About Last Night|
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Friday, January 13, 2006
TT: So you want to see a show?
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, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Doubt* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• 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 situations, strong language, 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)
• The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
• Abigail’s Party (drama, R, adult subject matter, strong language, reviewed here, closes Apr. 8)
• In the Continuum (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes Jan. 28)
• Mrs. Warren's Profession (drama, PG, adult subject matter, closes Feb. 19, reviewed here)
• Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
• The Trip to Bountiful (drama, G, reviewed here, closes Feb. 19)
TT: The old-fashioned way
I’m back from a quick playgoing trip to Washington, D.C., just in time to review Nilo Cruz’s Beauty of the Father in this morning’s Wall Street Journal:
Nilo Cruz, the prolific Cuban-American playwright, didn’t make his Broadway debut until 2003, when “Anna in the Tropics,” which won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, had a three-month run at the Royale Theatre. Though it got mixed reviews, I liked “Anna in the Tropics” very much and resolved to keep an eye on Mr. Cruz thereafter. Now he’s back in town with “Beauty of the Father,” a play about Emiliano, a bisexual artist (Ritchie Coster) whose reunion with his estranged daughter (Elizabeth Rodriguez) hits the skids when she falls for his boyfriend-protégé (Pedro Pascal).
In spite of the contemporary flavor of Mr. Cruz’s plot, his stagecraft is delightfully old-fashioned. His characters are forever waxing poetic, reeling off elaborate soliloquies at the drop of a paintbrush…
In addition, I paid a return visit to The Light in the Piazza:
Long-running musicals have a nasty way of developing quality-control problems over time, especially when the members of the original cast move on. “The Light in the Piazza” was my favorite musical of the 2004-05 season, but I hadn’t seen it since last April and was wondering how it was holding up, especially given the fact that three of the four stars had since been replaced by new faces (Victoria Clark is still in the cast). So I went back for a second helping on Saturday, and was pleased to find that it was every bit as good as I’d remembered….
No link, so take yourself to the nearest newsstand and shell out one thin dollar for a copy of the Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instant access to the complete text of my review (along with plenty of other art-related stories).
Thursday, January 12, 2006
"I regard writing not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me."
Evelyn Waugh, Paris Review interview (1962)
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
OGIC: The man who knew about knowing too much
Following are passages from two mid-late Henry James works that concern things we know but, for reasons emotional and social, don't quite own. When Henry James's novel What Maisie Knew opens, Maisie is six, her parents recently divorced, Moddle her nurse.
It seemed to have to do with something else that Moddle often said: "You feel the strain—that's where it is; and you'll feel it still worse, you know.
Thus from the first Maisie not only felt it, but knew she felt it. A part of it was the consequence of her father's telling her he felt it too, and telling Moddle, in her presence, that she must make a point of driving that home. She was familiar, at the age of six, with the fact that everything had been changed on her account, everything ordered to enable him to give himself up to her. She was to remember always the words in which Moddle impressed upon her that he did so give himself: "Your papa wishes you never to forget, you know, that he has been dreadfully put about." If the skin on Moddle's face had to Maisie the air of being unduly, almost painfully stretched, it never presented that appearance so much as when she uttered, as she often had occasion to utter, such words. The child wondered if they didn't make it hurt more than usual; but it was only after some time that she was able to attach to the picture of her father's sufferings, and more particularly to her nurse's manner about them, the meaning for which these things had waited. By the time she had grown sharper, as the gentlemen who had criticised her calves used to say, she found in her mind a collection of images and echoes to which meanings were attachable—images and echoes kept for her in the childish dusk, the dim closet, the high drawers, like games she wasn't yet big enough to play. The great strain meanwhile was that of carrying by the right end the things her father said about her mother—things mostly indeed that Moddle, on a glimpse of them, as if they had been complicated toys or difficult books, took out of her hands and put away in the closet. A wonderful assortment of objects of this kind she was to discover there later, all tumbled up too with the things, shuffled into the same receptacle, that her mother had said about her father.
Maisie is a deep little vessel for knowledge, even knowledge she can't yet understand. Her eventual strategy for handling the volatile stuff—for both fending off the parental versions and more efficiently capturing the genuine article—is to play dumb, to appear "not to take things in":
The theory of her stupidity, eventually embraced by her parents, corresponded with a great date in her small still life: the complete vision, private but final, of the strange office she filled. It was literally a moral revolution and accomplished in the depths of her nature. The stiff dolls on the dusky shelves began to move their arms and legs; old forms and phrases began to have a sense that frightened her. She had a new feeling, the feeling of danger; on which a new remedy rose to meet it, the idea of an inner self or, in other words, of concealment.
I think James intends this notion of a necessarily secretive inner self as both general and specific. The idea of concealment is inseparable from the idea of an inner self, but for a character like Maisie the role of concealment is heightened. It is, as well, for the unnamed telegraphist who is the protagonist of James's novella "In the Cage":
It has occurred to her early that in her position—that of a young person spending, in framed and wired confinement, the life of a guinea pig or a magpie—she should know a great many persons without their recognising the acquaintance. That made it an emotion the more lively—though singularly rare and always, even then, with opportunity still very much smothered—to see anyone come in whom she knew outside, as she called it, any one who could add anything to the meanness of her function. Her function was to sit there with two young men—the other telegraphist and the counter-clerk; to mind the "sounder," which was always going, to dole out stamps and postal-orders, weigh letters, answer stupid questions, give difficult change and, more than anything else, count words as numberless as the sands of the sea, the words of the telegrams thrust, from morning to night, through the gap left in the high lattice, across the encumbered shelf that her forearm ached with rubbing. This transparent screen fenced out or fenced in, according to the side of the narrow counter on which the human lot was cast, the duskiest corner of a shop pervaded not a little, in winter, by the poison of perpetual gas, and at all times by the presence of hams, cheese, dried fish, soap, varnish, paraffin and other solids and fluids that she came to know perfectly by their smells without consenting to know them by their names.
The heartbreaking circularity of that opening paragraph has always gotten to me. A few pages later, James puts a finer point on her rough similarity to Maisie:
The girl was blasée; nothing could belong more, as she perfectly knew, to the intense publicity of her profession; but she had a whimsical mind and wonderful nerves; she was subject, in short, to sudden flickers of antipathy and sympathy, red gleams in the grey, fitful needs to notice and to "care," odd caprices of curiosity.…It was at once one of her most cherished complaints and secret supports that people didn't understand her.
There's almost no character in James who doesn't at some point dissemble about what they know, but for certain types of characters such negotiations are more fraught. Small children, working-class men and women, the ill, the dispossessed: when such characters crop up in James, they tend to share this combination of heightened receptivity—a marked capacity for taking things in, for knowing—and an instinctual or strategic disinclination to be known. A form of self-protection, the latter. "In the Cage," which plays out a bit in the vein of a Victorian-era Nurse Betty, shows what happens when that guard is dropped, when the telegraphist comes from behind the lattice and makes herself available for knowing, but in the most peculiar and ill-fated way. You can read the e-text of the amazing "In the Cage" here. And then the next time someone dismisses James as writing only about the upper classes, you can make short work of them.
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, January 12, 2006 | Permanent
Monday, January 9, 2006
"I was driven to writing because I found it was the only way a lazy and ill-educated man could make a decent living."
Evelyn Waugh, "General Conversation: Myself" (1937)
Friday, January 7, 2005
"Heavy apparatus has been at work in the last hundred years to enervate and stultify the imaginative faculties. First, realistic novels and plays, then the cinema have made the urban mentality increasingly subject to suggestion. It lapses effortlessly into a trance-like escape from its condition. Great popularity in fiction and film is only attained by works in which reader and audience can transpose themselves and be vicariously endangered, loved and applauded."
Evelyn Waugh, "St. Helena Empress" (1951)
TT: Touch that dial! Please!
I’m on the air today. To be exact, I’ll be sharing a microphone with John Schaefer this afternoon on WNYC’s Soundcheck. Here’s the official version of what we’ve got cooked up:
Rounding out Soundcheck’s week-long traversal of the musical highs and lows of 2004, music and drama critic Terry Teachout joins us to discuss some of his artistic highlights of 2004. From Diana Krall’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow”, to the reopening of the MoMA, to some of the New York Philharmonic’s most successful performances, Teachout and host John Schaefer will cover the year’s best. We also ask our listeners for their highlights. You can call in during the show or e-mail us at: email@example.com.
Soundcheck airs in New York weekdays at two p.m. EST on 93.9 FM. You don’t have to be a New Yorker to join in the fun, though—WNYC can also be heard live via streaming audio by Web surfers around the world. To learn more about today’s broadcast, to “tune in” online, or to listen after the fact to the archived version of today’s broadcast, click here.
As Mr. Osgood says, see you on the radio.
(P.S. The photo of me on the Soundcheck Web site is a personal favorite.)
TT: No need to be an ogre
I took two weeks off from my Wall Street Journal drama column, but now I’m back this morning with reviews of Under the Bridge, the new Kathie Lee Gifford-David Pomeranz musical, and Daniel Goldfarb’s Modern Orthodox, which stars Craig “Music Man” Bierko, Jason “American Pie” Biggs, and Molly “Pretty in Pink” Ringwald.
Regarding Under the Bridge, grab your hat and hold on tight:
When the word got out that Kathie Lee Gifford had written the book and lyrics for a “family-friendly” musical that was all set to open Off Broadway, the resulting rumble of lip-smacking anticipation reminded me of nothing so much as the way many Manhattanites felt when it first hit them that Martha Stewart might actually do time. This, after all, is the town that brought you “Avenue Q,” a show so cynical that it contains a number called “Schadenfreude” (“Right now you are down and out and feeling really crappy/And when I see how sad you are/It sort of makes me…happy!”). I don’t have any strong opinions either way about Mrs. Gifford, but most of my friends affect to find her relentlessly cheery peppiness revolting, so much so that I couldn’t find anyone to accompany me to “Under the Bridge,” which opened last night at the Zipper Theatre.
