley about a stone dropping in a pond — a moment of silence and then all the frogs in the pond start to talk.  

And Joyce’s life was really fascinating. He chose Bloomsday because it was his first date with his future wife Nora. They went out for a walk on June 16th. At Columbia I took a class on Joyce and Yeats and we got a facsimile of that day’s newspaper. He mentions everything on the newspaper’s front page in the book.

TNC: Any major findings during the course of your research?

TULLY: The timing in the arts — there was the big Armory Show before [the book's publishing], in 1913. The Cubists broke out, so there was a lot of stuff percolating. And Virginia Woolf was also doing stream of consciousness. Maybe she found Ulysses too close for comfort.

But that time was really interesting. Things cracked apart, cracked open, and so much emerged. Diving into that subject led to many discoveries — it was very exciting and inspiring.

TNC: How will you be celebrating Bloomsday?

TULLY: Symphony Space has a radio program that does readings of Ulysses, so I'll be listening to that and drinking Irish whiskey. 

 

***

 

A selection of Tully’s favorite reactions to Ulysses, found in Ulysses Bores Me So, available now on Amazon Kindle:

I rather agree that Joyce is underrated: but never did any book so bore me.—Virginia Woolf, December 1, 1923

As I have stated, “Ulysses” is not an easy book to read. It is brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. In many places, it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of a mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers.—John M. Woolsey, United States District Judge, December 6, 1933

...The more we read “Ulysses,” the more we are convinced of its psychological truth, and the more we are amazed at Joyce’s genius in mastering and in presenting, not through analysis or generalization, but by the complete recreation of life in the process of being lived, the relations of human beings to their environment and to each other; the nature of their perception of what goes on about them and of what goes on within themselves; and the interdependence of their intellectual, their physical, their professional, and their emotional lives.—Edmund Wilson

Jane Balkoski also contributed.

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The Critic's Notebook for June 15, 2015

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Jun 16, 2015 10:13 AM


Peter Reginato, Tangerine Dreams, 2014 (Adelson Galleries)

 

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every week—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

 

This week: Hot rods, Heaven-taught Ploughmen, and High Bridges.

FictionThis Life, by Karel Schoeman, trans. Else Silke (Archipelago): Schoeman’s novel uses the unforgiving setting of the South African veldt to frame the unfulfilling life of an Afrikaner woman on her death bed. Describing four generations of a single family, Schoeman explores the poverty of the Afrikaner experience, especially the alienated place of daughters in that culture, showing that a broken society affects all of its citizens, not just its most persecuted. —BR

Nonfiction: The Cost of Courage, by Charles Kaiser (Other Press): Before he became a notable socialist politician in France, André Boulloche was an important member of the French Resistance movement. In 1943, he was appointed de Gaulle’s personal military delegate in Paris and, along with his family, organized Resistance activities in northern France. Many of the Boulloches were caught— André himself survived three different camps by the end of the war—and all had to cope with the countless ordeals that came with their dangerous work. Though for long the surviving members of the Boulloche family had kept quiet about their activities, they agreed to work with Charles Kaiser to tell their story here. –RH

Poetry: The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, Volume I, ed. Nigel Leask (Oxford): Robert Burns, the great bard of Scotland, seems to be constantly in and out of the favor of the literary public. Perhaps the reason is the previous lack of access to his complete and unabridged works. That excuse now disappears with the publishing of Oxford’s first volume of Burns’s complete works. Neilson MacKay reviewed the edition in our June issue, finding that “if there was ever a work to cut through the Scotch mist, this is it.” —BR

Art: Fiction, Peter Reginato, Adelson Galleries (Through August 21): The sculptor Peter Reginato came to his art by way of the hot rod, that energized American demotic craft. Speed and invention, with a flash of machismo, became his hallmarks. So did the painting of metal, with color shifts signaling and interacting with the curves of his forms. Now at Adelson Galleries, Reginato has translated his sculptural polychromy to canvas. The results are dazzling, daring, and, most important, fun — like the feel of a custom car at full throttle. —JP

