From this morning’s Wall Street Journal, a piece of much-chewed-over news about which most of you have already heard:
From this morning’s Wall Street Journal, a piece of much-chewed-over news about which most of you have already heard:
Yesterday I got up at eight in the morning, booted up the iBook, went to work, and didn’t stop (except for a lunch break) until seven p.m. If the world ended, I didn’t hear about it. When I was finished, I’d written a three-thousand-word essay from scratch, thereby proving that my cardiologist is a genius. It’s about the newly published second volume of Stephen Walsh’s Igor Stravinsky biography, and it’ll appear in the June issue of Commentary. It was the third piece I’ve cranked out in the past three days, not counting blog entries, and that’s soooo enough.
I might go see some more art today, or I might stay home and finish Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, which I started reading last night. Or both. Or neither.
Tonight I’ll be seeing Hot Feet, followed by The Drowsy Chaperone on Saturday. On Sunday I plan to take a nice long walk in Central Park. On Monday I plan to do nothing except publish the day’s blog entries, which are already written and uploaded. Got that?
See you Monday.
It’s commodity week on Broadway, where two big-budget musicals with blue-chip pedigrees have just opened. “The Wedding Singer” is based on Adam Sandler’s 1998 movie, which grossed $80 million in the U.S. alone. “Lestat” is a stage version of Anne Rice’s best-selling “Vampire Chronicles” with songs by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Unless I miss my guess, one show will be a huge hit, the other a humiliating flop.
The hit is “The Wedding Singer,” among the most ingenious and amusing musical adaptations of a Hollywood film ever to reach Broadway….
“Lestat” will surely go down in history as one of Broadway’s costliest disasters. The only thing about it that’s worth seeing is Derek McLane’s super-spectacular set, which will go to waste unless somebody does something quick. My suggestion is that Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, the producers of “Lestat,” close the show this weekend, then hire Joss Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” to write a new musical using Mr. McLane’s designs. Buffy on Broadway–now there’s a concept….
The National Theatre of Great Britain has brought Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” to New York for a ten-week run, where it will doubtless send shivers down the spines of Anglophiles and snobs. Whether such folk are numerous enough to fill the Broadhurst Theatre all summer long remains to be seen, since Mr. Bennett hasn’t had a Broadway hit since “Beyond the Fringe,” which opened in 1962. For my part, I’m at a loss to say what I thought of “The History Boys.” Never before has a play left me with feelings so mixed that I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not….
I wasn’t quite persuaded, at least not on first viewing, that “The History Boys” is an effective indictment of the amoral sophistry I take to be Mr. Bennett’s ultimate target. To be glibly critical of glibness is–well–glib.
No link, so buy the paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with immediate access to the full text of my review, plus lots of additional art-related coverage.
Here’s a little taste of my next “Sightings” column, which appears biweekly in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:
If you’re an actor, New York is the perfect place to be a waiter. As anyone who lives here knows, the old joke is as true now as it ever was. Most New York artists do something else for a living, and wish they didn’t. Back when I worked in an inner-city bank from nine to five and played jazz after hours, the term for an artist’s rent-paying sideline was “day job.” Now, according to a playwright I know, it’s “slave job.” Either way, it’s no fun, and by most accounts it’s getting tougher. “Creative Workers Count,” a new study by the Freelancers Union that you can read by going to www.workingtoday.org, cites chapter and verse to prove the point….
It was, however, another passage in “Creative Workers Count” that made me sit up and think: “New York’s high concentration of creative professionals relative to other metropolitan areas gives the city a distinct competitive advantage in creative industries. But recent trends indicate that this competitive advantage may soon be threatened as creative workers relocate to cities, such as Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis/St. Paul, that offer a lower cost of living and developing creative centers.”
What’s so bad about that?
As always, there’s lots more where that came from. See for yourself–buy a copy of tomorrow’s Journal and look me up.
“I am a man-pen. I feel through the pen, because of the pen.”
Gustave Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet (Jan. 31, 1852)
I hate spin. Really, really hate it, with an Orwellian passion. I bristle whenever I see it in print or hear it on TV. And I just saw a prime example of it in the New York Daily News gossip column, which is reporting that Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time, is about to step down. Asked to comment, a Time spokeswoman replied, “Jim Kelly is very much in charge of charting the current and future course of Time magazine. Beyond that, we never comment on speculation regarding personnel matters.”
When I see that kind of statement, I reach for my garrote. A simple No comment would have been fine—but no, the unnamed spokeswoman in question had to take the opportunity to slip in a little grease, couched in slickly anti-human phrases that might just as easily have been generated by a Spin Robot.
A moment ago I alluded to George Orwell, whose 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (which you can read here, and should if you haven’t already) is rightly regarded as the locus classicus of all discussions of modern euphemism. But I don’t think Orwell’s target, which was the corruption of language by political orthodoxy, is quite the same as mine. Here’s the key paragraph of his essay:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity….
Very good, and still very true. But the new kind of spin that enrages me is a different proposition altogether. It’s not unconscious: it’s wholly knowing, a deliberate attempt to use speech not for the purposes of communication but for the purposes of manipulation, to corrupt the whole process of human interaction by making no statement that is not agenda-driven. It’s as if our culture had been taken over by lawyers—which, of course, it has. For modern spin is not so much pol-speak as lawyer-speak, with a dollop of Madison Avenue stirred in for bad measure. It’s half Safety First (never admit anything, however insignificant, that could possibly be used against you in court) and half salesmanship (never pass up a chance, however gratuitous, to plug the product). When I hear official spokesmen emitting phrases like the ones I quoted above, I feel not as if I were watching a marionette, but as if they were trying to make me a marionette.