Well, folks, I hate to disappoint you, but…I liked it.
“Under the Bridge” is a musical adaptation of Natalie Savage Carlson’s “The Family Under the Bridge,” the still-popular 1958 children’s book in which Armand, a homeless Paris bum (played in the show by Ed Dixon), comes to the rescue of the freshly widowed Madame Calcet (Jacquelyn Piro) and her three children (Alexa Ehrlich, Maggie Watts and Andrew Blake Zutty), whose landlord has put them out on the street because they can no longer pay the rent. It’s a sentimental heartwarmer of a tale, complete with the expected happy ending, and for the most part Mrs. Gifford has transferred it to the stage efficiently….
My feelings about Modern Orthodox were rather more complicated:
Daniel Goldfarb’s “Modern Orthodox,” now playing at Dodger Stages, is a very commercial comedy about a very interesting subject: the squirmy discomfort that certain secular Jews feel in the presence of their believing brethren….
Ben and Hershel are at once contemptuous of and oddly attracted to one another. Just as Ben is repelled by Hershel’s straight-from-the-shoulder vulgarity, so is Hershel horrified by Ben’s “ersatz” Jewishness: “Are you conservative?” “Reform. Er, secular, really. Whatever you’d call a high holiday Jew.” “A gentile.” (Pow!) Yet each sees in the other something he lacks—and for which he longs.
All this might well have added up to scaldingly hot stuff, but Mr. Goldfarb has opted for Neil Simon-type punchlines over Philip Roth-type satire….
You were expecting maybe a link? To read the whole thing—of which there’s a lot more—buy today’s Journal at your neighborhood newsstand, or go here to subscribe to the reasonably priced online version of the Journal. (That’s how I read me.)
• Publishers Weekly has a new editor, and major changes are in the offing. Sarah explains it all for you:
Is the magazine actually obsolete? Not as long as they keep the focus on what people pay most attention to—the reviews. One thing I have noticed of late is that more and more of these reviews appear closer to the publication date, which seems rather pointless—if it's a trade publication, shouldn't it be ahead of the curve of newspaper reviews or online pundits? A month is too short a lead time; two or three might work better in order to keep PW as a leading contributor to industry dialogue instead of morphing into a dinosaur….
• Tyler sends an open letter to the Big Cheese at the Museum of Modern Art:
You've got operational problems, Glenn. The crowds in your museum are so massive that it's endangering the art. I saw people bumping into sculptures, even paintings, because the galleries were so crowded. And you need more guards—the fourth floor galleries and the contemporary galleries were so full of people that anyone who wanted to touch a painting could. Heck, I saw women with strollers bumping into the art. If Gordon Matta-Clark was alive, he'd be comin' after you with a chainsaw after what I saw people doing to his work in your museum.
And the cameras, Glenn. You must ban cameras from the building. I must have seen about 100 flashes go off in five hours. The guards simply can't keep up with every camera flash that happens. It's bad for the art and it's bad for the viewing experience of everyone else in the room….
• Jolly Days sharply reduces the number of degrees separating Renata Tebaldi from Jason Alexander:
Renata Tebaldi’s death sent me surfing to Apple’s iTunes store. I purchased what is a high point in human expression, certainly in 20th century western performance, Tebaldi’s O mio babbino caro. This painfully beautiful, far-too-short piece, sitting in the midst of a comic opera that could have been plotted by Larry David — amazing….
This Puccini piece is almost more perfect for its surprising launching pad: Gianni Schicchi. Puccini’s genius enlivens an ancient tale derived from a 14th century commentary on Dante’s Florence. (The plot is often incorrectly associated with a passage in Dante’s Divine Comedy) It could easily be a plot concocted by Seinfeld’s George to get Susan’s money — with Kramer mucking it up again no doubt….
That’s what we recovering musicians call an enharmonic modulation….
• My competitor-pal Robert Gottlieb, author of that other Balanchine book, has a damned good roundup of the year in dance in his New York Observer column:
The year ended with a bang, not a whimper. The Trocks—O.K., fact-checkers, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—turned up for two weeks of fun and games at the Joyce, and even though there were longueurs, they gave us a very needed shot in the arm. Because, let’s face it, 2004 was a bumpy ride….
If you’re even halfway interested in ballet or modern dance, this one’s an absolute must-read.
UPDATE: For more on the Trocks, go here.
• Rachel Howard, who blogs at Footnotes, is about to publish a memoir (which I intend to read the second it comes out), and the prospect of going public about a dark episode in her past is causing her to think some interesting thoughts about blogging:
I’m not hesitant to share unflattering details about myself, at least not in hardback. Yet posting on this website—so much less exposing—still feels like such an unnatural and worrisome process. I didn’t come to blogging freely; my husband, a political blog addict, insisted I should do it and found the designer for this site. The blog has proven useful: It aggregates my freelance work and gives me an online calling card. But I’ve never truly taken to it. Not for me the casually confidential working diary of a Terry Teachout or the biting, devil-may-care running commentary of an Old Hag. Every time I type an entry I have to think “Is this interesting to anyone but me? Does it tell too much about me? Too little?” and worst of all, “Why am I doing this?” And usually the true answer is because I think I should. As for why I think I should, I’ll leave the further psychologizing to the therapist’s office.
Why the reticence online when I’m so unguarded in my memoir? I blame the conversational nature of blogging. I’m not shy, but I’m not a chatty person. I can fake outgoingness at a party for about as long as it takes to greet the hostess, and by forty-five minutes I’m trying to nudge my husband toward the door. I detest talking about myself except with known friends, or even talking about my opinions, and if pressed to make small talk at a social gathering, I usually end up interviewing others. Writing has always been different. In writing a memoir or a novel, I’m not forcing myself upon anyone; no one has to nod along with fake interest. If I work hard enough on a page, someone may want to read it. If I fail to engage them, they can put it down….
Next week at “About Last Night”: the unvarnished truth about my sex life, in five daily installments! (O.K., maybe we’ll do Our Girl’s sex life instead.)
Thursday, January 6, 2005
“Art depends on the solitude of inspired, talented, or neurotic egotists. In its expression, it may ease their agonies (for half an hour); it may bring delight and consolation to some—those hearing Mahler’s Ninth one night in San Francisco. But Mahler’s Ninth on that occasion did not house one homeless person. Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, unequalled in its antiwar sentiments, was prelude to a fresh war. The moment art finds or claims any utility it is dragged before the court of justification, and that is a forlorn process. I think it is correct to see, and insist, that art demands the single-minded, profitless dedication of time, life, and materials to the quest.”
David Thomson, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood
Wednesday, January 5, 2005
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
If you don't mind, I believe I'll take Thursday off. I'm feeling a bit fried from the cumulative effects of the past few weeks' labors, and I've got to write my Wall Street Journal column first thing in the morning.
I'm not sure when my trusty co-blogger gets back to Chicago, but when she does I know she'll have tales of her own to tell. Maybe tomorrow, maybe Friday....
Anyway, later. Go read some other blog. You know where to find 'em.
TT: In or out?
I was never an admirer, much less a fan, of Susan Sontag, but I confess to being fascinated by the retrospective brouhaha over whether the New York Times should have outed her—which it didn’t—in its long, unabashedly admiring obituary. Not surprisingly, Andrew Sullivan has been linking to much of the relevant post-obit commentary, and today he’s posted a long and telling excerpt from a Sontag interview conducted in 2000:
She says she has been in love seven times in her life, which seems quite a lot. "No, hang on," she says. "Actually, it's nine. Five women, four men." She will talk about her bisexuality quite openly now. It's simple, she says. "As I've become less attractive to men, so I've found myself more with women. It's what happens. Ask any woman my age. More women come on to you than men. And women are fantastic. Around 40, women blossom. Women are a work-in-progress. Men burn out." She doesn't have a lover now, she lives alone. The rumours about her and the photographer Annie Leibovitz are, she says, without foundation. They are close friends.
Maybe it sounds foolish, she says. "Maybe everyone will think I have an aberrant life, or a low sex drive. Maybe I am consigning myself to the asexual here. But speaking candidly, and only for myself, there are so many things in my life now that are more important to me than my sexuality. My relationship with my son, David. My writing. Even my moral passions seem to me to be far more defining than my erotic life. People can conclude from this what they want."
(You’ll find lots of other interesting Sontag-related stuff on Sullivan’s site, but his permalinks don’t always point directly to specific postings, so the best thing to do is go there, scroll down, and keep scrolling.)
Should the Times have described Sontag as a lesbian, or bisexual, or however you want to put it? Speaking as a biographer, I think it’s absurd not to be frank about such matters. Regardless of a person’s wishes, the statute of limitations on candor expires when the death certificate is signed, and when the person in question is important, it’s no less important to tell the truth, insofar as it's known or can be determined. I once read a long, posthumously published biography of the American composer Samuel Barber in which the words “homosexual” and “gay” were nowhere to be found, even though everybody in the music business knew perfectly well that Barber was gay (and even though the author had written at length about a goodly number of his lovers). That’s just crazy.
At the same time, though, I think biographers—and writers of obituaries—should be careful about engaging in the sort of idiot reductionism one typically finds in what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathography.” What Sontag said in that interview is worth taking to heart—and not just in her own case. Whatever else she was or wasn’t, she was definitely a complicated woman, too complicated to be summed up in a single word. So am I. So are you.
My good friend Tyler Green, who blogs at Modern Art Notes, is yanking my chain:
I disagree with my esteemed AJ colleague Terry Teachout about the lack of usefulness of specialized critical fields. There is value to readers in specialized knowledge, in a critic spending hours and hours studying, thinking about and examining a certain field….what about providing context, insight and original thinking about contemporary art when the premiere of Alias is on at 8 tonight and there's a new novel to be read? What about doing the legwork to look at all that a critic has to look at in order to speak with some level of insight?