Music: Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 1, 8 & 14, by the Borodin Quartet: The Borodin String Quartet has enjoyed a long relationship with the music of Shostakovich, completing a landmark record set of his string quartets many years ago. Borodin, now set with a new roster of musicians, is embarking on a second Shostakovich cycle. The first CD includes String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, possibly the greatest string quartet of the twentieth century, and Borodin's performance is violently riveting. If you don't already know Shostakovich's masterful chamber works, this new album is an ideal way to get acquainted. —ECS

Architecture: The High Bridge, New York: Please forgive my unrestrained civic excitement at the reopening of The High Bridge, the Roman-style aqueduct and pedestrian footbridge that first brought Croton water over the Harlem River from the Bronx into Manhattan in 1848. Shuttered and neglected for over forty years, the bridge has once again reopened to foot and bike traffic, allowing us to walk in the footsteps of none other than E. A. Poe, who as a Bronx resident used to frequent this engineering wonder. The restoration of the bridge and surrounding park is a dividend of the Bloomberg administration, which spearheaded the revitalization of city parks in underserved neighborhoods. From Manhattan, the bridge can be reached directly by staircase at 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, just past the Highbridge Pool (the site of a former reservoir). Access at grade for strollers, bikes, and wheelchairs is at 168th Street and Edgecombe Avenue, followed by a short path north through Highbridge Park. From the Bronx, access is via 170th Street and University Avenue. —JP

Support Our Friends: First Things is pleased to invite you to a memorable weekend of thought-provoking seminars and lectures on the concept of freedom. Join us as we study preassigned classics from Western Civilization in small-group seminars limited to 15 participants.There are no prerequisites to attend. This will be a rare opportunity to get together with like-minded individuals in a spirit of friendship and common purpose to discuss big, timeless ideas, and how they inform the cultural issues occupying our nation in recent years.

From the archive: The silence in South Africa: writers chuck it in, by Sarah Ruden: On the topic of South African novels, we look back to Sarah Ruden’s 1997 exploration of the literary life in the post-apartheid country.

From our latest issue: Jacob Lawrence at MOMA, by Karen Wilkin: A review of MOMA’s current exhibit featuring Lawrence’s famed “Migration Series.”

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In case you missed it

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Jun 12, 2015 11:00 AM


Lewis Carroll

Recent links of note:

Casualties of the College Culture Wars
Lapham's Quarterly
A short review of those "offensive" mascots who lost their battles with the culture police. Though these mascots aren't the only "casualties" of the so-called culture wars, they're almost assuredly the most visible.

Bank Branch City
Nicole Gelinas, City Journal
Where did the corner store go? And why is there a Chase branch there? And on the next corner, too? That individually-owned small businesses are being priced out of Manhattan storefronts is no secret, but Gelinas explores the cause of the phenomenon, tracing it back to federal interest rates. 

Go Ask Alice
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
The man we call Lewis Carroll was, in fact, a fastidious Oxford don by the name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Anthony Lane explores the way Carroll's predilections, some of which might horrify the modern reader, influenced his most famous and madcap works, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

A Different Sort of Criminal Code
Stefan Beck, The Wall Street Journal
Frequent New Criterion contributor Stefan Beck praises the crime fiction of George V. Higgins, which features dialogue so evocative that it transcends mere crime fiction and stands as "a major achievement of drama in the strictest sense."

From our pages:

Too cool in the capital
Bruce Cole

On the National Portrait Gallery's strikingly foolish recent acquisitions. 

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Not quite at 'Home'

by Natasha Simons

Posted: Jun 11, 2015 11:45 AM


Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s much-feted graphic memoir Fun Home is a deeply internal work of nonfiction, a philosophical exploration of ipseity that is tightly and almost microscopically focused on the minutiae of human life, while also expanding itself to the epic scope of Greek myth and classic American fiction. It is the coming-of-age and coming-out story of a young lesbian who finds out her father is also gay, and a procurer of underage young men, mere months before his suicide.