I’ve complained about this kind of thing before, on which occasion I quoted the greatest piece of unspin ever uttered by a public figure, General Joe Stilwell’s statement to the press after Japanese troops forced his men to retreat from Burma to India: “I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, and go back and retake it.” No doubt I’ll quote it again, and no doubt I’ll do so, as before, in vain. Or maybe not. For I see no indication that lawyer-speak spin, endemic though it has become, is any more effective an instrument of public persuasion than the similarly synthetic taglines that Hollywood studios have been using for years to pitch their wares to the public. She was the first. This time it’s war. Who gives a crap? Anybody who decides to spend ten bucks on a movie because he sees a phrase like that on a poster deserves to see that movie, preferably ten times a day until he dies.
Yes, I’m feeling grumpy. This is one of my hobby horses, though I don’t make a habit of mounting it in public, and I promise not to do it again for a minimum of six months. But that doesn’t mean I’m not bristling.
It’s very nice to be blogging regularly again. And yes, I plan to keep it up. How about that?
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
– Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
– Awake and Sing! (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes June 11)
– Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
– Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
– Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
– The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, reviewed here, now in previews for a Broadway reopening on May 3)
– The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
– Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
– The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
– I Love You Because (musical, R, sexual content, reviewed here)
– Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
– Slava’s Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
Carl Van Vechten is one of those fascinating minor characters who, like Zelig or Forrest Gump, was forever popping up in the damnedest places. At various times in his life (he died in 1964) he was a music critic, a dance critic, a novelist manqué, a self-appointed publicist for the Harlem Renaissance, and—perhaps most lastingly—a self-taught photographer who specialized in celebrity portraits. (He was also gay, and his hitherto unknown homoerotic photos are about to be published for the first time.) He seems to have known everybody who was anybody, and if they were famous he took their pictures. The Library of Congress Web site has a pretty good online gallery of his portraits, many of which, like his 1936 study of Bessie Smith, remain among the best-remembered images of their subjects. Yet few art critics have had anything to say about his work save in passing, and though I know a reasonable amount about him—one of his portraits of H.L. Mencken is reproduced in The Skeptic—it wasn’t until yesterday that I finally saw an exhibition of his photographs.
It happens that I recently had occasion to mention Van Vechten in the fourth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, so he was already on my mind when I heard that James Cummins Bookseller, an Upper East Side dealer in rare books, was putting on a show of Van Vechten portraits. I dropped in to take a look, and was—not to put too fine a point on it—dazzled.
“Carl Van Vechten Portraits” consists of sixty-four photographs, virtually all of them of artists whose names are known to this day, including James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, George M. Cohan, Aaron Copland, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Gielgud, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, Joe Louis, Henri Matisse, Somerset Maugham, Joan Miró, Laurence Olivier, Eugene O’Neill, Jerome Robbins, Gertrude Stein, Alfred Stieglitz, Virgil Thomson, Evelyn Waugh, and Orson Welles. (The show also features the same Mencken photo I used in The Skeptic.)
The catalogue contains an introduction by Rachel Cohen that includes this revealing passage:
And this, I think, is one of the nicest ways to see Van Vechten’s photographs—as parties. At a party, one person leads to the next—in each individual photograph there is the constant sense of the social scene, almost as if the party is going on in another room and Van Vechten and the subject have just stepped in here for a minute so that they can make themselves heard. It’s this quality that makes the collected body of work absolutely unlike that of any other photographer I know—it is a world of hundreds upon hundreds of relationships, of people who were neighbors and friends and artistic collaborators, who signed one another’s petitions, and smashed furniture at one another’s parties and cheered for one another’s achievements. You could begin with almost any photograph in this catalogue, or in the whole exhibition, and trace your way through the lives of almost everyone included.
Nice—and yet you don’t come away with the impression that Van Vechten was an especially serious artist, which I think is just about fair enough. His portraits lack both the personal stamp and the ultimate intensity of high photographic art. I don’t know that I’d be likely to recognize any of the ones I didn’t already know as Van Vechten’s simply by looking. He was no more (and no less) than a gifted amateur with a good eye and access to a lot of very famous people. Yet there is something, maybe even quite a bit, to be said about the comparative stylistic anonymity of his approach. What you see when you look at his 1940 portrait of Charles Laughton is the man himself, tortured and unsure, with no glossy overlay of self to confuse the issue. What you see when you look at, say, Irving Penn’s wonderful 1947 double portrait of Mencken and George Jean Nathan is—well, Irving Penn.
I suspect it makes more sense, then, to approach Carl Van Vechten’s portraits as historical documents rather than art objects. But however you choose to see them, they’re definitely worth seeing.
Alas, Van Vechten seems never to have photographed Louis Armstrong, which is too bad: I would have loved to include one of his portraits in Hotter Than That. As I was leaving the building, though, I walked past the Margo Feiden Galleries, in whose show window I saw a gorgeous Al Hirschfeld caricature of Satchmo. It was exactly the kind of serendipitous moment that New York offers in daily profusion—the reason why, in spite of everything, I live here and wouldn’t dream of leaving.
* * *
“Carl Van Vechten Portaits” is up at James Cummins Bookseller, 699 Madison Avenue, through Saturday.
“But like all well-bred individuals, and unlike human anarchists, the cat seldom interferes with other people’s rights. His intelligence keeps him from doing many of the fool things that complicate life. Cats never write operas and they never attend them. They never sign papers, or pay taxes, or vote for president. An injunction will have no power whatever over a cat. A cat, of course, would not only refuse to obey any amendment whatever to any constitution, he would refuse to obey the constitution itself.”
Carl Van Vechten, The Tiger in the House