Er, did I really say critical specialization wasn't useful? Because it is, or can be, for all the good reasons Tyler mentions—but only so long as the specialist remains conscious and appreciative of the place of his specialty in the larger world of art. Critics who lack or lose this awareness become provincial, which is the curse of certain branches of criticism (dance in particular). What do they know of modernism who only modern art know? Answer: not enough.
I don't offer my own experience as a model for all critics, by the way. I started out years ago as a critical specialist (in music), but gradually began writing about other things that interested me simply because...I wanted to. And I hope I'm properly modest about what I can and can't do. To quote from my introduction to A Terry Teachout Reader, "I am all too aware that when I discuss any art form other than music, it is as a more or less well-informed amateur, not a practitioner. The only claim that I would make for myself is that because I chose not to remain a specialist, I thereby acquired a feel for the unity of the arts that has had its own value." At least I think so, anyway!
Yes, I do believe good critics should be encouraged to write outside their specialties. (Bad critics, conversely, should be encouraged to take up other lines of work.) But specialization in and of itself is no bad thing, so long as it doesn't lead in bad directions. My favorite art critic, Fairfield Porter, was in one sense the ultimate specialist—a professional painter who wrote about art when not making it. He was also a part-time poet and a deeply thoughtful man whose aesthetic interests (and knowledge) ranged very widely. Don't you wish he'd taken the time to write on occasion about other art forms as well? I do, just as I’m excited that the anything-but-provincial music critic John Rockwell will soon become the chief dance critic of the New York Times. He may be wrong—a lot—but at least he’ll be interesting.
One more quote, this one from the mission statement for “About Last Night”:
This is a blog about the arts in New York City and elsewhere...It’s about all the arts, not just one or two. Clement Greenberg, the great art critic, believed that "in the long run there are only two kinds of art: the good and the bad. This difference cuts across all other differences in art. At the same time, it makes all art one….the experience of art is the same in kind or order despite all differences in works of art themselves." We feel the same way, which is why we write about so many different things. We think many people—maybe most—approach art with a similarly wide-ranging appreciation. By writing each day about our own experiences as consumers and critics, we hope to create a meeting place in cyberspace for arts lovers who are curious, adventurous, and unafraid of the unfamiliar.
I think that sums up my thinking, and Our Girl’s, fairly well. And I bet Tyler doesn’t really disagree with us, either.
UPDATE: Scroll up from Tyler's original posting to see incoming responses from his other readers. See also Alex Ross:
I ask this, though: if the ideal critic writes about classical music and nothing but, where would you put G. B. Shaw? E. T. A. Hoffmann? Wagner? The writer who can encompass more than one realm is the one whose words will resonate longest. The best piece of music criticism I've read in a decade was Alan Hollinghurst's TLS review of the Bayreuth Ring in 2000. Why? Because he didn't write like a parochial expert; he wrote like the major novelist he is. In an ideal world, poets, presidents, painters, and priests would talk about music, and there would be no critics. We're just filling the void….
TT: The show aquatic
Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique, whose off-Broadway revival I reviewed for The Wall Street Journal back in September, closed on Sunday. To mark the occasion, Twist invited me to come see the show again—only this time from backstage. I immediately took him up on the offer, bringing Our Girl with me to Dodger Stages to see the final performance. It was an unforgettable spectacle, especially for someone as stagestruck as I am. I did my fair share of acting in high school and college, but for me the real romance of the theater was to be found backstage, not in the spotlight, so I jumped at the priceless opportunity to watch Twist’s puppeteers from the far side of the curtain.
If you’ve never seen Symphonie Fantastique, my Wall Street Journal review gives a fairly clear idea of what it looks like out front:
Like “The Bald Soprano,” it’s a theatrical magic act that all but defies explanation, if not description. To put it as simply as possible, “Symphonie Fantastique” is an abstract, wordless puppet show performed in a 1,000-gallon tank of water and accompanied by a recording of Hector Berlioz’s “Fantastic Symphony.” That doesn’t tell you much, does it? If anything, so straightforward a description is likely to be offputting, especially to the casual theatergoer who doesn’t much care for puppets in the first place, so I’ll try to flesh things out a bit.
What you see in “Symphonie Fantastique” is one wall of a shallow glass tank into which five wet-suited puppeteers dip and slosh 180 peculiar-looking objects, none of which even remotely resembles Charlie McCarthy. Inspired by the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and Berlioz’s own program for the “Fantastic Symphony,” Mr. Twist uses this equipment to conjure up a bewitching string of complex scenes that unfold with the nagging compulsion of a love story (which is what Berlioz’s symphony is, more or less). The puppeteers are hidden from view by a black wall, and the tank, which looks rather like a flat-screen television, is lit so cunningly and colorfully that you soon become disoriented and surrender joyously to the illusions being created before your amazed eyes.
In the end, literal descriptions of what “happens” in “Symphonie Fantastique” must inevitably fall short of conveying its loony, inscrutable beauty. Metaphor is the only way to suggest its essence. I’ve now seen “Symphonie Fantastique” something like a half-dozen times, starting with its original off-off-Broadway production at the HERE Arts Center, and I described a previous incarnation as looking like “a cross between George Balanchine, Paul Klee and Chuck Jones.” If that sounds good to you, head for Dodger Stages and prepare to be entranced.
Seen from the other side of the wall, Twist's inscrutable illusions looked and sounded more like a fistfight in a dark alley on a rainy night. Soggy puppets and props sailed drippingly through the air, the black-clad puppeteers grunted and cursed and howled along with Berlioz, and I sat quietly in a corner with my mouth hanging open, alternately thinking Oh, that’s how they do it!, I have the coolest job in the whole world, and Maybe I should have brought a raincoat (a towel was supplied, fortunately). Every once in a while I'd snatch a hasty glance at a TV monitor that showed what it looked like from the front of the house. What I saw there was beautiful, but what I saw with my unaided eyes seemed chaotic to the point of insanity, and I kept reminding myself that it wasn’t—that the deceptively wild tumult was in fact choreographed down to the last splash.
Here’s another thought that crossed my mind as I sat in the wings: might it be that live theater in all its endless varieties is the most unselfish of the art forms? When I played bass in my college orchestra, for instance, I participated completely in the musical experience as it was happening. I could hear the piece unfolding, and reveled in the multihued sound of the ensemble of which I was a part. But the gifted artisans who enacted Symphonie Fantastique at Dodger Stages saw nothing but a huge tank of water into which they stuck odd-shaped objects and sloshed them around. The visual experience thereby brought into being was reserved exclusively for the audience. The performers had to take it on faith.
Watching Twist's puppeteers splash and curse and sing, I was reminded of George Balanchine’s famous remark that dancers, like angels, carry a message but do not themselves experience it. Of course they must experience something pleasurable—otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing it day after day—but they don’t get to see what we see, not even when they see themselves after the fact on film or videotape. The same goes for puppeteers, and for actors of all kinds. Theirs is the burden, ours the blessing.
• Bookish Gardener has made what at first glance appears to be a very significant music-related discovery about Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. Click on the link and see for yourself.
• Jeff Jarvis, who blogs at BuzzMachine, digests the findings of the important new Pew Internet and American Life study:
27% of internet users say they read blogs, a 58% jump from the 17% who told us they were blog readers in February. This means that by the end of 2004 32 million Americans were blog readers…. At the same time, for all the excitement about blogs and the media coverage of them, blogs have not yet become recognized by a majority of internet users. Only 38% of all internet users know what a blog is. The rest are not sure what the term “blog” means.
Hell, at this stage in the birth of the web, I'll bet just as many people didn't know what the hell HTML was. The fact that almost 40 percent of online Americans know what blogs are is amazing.
I agree. Read the rest. This is no fad.
• The adorable Maccers spent Christmas in an ashram:
The temperature will go below freezing tonight and the electric heater that I have in the cabin doesn’t seem to be taking the edge off the chill. There are three electric bars which are trying to fight the icy winds coming through the two inch gaps under the door and around the windows. Two other things which have been filling me with a sense of foreboding are the large baskets filled with tambourines (tambourines!) I spied in the meditation hall and the hand holding Hare Krishna chanting we have to do before dinner. All of us in the kitchen. Singing over the vegetable curry. If I have to do that again, I very well might be fasting during my entire stay….
• Champion mystery writer Laura Lippman has trenchant things to say about her chosen line of work:
Crime fiction has its share of jerry-built and dilapidated stock, but the genre is sturdy, its possibilities endless. Come on in, but don't think you'll transform it via the literary equivalents of granite counter-tops and Viking stoves. Like the rowhouses of Baltimore, thrown up in the 19th century to house the working class, the only thing great crime fiction has transcended is those who would render it transitory….
Take that, Edmund Wilson!
Tuesday, January 4, 2005
"Greek tragedy is the tragedy of necessity; i.e., the feeling aroused in the spectator is ‘What a pity it had to be this way’; Christian tragedy is the tragedy of possibility, ‘What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.’"
W.H. Auden, “The Christian Tragic Hero” (courtesy of Peter Robinson)
Our readers write:
• “You are doubtlessly correct that the word posses will fail to catch up with the word ‘blog.’ Not soon will its scrawny neck get stretched. But admit that a word so preeminently without felicity or grace, if it does not deserve to die, must not expect to be loved. The considerable onomatopoetic value of the word has been tragically wasted: blog is tuned to affliction, deep pain, infliction, galloping infection, whatever it was that Grendel's mother had in mind for Beowulf. It is a fork with a definite pitch that has gotten into the wrong bag. ‘New York bloggers have been blogging without surcease over the Met's production of Mozart's Magic Flute.’ Impossible, no? It will be a hundred years before this lump of coal becomes an 8-ball.”