Broadway is…an odd place to work that out. Not to play the snob, but the stage is unavoidably a more blunt instrument than a book, and I felt that keenly while watching the musical adaptation of Fun Home. Now playing at Circle in the Square after its original Public Theater run, it has recently won the Tony Award for Best Musical along with four more top categories, cementing its status as the hippest thing going right now. It is certainly an ambitious and often emotional show that nevertheless struggles with the tone and technique of adapting such cerebral material to the stage.

In the show, as in the book, an older Bechdel (Beth Malone) looks back at her unconventional small town childhood, and also at her college years, through the lens of her relationship with her complex and emotionally distant father Bruce (Michael Cerveris). Two younger actresses (Sydney Lucas and Emily Skaggs, respectively) portray Small Alison and Middle Alison, and Ms. Lucas is phenomenal in a way that child actors so rarely are. Her voice is beyond its years, as is her ability to lend nuance to songs that might otherwise be very silly indeed; “Ring of Keys,” about her fascination with a butch delivery woman, is touching largely for her earnest and searching delivery.

Some of the incongruity between source material and Broadway seems to be the point, as though someone were hovering just off stage asking if we ken the dramatic irony in numbers like “Come to the Fun Home,” a cheery Motown-esque commercial performed by the children to bring customers to the funeral home (“fun home”) where they work with their father. In point of fact, that someone may very well be music writer Jeanine Tesori, the talent behind the songs of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Violet. There’s a lot of awareness of the charm in the music, which ends up detracting from the intended effect. My overall reaction toggled somewhere between admiration and resignation during the musical portion of the proceedings.

A particularly interesting framing device at work in the production is that of using Bechdel’s childhood Victorian-renovated manse as a stand-in for memory itself. Furniture exits through a complicated set of trap doors, and overhead lights then outline where that furniture once was, as the older Bechdel looks back and tries–with varying degrees of success–to recall exactly how things in the house were ordered so she can recreate them. This is one of the few subtle ways in which the play draws comparisons between Bechdel and her similarly obsessive, highly ordered father. They both eschew emotional displays for aloof and scholarly approaches to their respective pursuits: him, tirelessly renovating his home; her, tirelessly revisiting her memory for the details of their story.

As for the not so subtle ways…well. Much like another Bruce recently made newsworthy, Fun Home seems to elide the actual tricky person at the heart of this coming-out story. Both Bruce Jenner and Bruce Bechdel provide the basis for storylines that have little or nothing to do with them as human beings, but rather as motives for heavy-handed tolerance PSAs. Setting Alison and Bruce in parallel narratives makes him the de facto tragic figure here, which is slightly myopic given the years of emotional and likely physical abuse (considering his temper) perpetuated on his wife and children.  In a confrontation near the end between Bruce and Helen (Jody Kuhn), he accuses her of being the problem for looking away from what was apparent all these years. There’s a strange implication, not embraced by the play but not entirely rejected by it either, that Helen helped put and keep Bruce in the closet with her fervent wish for a traditional family, a perfect home. You can sense in every balladic moment Bruce is given how much Lisa Kron, the book writer, would like someone, anyone, to blame other than him. But it’s Helen who has the true show-stopping number, “Days and Days,” probably the best of the play. Ms. Kuhn brings a quiet dignity to Helen, who sings “chaos never happens if it’s never seen” in a particularly devastating decrescendo. 

His kids are afraid of him, and his wife has desperately salvaged a life for their family under the tyranny of a man who attempts to sabotage it with cruelly destructive and illicit affairs. It’s a tragedy, to be sure – but not one of a man who simply needed a chance to be out and proud.

In the song “Talk to Him,” Alison’s last wrenching attempt to do just that with her father, Bruce grimly avoids any moment of revelation or connection before his impending death in the next, and final, few minutes of the play. It’s a set-up that necessarily is anti-climactic, which underscores the central issue with Fun Home: it’s operating around a void.

