Recent links of note:
“Pig and People: The rise and fall of the first Russian populists”
Gary Saul Morson, The Weekly Standard
The recent surge of so-called “populism” in America is neither the first nor the most dramatic. Gary Saul Morson traces the origins of literary populism to the 1870s in Russia, to a group of artists and writers who wrestled with the sufferings of the peasantry. Although it’s not unusual for artists to express the views of society’s undesirables (think Shakespeare’s fools, Dickens’s orphans, or Chaucer’s chickens), writers like Gleb Uspensky (1843–1902) and Vsevolod Garshin (1855–88) took on the plight of “the people” with a consuming passion that is characteristically Russian. Along with the “Itinerant” painters, who portrayed menial laborers in works such as Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870–73), these artists believed they had to offer a “justification of culture”—what is art to do with all this hideous suffering? It’s one of art’s age-old quandaries, and one that Russian writers both address and exemplify better than anyone else. For more on the “moral glory of Russian literature,” read Morson’s New Criterion essays on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and the evils of totalitarianism.
“The Bad and the Beautiful”
Graham Daseler, The American Conservative
In another instance of moral agonizing, Graham Daseler tackles a looming controversy in the age of #MeToo: can bad people make good art? If the trend today is to purge art of the sins of people like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, should we also question the work of Dickens, Degas, and Caravaggio? After all, the moral universe of an artist often affects the aesthetic experiences he attempts to portray. And depending on the medium, the line between admiring the creation and loving its creator may be quite thin: actors are often conflated with their roles, and readers pick up some novels as much for the voice of the author as for the story itself. Daseler attempts to present a moral aesthetics that avoids finger-pointing, on the one hand, and divorcing the artist from his work, on the other. At stake is nothing less than the view of art as an authentic human encounter, one mind reaching out to touch—but not to violate—another.
It’s a match made in Hollywood: Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art this week hired Klaus Biesenbach, the chief curator at large at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, as their new director. Biesenbach, who also runs the experimental art space MoMA PS1 in Queens, has promoted contemporary conceptual art forms with shows by the “grandmother of performance art” Marina Abramović in 2010 and an infamous 2015 immersive exhibition based on the albums of the singer Björk. It’s been a rough week for MoMA, as they also lost the curator Laura Hoptman to SoHo’s Drawing Center, and it continues a trend in LA’s art scene of attracting big names in contemporary art away from New York in recent years.
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