• “Your quote from E.B. White
reminded me of the ending to Edward Hirsch's essay, 'Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man,' in A William Maxwell Portrait (one of the books I requested and received for Christmas):
‘I can't reconcile myself to the fact that he is gone. The night before he passed away I stood on the sidewalk outside his apartment building and burst into tears. I was grieving in advance. I couldn't bear to be without him. I still can't. William Maxwell knew something about inconsolable grief. People hurried by on either side of me, but no one even glanced my way. It started to rain. The night opened its arms. New York City is a place where one can weep on the sidewalk in perfect privacy.’”
• “Best wishes for ’05. I’m a big fan—although what you've cost me in CDs and books does not bear contemplation.”
Hey, it’s a nice problem to have….
TT: Things to come (and go)
• It’s “Critics Week” at WNYC’s Soundcheck, and I’ll be taking my turn at the microphone this Friday. Here’s what the show’s Web site says about my upcoming appearance:
Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and music critic of Commentary, offers his favorites of 2004 from across the cultural spectrum. The week rounds out by allowing listeners to weigh in on their picks of the year.
Soundcheck airs in New York weekdays at two p.m. on 93.9 FM. To find out more about this week’s episodes (mine included), or to listen online via streaming audio, go here.
• “The Art of Romare Bearden” closes this Sunday at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and I’m ashamed to confess that I haven’t been to see it yet. I know, I know, I’ve been busy as hell, but Bearden is one of my favorite American artists, so I’m going to do my very best to get there this week. If you’re in the same boat, go here for more information.
With Our Girl gone, I’ve been consoling myself by working on the right-hand column. In addition to updating the “Teachout in Commentary” and “Second City” modules with fresh links, I also undertook a major revision of “Sites to See,” the “About Last Night” blogroll. I’ve added a bunch of new blogs, as well as replacing a few old ones that either got knocked off inadvertently or were temporarily inactive, and I’ve also reorganized some of the categories under which the blogs are listed. We’ll be doing some compensatory pruning in the next few days, and you can also expect some new Top Fives shortly. (For those who wrote to tell me that the link to my new Commentary essay on Haydn was broken, it's fixed now.)
Here are the “Sites to See” categories, from top to bottom:
• ART LINKS: Web sites (including artsjournal.com, “About Last Night”’s invaluable host) that provide regularly updated links to English-language news stories and commentary about the arts.
• ART BLOGS: Blogs that are primarily (but not always exclusively) about the arts. We don’t break them out into different art forms—i.e., books, music, whatever—because we want to encourage interdisciplinary surfing.
• MEDIA/GOSSIP: Blogs and Web sites about the media and/or gossip (duh).
• PUBLICATIONS: Mainstream media Web sites, usually with substantial art-related content. (Whenever possible, we link directly to the arts pages of these sites.)
• RADIO: Art-related sites devoted to specific radio shows or hosted by radio stations. (This one’s new.)
• ARTIST SITES: Non-blog sites with frequently updated content maintained by artists and performers who interest us. (This is new, too.)
• CRITIC SITES: Ditto, only for critics.
• USEFUL SITES: Mostly reference-type sites about the arts and related subjects, plus a couple of on-line stores we like.
• OTHER BLOGS: Interesting blogs and bloggish sites that are not primarily arts-oriented.
Our Girl and I encourage you to comment on “Sites to See.” Bear in mind, though, that we’re mainly interested in hearing about artblogs and art-related sites that we haven’t yet discovered, or gotten around to blogrolling. We’re especially eager to build up “Radio Sites” as quickly as possible, and we also want to blogroll all the best arts pages of America’s regional newspapers.
If you have a new or underappreciated artblog that you think our readers might find interesting, feel free to send us your URL. Please don’t ask us to exchange links, though—we don’t do that. If your blog looks interesting to us, we’ll keep an eye on it, and if it remains both interesting and active, we’ll add it to “Sites to See.”
Now, go visit a blog you’ve never read before.
Monday, January 3, 2005
"I don't want to own anything that won't fit in my coffin."
Fred Allen (quoted in John Dunning, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio)
TT: Entries from an unkept diary
• I once had a significant other who could easily have stepped out of a Nancy Mitford novel, or a children’s book. Among other things, it was her custom to anthropomorphize everything she ran across. Animals, books, housewares, pieces of furniture: all were endowed with personalities in her high-flying mind. I’d never done that kind of thing myself, my natural sense of fantasy being deficient to the point of nonexistence (I must have been a painfully literal child). Close proximity to so fantastic a person eventually gave me an appreciation for her flights of fancy, though, and to this day I occasionally catch myself thinking in something of the same way. As I walked home this morning from the bagel store, I noticed that the sidewalks were lined with discarded Christmas trees, and I thought: Oh, poor things! Were they well lit and handsomely trimmed? Did they look down on great piles of beautifully wrapped presents? Are they cold and lonely now? Or do they feel fulfilled?
• At breakfast with Our Girl the other day, my memory abruptly disgorged a long-lost fact: Arthur Rubinstein, the classical pianist, reread all of Proust, including George Painter’s two-volume biography, in the year before he went blind. I can’t recall whether he knew for sure that his sight was going or merely had a premonition of trouble ahead, but I do know he later declared himself to have been deeply satisfied by the way he’d spent his last sighted months.
I wonder what I’d do in like circumstances. I don't think I'd go out of my way to read anything at all, though I can see why someone else might want to do so, reading with the eyes being an experience utterly different from “reading” with the ears. (I’ve never listened to an entire book from cover to cover—I get too impatient.) But if not A la recherche du temps perdu, then what? I suppose the obvious thing would be to hit the museums one more time. On the other hand, I could imagine finding that too painful, knowing that I'd soon be deprived of such experiences together. And if I did it anyway, would I try to see as many masterpieces as possible, or concentrate on a few special favorites in the hopes of retaining them in my mind for a little while longer?
I suppose a philosopher might choose instead to continue his normal life, endeavoring to savor each day’s ordinary experiences to the fullest. Alas, I’m not a philosopher, merely a greedy aesthete who’d take a Balanchine ballet over a Balanchine-blue sky any day of the week. Does that mean I live my life once removed from the “real” world? Or are the aesthetic experiences of which the life of art is constituted as “real” as blue skies and fiery orange sunsets?
TT: Rear-view mirror
Our Girl is now on her way back to Chicago, where she'll post in the next day or two about our weekend adventures. Watch this space for all the sordid details.
As for me, all I can say is that the gaiety of nations has been severely diminished....
TT: Lots and lots of elsewhere
I’ve been bookmarking toothsome links for weeks, but only just found sufficient time to knock them together into a posting. Some turned out to have a short shelf life, but these are all fresh:
• My Wall Street Journal colleague Eric Gibson nailed it last week:
If Americans are generous, they are also vain. That's the sad conclusion to be drawn from the fact almost every new concert hall, museum, hospital wing and university building bears at least one donor's name. The "naming opportunity," as it is called, is the instrument of choice for development officers—their tried-and-true method of coaxing money from wealthy people. The strategy has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for worthy causes. But with its bald pandering, it has also corrupted the true spirit of philanthropy….
According to Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, anonymous philanthropy accounts for only about 1% of total annual giving—a drop in the bucket. The number might be larger, but anonymous philanthropy, by its nature, doesn't receive much publicity. There are no published surveys that might give it visibility and present it as an attractive option. Business Week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and Slate all overlook it. "The fund-raising community dislikes it," says Mr. Lenkowsky. "Named donors are like seals of approval and are thought to generate more funds."
It is long past time for someone to publish an annual list of the country's largest anonymous donations. The idea would be not to recognize individuals, as other lists do—an impossible task anyway—but to celebrate the spirit in which such gifts were made and, by encouraging more of them, to help American philanthropy recover its honor. Perhaps such a list could, over time, make anonymous giving so fashionable as to eliminate "named giving" altogether, or at least reduce its greedy prominence….
• Household Opera on being a city person:
I'm troubled by the mindset that everyone has to do their own thing, have their own vehicle, own their own house, go their own way, pull their own weight, not lean on other people, not reach out, not connect, not be reminded of the millions of other lives going on in the world (and if you don't, you're a freak, or a naive Pollyanna who'll just get mugged or knifed). It's the same thing that bothers me when I read about how people in this country are getting less and less involved with social groups outside their families, bowling by themselves, not going to the movies when they can sit in their living rooms and enjoy "home theater," and retreating more and more into the private sphere….
• I am soooo into twang twang twang, the British harpist-blogger (you can move to Manhattan any time now, Helen!). Here’s another example of why:
Is it possible to be a perfect artist? To deal plainly, there is always more to do. That is the performer's Catch-22, striving for something we can only manage in patches, if at all. As Eliot remarks in The Dry Salvages, "For most of us this is the aim/Never here to be realised./Who are only undefeated/Because we have gone on trying." But that is why it is moving to see a performance. It is heroic—it carries on regardless of difficulty, and it aspires to something that, because it does not come easily, is rare and precious. When somebody performs astoundingly well, they defy their human limitations and deliver something rich and strange….
• I recently stumbled across a now-mislaid link to a site that included a long list of “break-up lines of the philosophers.” Way geeky, but also way cool. Excerpts:
The Solipsist: It’s not you, it’s me.
The Rationalist, v. 3.0: If you can’t see your faults, there’s nothing more I can say.
The Atheist: These things just happen.
The Kantian: You lied to me!
The Hegelian: Do we have to go through this again?
• Another cool list, this one of “the things I will not do when I direct a Shakespeare production on stage or film” (and no, I can’t remember where I found this link, either). Highlights:
1. The ghost of Hamlet's father will not be played by the entire ensemble underneath a giant piece of diaphanous black material….
4. I will not imply that Hamlet is sleeping with his mother, or wants to….
12. I will not cast actresses as Helena and Hermia who are the same height.
13. Richard II's minions will not be made to wear pink….
25. I will not use long red ribbons to represent blood, particularly if the long red ribbons bear an unnerving resemblance to pasta.