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The softer side of Neil LaBute

by Kyle Smith

Posted: Jun 10, 2015 02:19 PM


Josh Sadowski and Amanda Seyfried

Labeling the playwright Neil LaBute a misogynist long ago became a reflex among theater writers. “Neil LaBute’s sexist ‘Pig,’” ran the headline of a 2008 Guardian piece about his play Fat Pig. “Mention LaBute's name to some of my friends over coffee,” wrote The Guardian’s Maxie Szalwinska, “and they spit bile across the table, along with bits of their breakfast bun.” That sounds unpleasant. Better find some new friends.

In remaking the 1973 film The Wicker Man in 2006, “LaBute poisoned its well with an old familiar misogyny,” decreed The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson. Those who offered a different take, such as John Simon, who rechristened the writer “LaBrute” in New York magazine, often declared LaBute misanthropic instead.

LaBute has certainly explored some dark characters and themes in his plays and films. But why, I wondered as the audience filed into a performance of The Way We Get By (at the Second Stage Theatre on West 43rd Street through June 21), were so many groups of young women present? Weren’t they supposed to be LaBute’s enemies?

It turns out that LaBute has softened his tone considerably, and his latest is a lightly pleasing romantic comedy – a chick flick for the stage. This gratifying genre has, in recent years, largely been abandoned by Hollywood in favor of more youth-friendly gross-out comedies, so it feels agreeably revanchist for LaBute to reclaim the territory of frisky relationship comedies. Those who were disturbed by such caustic LaBute works as the films In the Company of Men (1997) and Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) would never guess the new play comes from the same source. It’s a breezy, sweet, even hopeful two-hander, though what is most surprising about it may be how formulaic it is. It isn’t a challenging night of theater, and that’s just fine.

Thomas Sadoski, a boyish actor best known for HBO’s The Newsroom who is about to turn 39 but could pass for 25, plays a hesitant fellow named Doug whom we meet as he slinks out of the bedroom of a tidy New York City apartment in the middle of the night. He looks nervous, even ashamed, as he drinks a bottle of water and wanders around the flat. After a few minutes, he is joined onstage by the adorable Amanda Seyfried as Beth, who tracks him around the space as the two make awkward conversation. The two have just had sex for the first time, but it’s not clear how well they know each other.  Teasing out the details of their history is LaBute’s chief business in the play, and as he gradually dispenses clues the play maintains a comic balance that seems equally likely to tip over into catastrophe or bliss for the pair.

The actors have a lot of fun with LaBute’s dialogue, which is full of misdirection and unforced comedy. Early on, there’s some chatter about the T-shirt Doug was wearing earlier in the evening, later discarded on a chair and put on by Beth when she gets out of bed. It’s a vintage Star Wars top signed by Kenny Baker (the actor who played R2-D2), and Doug worries inordinately about its preservation and well-being, much to Beth’s understandable exasperation. Is it his emotional immaturity, then, that’s causing the rift between him and Beth? No, that would be a little too easy for LaBute, though the failings of men are something of a specialty of his. The play depends on our readiness for the clichés of the genre but then upends expectations: Though it seems in the early going that Doug is looking for a way to sneak out of the apartment without waking Beth, or that after she gets up he’d like to find the most passive and cowardly way to slink away from this one-nighter without causing too much turmoil, his reluctance to commit isn’t the problem either.

LaBute is withholding a secret from us, and in the second half, after the big “reveal,” as the Hollywood types call it, the piece lose some of its tension. There is a reason why these two cuties are so jittery around each other, but upon reflection it seems an obstacle that is relatively easily overcome. This is 2015, after all, and the couple’s secret isn’t illegal or even immoral but merely an oddity. Yet LaBute credibly manages the difficulty of the situation as perceived by Doug, and also devises for the closing minutes a grand gesture straight out of a Katherine Heigl movie.

Before we get to that point, as LaBute makes clear in teasing banter, hesitation, pauses, and doleful looks, the couple’s problem is quite simple: They’re in love. Though their sexual encounter at first seems to the audience like something casual and barely-considered, it’s anything but. Doug and Beth aren’t each other’s hookup or conquest, they’re soul mates, and though the prospect seems absurd to them given their past history, they yearn for commitment to each other, even if neither dares mention it. LaBute runs no risk whatsoever of being called “edgy” or “incendiary.” If he’s turning into the new Neil Simon, no complaints he

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We are our own art history

by James Panero

Posted: Jun 09, 2015 02:47 PM


Header
 

Last week I was delighted that Arts and Letters Daily picked up on Hard Not to See, my feature on the new Whitney Museum and the direction of museum culture. The editors of AL Daily also asked me to be the featured reader, with my own pick for the week. My selection was “History by Exclusion, Illuminating the 'Dark Matter' of the Art World,” a manifesto that was published in 2006 but which has been gathering wider notice among artists this season. Written by the artist Loren Munk, the piece has become a rallying cry for art's DIY generation, with the conclusion "We are our own art history." You can read about it here. 

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News from Blighty

by James Bowman

Posted: Jun 09, 2015 02:16 PM


Westminster Abbey, Canaletto (1749)

Although I haven’t seen it much reported on this side of the Atlantic, the Church of England has moved on from its most recent fit of progressivism — with the appointment of female bishops — to an apparently serious discussion of whether or not the Church is henceforth to address the author of the Universe with masculine or feminine pronouns and thus, asking (as the headline in The Daily Telegraph put it): “Is God a man or a woman?”

Sally Hitchiner, of that sometime conservative organ, writes that

the Bible itself, Old and New Testaments, refers to God as giving birth (in Deuteronomy). She breastfeeds (Isaiah and Psalms), shows maternal kindness (Hosea, Isaiah and Deutoronomy [sic]); God is a girl who tirelessly hunts for a lost piece of jewellery (Luke). Jesus takes on the role of a young slave girl in washing his disciples’ feet (John) and expresses a wish to gather Jerusalem up like a mother hen gathers her chicks (Luke and Matthew).

“Admittedly,” she goes on, “these images are few and far between.” They are also acknowledged as metaphors and, like all metaphors, are meant to illustrate a point of comparison without implying an identity with the thing they are compared to. Yet Ms. Hitchiner finds that, “for a text written back when women not only rarely owned property, but were seen as property in themselves, referring to the ultimate authority figure as female at all was pretty radical.”

Odd, then, that nobody noticed this radicalism for millennia. Now, however, it has been noticed, at least by those with the greatest eagerness to notice it, so that it has become possible for her to write that such nugatory indications must be supposed henceforth to “make it impossible to say simply that God is male.” If so, then it must also be impossible to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven. . .” Or at least it must be unless we suppose that Jesus himself anticipated the view of today’s “gender” theorists for whom neither fatherhood nor anything else is distinctively male, since that would imply a biological basis for the concept, instead of the sociological one they prefer.

Not that Ms. Hitchiner or the other cheerleaders for a sexless god would themselves necessarily put it in this way, but they do show the extent to which the ideologization of religion is now taken for granted, along with the right of the ideologues to proclaim their own reality. When people prayed to “Our Father who art in heaven,” it was because they believed in the reality of God’s fatherhood. If they are now to be induced to pray to a heavenly mother or a heavenly hermaphrodite or a heavenly transsexual instead, it will not be because their view of reality has changed but because they have come to believe that reality is no longer a relevant consideration for belief — or whatever passes for belief in the new world of postmodern religion.

 

****

 

Still on the transatlantic topic, the shock victory of David Cameron’s Tories in the recent election (on which subject see my most recent New Criterion article) has been particularly shocking to the left, who have been turning out into the streets to demonstrate, as the Greeks have done, against “austerity.” When you think about it, “austerity” is a strange thing to demonstrate against. Leave aside the fact that, in Britain, austerity has been much more rhetorical than real. By that I don’t mean that the rhetoric itself has been austere. Rather the reverse. It has been extravagant and is getting more so, especially on the part of those who are against it. But isn’t being against it rather like being, as Calvin Coolidge’s preacher was, against sin?