To the unknown author of this list: a grateful drama critic salutes you!
• Alex Ross (whom OGIC and I ran into at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday) posts on a bloodcurdling phenomenon:
Just now I found myself typing the sentence, "La Mer, of course, depicts the sea." Has anyone else had the experience of more or less forgetting how to write—not to mention forgetting how to talk or think—toward the end of a book-writing process? The other troubling sensation I have is that the more verbiage I produce, the farther I am from being done.
You don’t know the half of it, buddy. Just wait till you spend ten years working on a book….
• Alicublog, my favorite Blue American grouch, has also been known to write on matters apolitical. Somebody sent me a link to a mini-essay he posted last year on Glen Campbell's recording of a pop song I love, Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”:
That Jimmy Webb song is basically a dramatic fragment: a lineman in a barren stretch of the Great Plains during wintertime talks about the burdens of his business and the burdens of his love in alternating passages, but with a similar attitude: it's hard work, and things might go wrong at any time. It's pretty sophisticated for mainstream 60s pop, but it's the arrangement on this record that lifts it into glory. The orchestral sweeps and twang guitar are perfectly normal—a little C&W, a little Living Strings—but because the song is so weird, they actually promote rather than assuage a feeling of unease, like a haggard-looking guy at the end of a bar methodically peeling the labels off each of his beers. The main riff supports the feeling: the telegraphic guitar part, thin and insistent, cushioned in distant, ethereal strings….
Nice, really nice, except that I think maybe he underestimates the quality of the song itself, perhaps just a little. Listen to this recording and see if you don’t agree.
UPDATE: A reader just wrote to remind me of the original link that led me to this posting. Thanks for helping me give credit where it’s due....
• My Balanchine book
inspired the anonymous author of Searchblog to post something that touched me:
Apparently, it is ballet that will provide my ultimate salvation. It has come to my rescue on three significant occasions: during my childhood, at the outset of my major depression a year ago, and more recently when I plunged into a similar depressive episode. On each occasion, it was the exquisite beauty of ballet that redeemed me.
There is nothing in my childhood that would portend my intense love of dance, especially classical ballet. I grew up in a hardscrabble industrial town, several of my grandparents were immigrants, and “the arts” was something that strange men in capes and berets did with each other....
Don't I know it.
• On the other side of the coin, here’s a retired dancer who reminisces wryly about the mixed blessing of appearing in Balanchine’s Nutcracker, year in and year out:
My first adult role was Grandmother in the Party Scene of the first act. The Grandfather I was paired with was Misha Arshansky, a pal of Balanchine's. I would be prepped for our solemn entrance with penciled age lines, a gray wig and a dowdy lace shawl. Then we would shuffle and hunch through the frolicking kids until I made my exit, and had exactly 18 minutes to transform myself into one of the shimmering Snowflakes. I'd throw off the wig, wipe away my "wrinkles," get my pointe shoes on and my tulle skirt in place and return to the wings in time to dance through the rising drifts of confetti snow. Onstage, I'd keep my eyes squinty and my mouth closed. The stuff was coated with some fireproof material, and if a piece got lodged in your throat, it tasted awful and you couldn't cough to get rid of it. Ballet rule No. 1: music from the pit, silence from the stage….
Memo to parents: remember to be more grateful next time.
• Speaking of dance, my Washington Post colleague Sarah Kaufman wrote a great profile of Paul Taylor the other day:
When he's creating a new dance, Taylor overnights in the 19th-century house he owns in New York's SoHo, within walking distance of his company's studios. But it is here, on Long Island's North Fork, where a hillside of gnarled trees leads to an unbroken view of Long Island Sound, where Taylor spends most of his time. Snugly tucked in among the bare, twisted flora, his wind-beaten house is more of a burrow, like something furry animals would inhabit in a children's book. Taylor has owned it since the 1970s….
That's exactly right.
• My Stupid Dog expands thoughtfully on what I wrote last month apropos of True Grit:
I suspect that as a cinematic genre, the Western might integrate language and action more thoroughly—and successfully—than most other types of filmic narrative. In this stark terrain, where civilization is ostensibly absent (even though its artifacts are everywhere), characters have little to do but fight and talk to each other. They do both in abundance….
• Old Hag is on a John P. Marquand kick, and the novel she likes best, Point of No Return, is big with me, too, as I’ve previously mentioned in this space (scroll down).
Says the Hag:
Have you been looking for a book that combines an anthropological examination of a small New England town with the vagaries of lost rich-girl love with a desperate, almost frantic crisis revolving around a promotion at a bank? Have you ever suspected that such a book could be the best book in the world, with a heart-stopping last line that rivals Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider closing ("Now, there would be time for everything") with its simultaneous blast of redemption and cruel irony? Well, have you? Look no further.
• The Brazilian Muse muses on the birth of a life-changing obsession:
I'm glad that Brazil found me when it did. Better late than never, I say. Because my interest in the music coincided with my move to the city, that curiosity for all things Brazilian helped introduce me to a whole side of New York City that I never would have found otherwise. It wasn't because of New York that I discovered Brazilian music, but it was thanks to New York that my love for that music and culture could grow and thrive and evolve….
Yes on both counts. New York is the cafeteria of obsessions.
Lastly, two technology-related posts deserving of a quick peek:
• Here's a nifty little primer for those who’ve run across the word “podcasting” but don’t quite know what it is, much less how it works. (Trust me, it's going to be big.)
• As for this, I smell a brilliant idea whose time is near—or here. When the price comes down a bit, I'm so there….
TT: Four little letters
Gleaned from the wires:
DETROIT (AP) — From wardrobe malfunctions to erectile dysfunction, it's been a tough year all around for the guardians of English—language purists from blue, red and battleground states who long to say "You're fired!" to offensive words and phrases.
More than 2,000 nominations arrived in Michigan's far north, where a committee at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie released its 2005 compilation of language irritants Friday.
Among the 22 expressions on the "List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness" are "blog," "sale event," "body wash" and "zero percent APR financing."
"We're über-serious about this list," said committee organizer Tom Pink, referring to the German prefix meaning "over" or "super" that increasingly finds its way into English.
Group members act as "linguistic sounding boards," said John Shibley, co-compiler of the list.
"People talk back to their TVs, radios, computers, etc., when words and phrases make them angry or frustrated," he said. "Diminishing `word-rage' makes the world a more peaceful place."
Now in its 30th year, the banned word list has drawn imitators and critics….
Shibley said the Lake Superior State group compiles the list in the spirit of fun, and going through old lists can be "like coming across a lost script from an Austin Powers movie."
Banishment nominees have included metrosexual (2003), chad (2001), paradigm (1994), baby boomers (1989) and détente (1976).
Count me among the critics, not merely because this group of linguistic Luddites has chosen to ban “blog," but because their list of past nominees for banishment makes embarrassingly clear how undiscriminating these unhappy folk are. I can't imagine that “metrosexual” and “chad” will have much staying power, but “baby boomers”? They wanted to ban that one in 1989? And as for “détente,” it has of course passed permanently into the language in the sense intended in 1976 (and long before).
It’s true that the word “blog” is—well, ugly. Early in the life of this blog, there was even a brief discussion
of whether we ought to come up with a better name for what we do. Naturally it got nowhere, since “blog” was by then already well established in common usage. And why did it put down roots so quickly? Because it was a near-perfect, highly purposeful coinage: a four-letter monosyllable presumably forged not by some glib journalist but by an actual blogger, one which was immediately adopted by all who ran across it because it gave a memorable name to something significant. (Somehow I doubt the world was waiting for “metrosexual.”) Such is the organic process by which new words are coined, taken up, and accepted into the language, and to argue against its validity is like trying to repeal the weather.
Needless to say, there will always be fussbudgets eager to tell us that Things Shouldn’t Be That Way. I know people who think life would be better without computers, that rock should never have happened, that modernism was a mistake, that the Renaissance was the great wrong turn in Western history. When confronted by yet another specimen of such posturing, I smile—and shrug. It was in response to this mindset that I wrote what have turned out to be the most widely repeated words
yet posted on this blog:
Sometimes different is better, and sometimes, maybe most of the time, it’s just different. The thing is to try to understand the nature of the difference—and, insofar as possible, to think of ways in which new culture-shaping technologies can be used in the service of old values....I’m old-fashioned—but my attachment is to essences, not embodiments.
That goes for words, too. “Blog” may not be an especially pretty word, but it works—and, like the technology to which it gives a name, it’s here to stay, like it or not. Get used to it. Better yet, start one. Make it your New Year's resolution.
UPDATE: See this Denver Post appreciation of the litblogging scene, in which David Milofsky makes enthusiastic mention of several of our illustrious colleagues. The money quote:
I would trade passion for polish any day, and if there's an in-group among bloggers, it's one that seems remarkably inclusive. They're far from perfect, but for those of us who occasionally despair at the lack of a literary audience in this country, the growing emergence of litblogs is reason for celebration.
He gets it.
Saturday, January 10, 2004
"For the artist, the focus on self, on personal development and artistic destiny, is a drive that excludes everything else. Normally endowed people living normal lives see it as inexcusable selfishness."
Ada Louise Huxtable, Frank Lloyd Wright
TT: Grant challenge
A fellow blogger writes:
pal and I played this parlor game: If you were going to be a seven-figure, major donor to one arts
institution in the USA, what would you pick?
That is a really good question, and as Jack Benny said to the mugger who asked him for his money or his life, I'm thinking it over. You do the same. I'm painfully aware that the e-mailbox is overflowing and that it will probably be at least another three days before I have a spare half-hour to clear it out, but I'll be strongly inclined to post a whole bunch of your answers one of these days.
Right at this moment, I'm torn between Carolina Ballet and the Phillips Collection. But I could change my mind several dozen more times between now and whenever. Oh, the joys of imaginary philanthropy....
TT: Man at work
Finally, finally, I've updated the right-hand column. Three new Top Fives (plus the extraction of one gallery listing that passed its sell-by date a week ago, arrgh), fresh items in "Teachout Elsewhere" and "Second City," even a revised publication date for A Terry Teachout Reader in "About Terry's Books." And about time, too, yes, I know, thank you very much.
In the process of passing these everyday miracles, I discovered that all the links in "Teachout in Commentary" were busted, on account of a major redesign of the Commentary Web site that went live without anybody bothering to tell me (duh, thanks, Neal!). I'll get 'em fixed as soon as I figure out how.
I won't make you giggle by promising to do all this more often. Either I will or I won't. And hey...maybe I will.
TT: Both ends of the telescope
New York City Ballet
is celebrating the centennial of the birth of George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, with two full seasons’ worth of Balanchine-heavy programs. I’m in the process of writing a brief life of Balanchine for Harcourt, so I expect to be going to NYCB two or three times a week throughout the next couple of months. I just returned from my first performance of the winter season, an all-Balanchine triple bill of Prodigal Son, Serenade, and Scotch Symphony, two masterpieces and a lesser but nonetheless delightful effort. I brought with me a jazz musician who’d never seen any of Balanchine’s choreography, and was eager to find out what she’d been missing.
Most serious balletgoers (if not all) have felt for some time now that NYCB was in decline, and tonight’s performance did little to prove them wrong. I don’t need to go into particulars, since Tobi Tobias nailed all the myriad deficiencies of the current staging of Scotch Symphony in a posting on "Seeing Things," her artsjournal.com blog:
I had been looking forward to my favorite Scotch Symphony moment. Two of the kilts lift the Sylphide high—she seems to be standing on air—and toss her, still vertical, into her ardent suitor’s arms. "She sails forward as if the air were her natural home," Walter Terry wrote in 1957, "and [her partner] catches her high on his chest as if she were without weight." I recall the exquisitely gentle Diana Adams in that moment. For two unforgettable seconds, she seemed to be not falling but floating—softly, lazily, serenely, swept crosswise by an idle breeze. It didn’t happen last night. They didn’t even attempt it. I wonder if whoever is setting the ballet even knows that moment existed. Or cares.
I was one year old in 1957, but anyone who’s seen the old Bell Telephone Hour video
of Maria Tallchief and André Eglevsky performing the slow movement of Scotch Symphony in 1959 will know at once that Tobi’s detailed recollections of how it was danced 40 years ago are more than rosy-eyed nostalgia. This is one Balanchine ballet that definitely doesn’t look the way it used to.
On the other hand, it’s also worth reporting that my guest was stunned—the only possible word—by her first encounter with Balanchine's choreography. I gave her a discreet glance at the end of Serenade and saw that she was crying softly. That’s just as it should be: Balanchine’s greatest ballets are sturdy enough to make their effect even in unfocused, infirm performances. I wouldn’t have dreamed of telling her that last night’s Serenade, for all its virtues, was far removed from the way that immortal masterpiece looks when lovingly set by a first-string repetiteur on a meticulously rehearsed company. For her, the only thing that matters is that she's just discovered a new world of beauty whose existence she never even suspected. I envy her.
In 1987, I went to Lincoln Center to watch New York City Ballet dance Concerto Barocco, set to Bach’s Two-Violin Concerto. I knew the music well, having played one of the solo parts in high school, but except for an isolated Nutcracker seen on a college trip to New York, Barocco (as balletomanes call it) was my first Balanchine ballet. Indeed, I hadn’t seen very many ballets of any kind, nor was I much impressed with the ones I had seen. So far as I could tell, ballet consisted for the most part of thin women in white skirts pretending to be birds, fluttering through elaborately costumed pantomime shows whose quaint plots were too silly to take seriously. I knew next to nothing about George Balanchine, but I’d just seen a TV documentary about him which led me to believe that his dances were different, so I decided to give Barocco a try, in much the same spirit of adventure that might have led another person to go to the Museum of Modern Art, or to a jazz club.
At four minutes past eight, the house lights dimmed, the curtain flew up, and I saw eight young women standing before a sky-blue blackdrop. The scrappy little band in the pit snapped to attention, the conductor gave the downbeat, and the women started to move, now in time with the driving beat, now cutting sharply against its grain. As the solo violinists made their separate entrances, two more women came running out from the wings and began to dance at center stage. Their steps were crisp, exact, almost jazzy. For a moment I was confused. The stage was completely bare, and the dancers’ simple, unadorned costumes offered no clue as to who they were or what they were doing. Had I failed to grasp something crucial? What was the story? Then it hit me: the music was the story. The dancers were mirroring its complex events, not in a sing-songy, naïvely imitative way but with the utmost sophistication and grace. This was no dumb show, no mere pantomime, but sound made visible, written in the air like fireworks glittering in the night sky. When it was all over, 15 breathless minutes later, the audience broke into friendly but routine applause, seemingly unaware that they had just beheld a miracle. Rooted in my seat, eyes wide with astonishment, I asked myself, Why hasn’t anybody ever told me about this?
Seventeen years have come and gone, and I can still tell you exactly how I felt on that never-to-be-forgotten January night. Which is why I persist in taking new friends to see their first Balanchine ballets. Things may not be what they used to be at New York City Ballet, but Barocco and Serenade and Apollo can still make a first-timer shiver and weep, even when the steps are fuzzy around the edges and the orchestra sounds like it forgot to tune up (and boy, did it ever sound awful in Scotch Symphony!). Those of us whose business it is to notice and report what goes wrong on the stage of the New York State Theater should always keep that miraculous fact firmly in mind.
Friday, January 9, 2004
"The band was deep in a minuet, a Clementi minuet in C major that Jack and he had arranged for violin and 'cello, one that they had often played together; and now that he was in it, in it for the first time as a dancer, the familiar music took on a new dimension; he was part of the music, right in its heart as one of the formally moving figures whose pattern it created—he lived in a new world, entirely in the present."
Patrick O'Brian, The Surgeon's Mate
TT: Better late than never
Whoops! OGIC just reminded me that I forgot to post the Friday teaser for my Wall Street Journal drama column. So here goes: I wrote in this morning’s Journal about my recent visit to Chicago,where I saw Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Rose Rage, a five-and-a-half-hour-long adaptation by Edward Hall of all three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, and the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s production of Man From Nebraska, a new play by Tracy Letts.
Rose Rage I liked, with some qualifications:
Of course there’s more to "Henry VI" than this—four hours more, to be exact—but Mr. Hall’s own ruthless cutting of the original text, combined with the cartoony conceptualism of his production style, stuffs Shakespeare into a straitjacket. At first I found the results tricky and exasperating, but theater is an empirical art whose practitioners make their own rules, and well before the dinner break arrived, I realized that I had gotten completely caught up in the ferocious sweep of "Rose Rage." Mr. Hall may suffer from tunnel vision, but at least his tunnel goes someplace interesting: The comic scenes bristle with vitality, the battles are angry and clamorous, and when the long evening is finally over, you’ll find it hard to shake off the dark spell cast by this sometimes over-clever but nonetheless thrilling show….
Man From Nebraska I loathed:
Ken Carpenter (Rick Snyder), a Baptist family man from Lincoln, Neb., awakes one morning to find he has lost his faith. He thereupon embarks on a pilgrimage to London, where he falls in with Tamyra (Karen Aldridge), an arty bartender, and Harry (Michael Shannon), a mediocre sculptor. These enlightened folk introduce the benighted Ken to the Religion of Art, and he returns to Lincoln a fully fledged member of the herd of independent minds, there to renounce fundamentalism, fast food and small-town narrowness. Such smug little exercises in cross-cultural condescension are par for the course in the capital of Blue America, but I wasn’t expecting to stumble across one in the City of the Big Shoulders. I guess there’s no hate like self-hate: Mr. Letts, a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble, was born and raised in Oklahoma….
No link, hell and death, so to read the whole thing, march to your friendly neighborhood newsstand, lay down one cold hard dollar, buy a Friday Journal, turn to the "Weekend Journal" section, and feast yourself on all sorts of other good stuff (including the book review that supplied me with today’s almanac entry).
"When I look at it now, it looks like something made by someone who wants to think he's deep but really isn't."
Steven Soderbergh (on sex, lies, and videotape), quoted in Peter Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures
You’ve probably already heard about it from BuzzMachine, but if not, the most interesting thing I’ve seen on the Web lately is Jay Rosen’s "Journalism Is Itself a Religion," a long, challenging essay posted two days ago on his Pressthink site. Here’s the billboard:
The newsroom is a nest of believers if we include believers in journalism itself. There is a religion of the press. There is also a priesthood. And there can be a crisis of faith….
The essay was written to herald the launch of The Revealer,
a promising-looking on-line magazine about religion and the media. The Revealer is definitely worth a look, but read Rosen’s essay first. As BuzzMachine says, "I can't quote it without mangling it so go pour a cup of coffee and have a good read." I agree. It’s a must.
Thursday, January 8, 2004
TT: In one ear
One of the peculiarities of being a critic of all the arts is that your relative interest in different art forms inevitably fluctuates over time, sometimes quite sharply. It occurred to me the other day, for instance, that I hadn't turned on the stereo in my living room for several weeks, and as I reflected on that hitherto-unnoticed fact, I realized that I hadn't been to the opera, or to a classical concert, for at least that long. Nor have I been listening to music files on my computer as I write—a near-habitual practice for me. Instead, I've been looking at and thinking about paintings and plays, and I'm about to spend the next couple of months immersed in the ballets of George Balanchine. Music, by contrast, has lost its savor: I'm always happy to listen whenever it crosses my path, but I don't feel any special need to seek it out.