Put it another way: is anybody for it? Austerity, like war, is by its nature something undertaken out of necessity. At least it must be so in a democracy where any government could expect to have to pay a heavy price if it were embarked on merely by choice. And, in fact, that’s exactly what the austere Tories of the last government — insofar as they were austere, or Tories — did not have to pay. In other words, most of the demonstrators’ fellow-countrymen accepted the necessity for at least some austerity. Are not the demonstrators, then, really demonstrating against democracy?

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The Critic's Notebook for June 8, 2015

by Benjamin Riley

Posted: Jun 09, 2015 10:13 AM


Daniel Maidman, Untitled, 2015 (Portaits, Inc. New York)

 

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This week: America, Russia, and Everything in Between

FictionThe Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud, trans. John Cullen (Other Press): In this revisiting of Albert Camus’s seminal existential novel, The Stranger, Kamel Daoud, an Algerian writer, explores the previously untold “other half” of the story. Daoud, taking the perspective of the dead Arab’s brother, explores the consequences of Meursault’s actions, mirroring Camus’s original while simultaneously commenting on the state of post-colonial Algeria. A finalist for the 2014 Prix Goncourt, The Meursault Investigation takes its place among the most serious of literary revisions, eschewing the fantastic (cf. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) for the earnest. —BR

Nonfiction: Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva, by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper): What is it like to be the child of one of the most violent dictators in history? Rosemary Sullivan’s new biography of Svetlana Stalin may provide some hint. Growing up in the Kremlin, Svetlana was shielded from the horrors happening throughout the Soviet Union, but she still was not completely safe from the dangers experienced by those who dwelled close to her father. After defecting to America, her life eased but she could never fully shake her ignominious reputation. Sullivan worked with Soviet and U.S. government archives, as well as Svetlana’s own daughter, to compile this new work. New Criterion contributor Jay Nordlinger will feature the story and more in his upcoming work, Children of Monsters, to be published by Encounter Books in September, 2015. RH

Poetry: Poetry Notebook, by Clive James (Liveright): Though Clive James may be best known for his extensive body of literary criticism, his polymathic career also extends to the writing of poetry. He recently published Poetry Notebook, a series of essays and ruminations on both poets and their lines, displaying a willingness to engage with the lines themselves, rather than just the greater “movements” in poetic history. Micah Mattix reviewed the collection in our April issue. —BR

Art: Blue Drawings: Figure, Form & The New Narrative (Through July 18): Under the direction of Michael Gormley, Portraits, Inc is bringing classical art to the Upper East Side. Now on view through July 18, the latest exhibition, "Blue Drawings," curated by the artist Patricia Watwood, focuses on the tradition of draftsmanship in blue. The two dozen artists here represent the best of today's classicists, including Steven Assael, Dorian Vallejo, Diana Corvelle, Daniel Maidman, Maria Kreyn, Christopher Pugliese, Edward Minoff, Burton Silverman, Paul Wyse, Alexandra Tyng, Alexey Steele, Patricia Watwood, Nicolas Sanchez, Guno Park, Liz Lindstrom, Tony Pro, Melanie Vote, Kathy Fieramosca, Anastasia Egeli, Daniel Sprick, Andrew S. Conklin, Sherrie McGraw, Heather Marcus, and Juliette Aristides. —JP

Music: Joan of Arc at the Stake at the New York Philharmonic (June 10-13): 

The New York Philharmonic is not going out quietly: the orchestra will close its 2014–15 season this week with staged performances of Arthur Honegger's dramatic oratorio Joan of Arc at the Stake. A score boiling with dark power and an intense, moving libretto together create a captivating piece. In the titular speaking role will be the celebrated French actress Marion Cotillard, and she'll be joined by a cast of rising singers including the superb coloratura soprano Erin Morley, who has made excellent impressions at the Met in the past couple of seasons. —ECS

From the archive: Henry James’s America, by Stephen Miller: Another side of Henry James, whose newest collection of letters is reviewed by Bruce Bawer in our June issue.

From our latest issue: A “normal” Narva: Andrew Stuttaford assesses the state of Narva, Estonia’s bulwark against encroaching Russian influence.

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