Does this trouble me? Not really. I've lived long enough to know that the rhythms of an aesthetic life run in cycles. Sooner or later, probably sooner, I'll hear a piece by a previously underappreciated composer, or a CD by a new singer whose voice tickles me in all the right places, and suddenly music will resume its place in the spotlight, while another art form retires temporarily to the wings. Most likely my love of music is simply lying fallow, regaining its strength. Back in the Seventies and Eighties, I reviewed classical music and jazz for the Kansas City Star. It was great fun, but it was also a burden, not because of the bad concerts but because of the merely adequate ones—of which there were far more than too many. Once I moved on to the next part of my life, I went for two whole years without going to a concert. It was necessary: I had to clear my ears. And when they were back in working order, I resolved never again to let myself get burned out, on music or anything else. Since then, I've made a point of writing about a steadily widening variety of artistic experiences. Whenever my interest in one art form starts to flag, I simply concentrate on another. That's what's happening now.
And yet...I've spent the better part of my life up to my ears (so to speak) in music of all kinds. After literature, music was my first art form, and it remains the one I know most intimately. I "speak" it as naturally as I speak English. I write a lengthy essay about musical matters nearly every month for Commentary. That's why it feels strange to find the spring no longer flowing. It's as if I've become alienated from myself, in much the same way that the victim of a stroke might feel he was no longer himself. I'm not all here.
Ivy Compton-Burnett, the English novelist, told a friend late in life that she could no longer read Jane Austen with pleasure, not because her admiration for Austen had lessened but because she'd read her novels so many times that she had them virtually by heart, and hence could no longer be surprised by them. When I read that, I wondered: is it really possible to exhaust a masterpiece? Much less an entire art form? I can't imagine being unable to hear anything new in Falstaff or the Mozart G Minor Symphony, though I suppose it could happen. And as for a person who came to feel that music or painting or poetry had nothing more to say to him, he'd be in dire straits indeed. Such a terrible prospect puts me in mind of one of Dr. Johnson's most famous utterances: "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." The arts are like that. To be tired of them is to be tired of life.
Needless to say, I'm not tired of life—far from it—and even though I do seem to be tired of music, I know the time will come when I fall in love with it all over again. Until then, I'll keep in mind Carolyn Leigh's beautiful lyric to one of my favorite songs, "I Walk a Little Faster":
Pretending that we’ll meet
Each time I turn a corner,
I walk a little faster.
Pretending life is sweet
‘Cause love’s around the corner,
I walk a little faster.
Can’t begin to see my future shine as yet,
No sign as yet
You’re mine as yet.
Rushing toward a face I can’t define as yet,
Keep bumping into walls,
Taking lots of falls.
But even though I meet
At each and every corner
With nothing but disaster,
I set my chin a little higher,
Hope a little longer,
Build a little stronger
Castle in the air,
And thinking you’ll be there,
I walk a little faster.
Wednesday, January 7, 2004
TT: Usage bulletin
"Are you deadlining?" a friend e-mailed yesterday. I like that.
Actually, I'm deadlining today, sort of (I'm finishing the first chapter of my brief life of George Balanchine), so I don't expect to post anything more until well into the evening, if then. Apologies, and further apologies for having ignored the mailbox for the past few days. I know Our Girl is cooking away at her blogpot, though I don't know when the dish will be finished. Here's hoping.
In lieu of a real post, here's the epigraph of the Balanchine book. Ruthanna Boris, a choreographer who danced for Balanchine, said it to Francis Mason in I Remember Balanchine, Francis' priceless collection of oral-history interviews:
After I retired from dancing, I was sitting on the bench with Balanchine at the School of American Ballet while he rehearsed. As they were working, he said to me, "You know, those men in Tibet up in the mountains. They sit nude in the cave and they drink only water through straw and they think very pure thoughts." I said, "Yes, the Tibetan monks. The lamas." He said, "Yes. You know, that is what I should become. I would be with them." And then he looked around and said, "But unfortunately, I like butterflies."
Isn't that nice? I'm having fun with this book.
Now go have a good day. I'll see you Friday.
TT: Eh, oui!
They're writing about us in French, thank you very much! I especially like the part about "la mystérieuse 'our girl in chicago'."
Here's a hint, Alexandre: if you purchase A Terry Teachout Reader, you'll find a cunningly concealed clue to OGIC's identity (in English, of course).
TT: On the air
I'm going to be appearing on New York's WNYC-FM (93.9 on your dial) some time between two and three this afternoon (that's EST). The program is called Soundcheck, and I'll be talking with John Schaefer about my Smalltown, U.S.A. blogposts of last month, and more generally about how Red Americans use new media to experience art.
For more information, or to listen on line, go here.
UPDATE: The show ended up being great fun, and I even had an unexpected encounter with an old friend of mine, an early-music soprano who appeared on the first half-hour. Radio is so cool. I used to do it a lot back in the old days of NPR's Performance Today, and I still miss it....
TT: What you want, when you want it
Masters of Cinema has posted a terrific feature about important films currently unavailable on DVD. No permalink, as far as I can see—instead, go to the page and click on "Unavailable?" in the upper right-hand corner. In addition to Nick Wrigley’s mainbar story, you’ll find a sidebar-to-end-all-sidebars, described as follows:
In late 2003 we asked a number of our favourite film critics, restorers, authors, curators and scholars for their lists of "most wanted films on DVD". The idea here, six years into the format's life, is to catch a glimpse of what the next six years could hold if these dreams were realised. Here are their responses….
Now, that’s my idea of a "list piece." Read, ponder, and note the mysterious absence of anything by Budd Boetticher—though Nicholas Ray does get his due. (Did you know, by the way, that Ninotchka and The Grapes of Wrath aren’t available on DVD? Yikes!)
TT: When size matters
I just saw "Manet and the Sea," the Art Institute of Chicago’s current blockbuster show. As a matter of fact, I saw it twice, once on Friday morning and once on Sunday morning, and the contrast between the two viewings was instructive.
I took a cab from Union Station to the Art Institute on Friday, there to be stopped on the steps by a guard who told me that I couldn’t check my suitcase—the Art Institute was no longer checking luggage because of the orange alert. Dumbfounded, I asked him, not in a friendly way, what I was supposed to do (I was staying with Our Girl in Chicago, who doesn’t live anywhere near the museum). He told me that I could try the front desk of a hotel four blocks away, which was what I ended up doing. Cold, tired, and exasperated, I trudged back to the Art Institute, where I found a line of warmly dressed museumgoers that already stretched halfway around the block. It was, to put it mildly, a bad omen, and sure enough, I didn’t get much pleasure out of what followed.
Like most blockbuster museum exhibitions, "Manet and the Sea" requires a separate ticket that permits you to enter the show one time only during a specified half-hour span. I presented myself at the entrance and got in another long line. Once I finally entered, the galleries turned out to be crammed, with huge knots of spectators clustered in front of the wall texts and even larger knots of headphone wearers spread out four and five deep in front of all the paintings discussed in the audio tour. The thick crowds moved sluggishly and randomly, now this way, now that way, making it a struggle to get close enough to any particular painting to examine it in detail.
If all this sounds like standard operating procedure, it is—except that I almost never go to blockbuster shows during regular museum hours. As a working critic, I normally attend "press views," the pre-opening previews which, even when they draw good-sized audiences, are never too crowded. In the past couple of years, I’ve only had to fight crowds at one mega-blockbuster show, the Museum of Modern Art’s "Matisse Picasso" (I reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal, then returned a second time in the company of a friend who had a spare ticket). As a result, I’d forgotten how oppressive it is to try to look at great art in the company of undifferentiated hordes of other viewers, a not-insubstantial percentage of whom are boorishly noisy.
It didn’t help that "Manet and the Sea" is an unusually large and complex show, consisting of more than a hundred carefully arranged paintings, watercolors, and prints by Manet, Monet, Courbet, Morisot, Renoir, Whistler, and a goodly number of other lesser lights. That’s a lot of art, far too much to take in under the best of circumstances, much less the worst. (The Metropolitan Museum’s El Greco show, by contrast, contains only 70 items.) I was already tired by the time I shoved my way into the fourth gallery, and by the end of the show the individual paintings were no longer making much of an impression on me. Sad to say, I was glad to leave.
Our Girl and I returned to the Art Institute two days later, just as a snowstorm was moving into downtown Chicago, and our experience couldn’t have been more different: no line in front of the museum, no line at the entrance to the exhibition, no more than a dozen or so people in any gallery at any given moment, not unlike a press view. We spent an hour and a half strolling through the show at our leisure, scrutinizing and discussing each piece, then went back through twice more to pick our half-dozen favorite paintings (about which we were in near-complete accord). Our eyes were still fresh when we were done, and the paintings that made the deepest impressions on us stayed clear in our minds for days afterward.
This isn’t going to be the usual Screed Against Blockbusters. I don’t feel like rehearsing all the old arguments for and against such shows—they’ve been done to death, and nothing I say, here or elsewhere, will change the economic realities that drive museums to put together 100-piece extravaganzas of Impressionism’s Greatest Hits. Nor do I propose to gripe about wall texts or audio tours. In a perfect world, museumgoers would simply look at paintings, then go home, read about them, and come back to see them again. Alas, the world of art is far from perfect: not only do most museumgoers like to read about the paintings they see while they’re seeing them, but more than a few like to hear about them as well. What’s more, I don’t doubt that at least some of them profit from the experience, and far be it from me to decree that they should be deprived of it.
Having said all this, I do want to make a couple of modest proposals:
(1) Once a year, every working art critic should be required to attend a blockbuster show on a weekend or holiday. He should buy a ticket with his own money, line up with the citizenry, fight his way through the crowds, listen to an audio tour—and pay close attention to what his fellow museumgoers are saying and doing. In short, he should be forced to remind himself on a regular basis of how ordinary people experience art, and marvel at the fact that they keep coming back in spite of everything.
That one’s easy. This one’s harder:
(2) Every "civilian" who goes to a given museum at least six times a year should be allowed to attend a press or private view of a major exhibition. The experience of seeing a blockbuster show under such conditions is eye-opening in every sense of the word. If more ordinary museumgoers were to have such experiences, it might change their feelings about the ways in which museums present such exhibitions.
Lastly, I’ll take a flying leap into the cesspool of arrant idealism:
(3) No museum show should contain more than 75 pieces, and no museum should be allowed to present more than one 75-piece show per year. Tyler Green (whose Modern Art Notes is about to become an artsjournal.com blog, by the way) wrote the other day to tell me that Washington’s Phillips Collection, our favorite museum, is putting on a Milton Avery retrospective
in February that will contain just 42 pieces. I can’t wait to see it, not only because I love Avery but because that is exactly the right size for an exhibit of that kind—big enough to cover all the bases, but not too big to swamp the viewer and dull his responses.
I’ll close with a memory. A few years ago, I gave a speech in Kansas City, and as part of my fee I was given a completely private tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. I went there after hours and was escorted by one of the curators, who switched on the lights in each gallery as we entered and switched them off as we left. I can’t begin to tell you what an astonishing and unforgettable impression that visit made on me. To see masterpieces of Western art in perfect circumstances is to realize for the first time how imperfectly we experience them in our everyday lives. It changes the way you feel about museums—and about art itself. I didn’t realize it then, but that private view undoubtedly helped to put me on the road to buying art.
Perhaps one of our great museums might consider raffling off a dozen such tours each year. I’m not one for lotteries, but I’d definitely pony up for a ticket.
Speaking of the Phillips Collection, the Washington Post ran a little item in this Sunday’s arts section about "The Garden at Les Lauves," my favorite Cézanne painting, which hangs at the Phillips. It’s up on the paper’s Web site, and you can see it by going here. I first saw "The Garden at Les Lauves" in 1996 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s great Cézanne retrospective, only a few months after I’d started looking at art in a serious way. It was hung last in the show, and seeing it struck me with the immediate force of revelation, the way I was struck when I first saw George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco or heard The Rite of Spring. I was never the same again.
Do take a look. Even if "The Garden at Les Lauves" doesn’t affect you in quite the same way, I thought you might enjoy this little glimpse into my aesthetic psyche.
Tuesday, January 6, 2004
You see a lot of ink spilled these days lamenting the growing marginality of poetry, many heads scratched trying to figure out inventive new ways to make it relevant again to the common reader. The first front on which this resistance needs to be fought is of course the classroom (where, I truly believe, more and earlier emphasis on memorization and recitation is the key to seeding pleasure in poetry, as well as being indispensable to understanding it). But there's obviously also a role to be played by intelligent, energetic criticism.
I can't remember the last time I encountered a review of new poetry that didn't feel airless, stuffy, and as if it had been written for the initiated few. I think this is less a symptom of arrogance than of laziness, cluelessness, or perhaps disillusionment on the part of reviewers, but the effect is toxic whatever the causes. Last Sunday, however, the Chicago Tribune provided a notable exception to this rule. If new poetry were more often reviewed as dashingly and accessibly as Maureen McLane does here, I submit, more people would read new poetry. (Warning: link will expire Jan. 11.)
posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, January 7, 2004 | Permanent
TT: Shoot first, ask questions later
In a posting somberly entitled "Death Knell," acdouglas.com announces the Impending End of the West, adducing as evidence a series of statements recently culled from an assortment of culture and art blogs. These statements, he claims,
are all reflective of the current cultural Zeitgeist; a legacy of the '60s, and one that has been sounding the death knell for all the high arts, classical music very much included, for almost three decades now. And although a death knell, it's been heard by most who ought to have known better (viz., intelligent, educated, cultured people such as those represented above) not as a death knell, but as a clarion voluntary heralding a new, welcome, and desirable equalitarian embracement of all art -- high and low, great and trashy -- without distinction.
No, I'm not going to embark on a(nother) fulmination against such wrongheaded, woodenheaded, purblind idiocy. I've done my share of that on this weblog; some will say more than my share.
Well, maybe just a teeny bit more than his share. For one of the statements, it seems, comes from "About Last Night":
I'm blogging from the apartment of ________, who is sitting in her Eames chair (yes, she has an Eames chair!), looking shockingly beautiful as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two twang away on the stereo (didn't I tell you she was cool?).
Needless to say, the lady of the blank was Our Girl in Chicago, who has an Eames chair and listens to Johnny Cash, to whose music I introduced her a number of years ago. Which means, according to Mr. Douglas, that she and I are both part of the horde of woodenheaded, idiotic cultural relativists who are gnawing away at the foundations of Western culture.
Excuse the hell out of me, pal, but you obviously haven’t read one-tenth of one percent of what I’ve been writing for the past quarter-century about cultural relativism and its discontents, and I don’t plan to sit still and let you dump all over me like that. Among many, many, many other things, I draw your attention to something I posted in this space
a couple of months ago, apropos of the Great King-Hazzard Imbroglio:
I don’t think The Long Goodbye is as good a book as The Great Gatsby, and I believe the difference between the two books is hugely important. But I also don’t think it’s absurd to compare them, and I probably re-read one as often as the other.
The point is that I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them. I have plenty of room in my life for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, for Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong, for George Balanchine and Fred Astaire, and I love them all without confusing their relative merits, much less jumping to the conclusion that all merits are relative.
In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s part of what this blog is all about—a big part.
I think perhaps Mr. Douglas didn’t notice. I think perhaps there’s a lot he doesn’t notice. And I think perhaps he should do penance by ordering a copy of A Terry Teachout Reader, in which he will find plenty of evidence of just how much he hasn’t been noticing.
Enough said. All is forgiven.
UPDATE: Mr. Douglas has responded (the link's the same), or at least thinks he has.
TT: Up to the nanosecond
I just received this e-mail from a trend-conscious Gen-Xer who works in the litbiz:
(that is short for whatever, in case you didn't know).
I didn't. Now I do. And so do you.
Monday, January 5, 2004
TT: Instant messaging
and sundry litbloggers have taken note of "The Populist Manifesto," yesterday’s Washington Post story about the Stephen King-Shirley Hazzard dustup at the National Book Awards ceremony. Here’s the nut graf:
On the streets of Washington and across America, a war is being waged between popular novels and literary fiction. In this increasingly aliterate nation—acrawl with people who can read but don’t—the battle for readers is a high-stakes campaign.
Since I (1) write a column for the Post, (2) was interviewed for the story and (3) am quoted extensively therein, I’ll refrain from commenting either way on its merits, but I do want to say something about The Elegant Variation’s sulfurous response:
Others have already linked to this Washington Post piece about the King/Hazzard contretemps, so I may be beating a dead horse but I have to wonder when this idiotic "literary vs. genre" nonsense will play itself out.
There's not a single message board that I have ever visited -- not one -- that does not include some form of this exhausted debate, usually in terms and tones incendiary and condescending. And after perusing all the miles and KB of threads, I'm forced to ask the question: Who cares? Isn't it enough to say that each side probably envies something the other side has, and to leave it at that? How much more really needs to be said?
Hold on there a minute, hoss. The fact that lots and lots of people (OGIC and myself included) have blogged about this "exhausted debate" is apodictic proof that lots and lots of people care, and at least hints at the further possibility that the debate might be somewhat less than exhausted.
Bookslut, on the other hand, framed the diminishing-returns debate in a slightly different way, suggesting that the Post article "may have seemed more relevant if it had been published soon after the National Book Awards ceremony. I thought this had already been talked out." And so it has—out here in the blogosphere, where lead times are shorter and trigger fingers itchier. But as has been widely observed of late, the whole point of the blogosphere is that it appears to consist, at least at present, of a fairly small universe of early adopters and opinion-shapers whose views are initially disseminated and discussed in cyberspace, only then making their way into the slower-responding world of print media. (Or, to invert the Fox News slogan, we decide—they report.) As a result, that which strikes us as yesterday’s news may actually be tomorrow’s news, or next month’s news, in the "real" world of journalism.
For this reason, instead of grumping about how the Washington Post is beating a dead horse, I wonder if we might possibly do better to say, "Cool—they noticed. And they even remembered to mention that we got there first!" For as Exhalations pointed out,
It was interesting to note that a blog was referenced, Terry Teachout's About Last Night. It was the first time I've seen such a casual reference to a blog without the reporter having to explain the term ‘blog’.
Actually, I’d seen one or two such references prior to this one. It’s worth noting, too, that my weekly Wall Street Journal shirttail says simply that I "blog about the arts at www.terryteachout.com," without further explanation. But it’s just as worthy of note that the Washington Post is now behaving as though litblogs have become a recognized part of the world of literary journalism. Maybe that’s the headline that belongs on this particular story.
TT and OGIC: In case you didn't notice
See the shiny new orange button in the right-hand column, just under "Write Us," that says "XML"? Well, here's a bulletin from artsjournal.com, the invaluable and indispensable host of "About Last Night," explaining what it's all about:
This week ArtsJournal introduces a new feature: rss syndication feeds for all of our ArtsJournal bloggers. If you have a newsfeed reader, you can subscribe to any ArtsJournal blog by clicking on the orange "XML" button now found on each of the blogs.
If you know what the first part of that bulletin means, go thou and do likewise. If you don't know, don't worry about it. Really.
As for us, we sort of understand, kind of, but we don't have newsfeed readers of our own (yet). All we know is that they're supposed to be a good thing, and so we're glad that "About Last Night" is now available via rss syndication feeds. If and when you become a subscriber to "About Last Night," please let us know whether you experience any technical difficulties, and we'll pass your complaint on to the proper authorities.
As for everyone else, ignore that last paragraph. You may continue visiting "About Last Night" the same way you always have, as often as you like. And we still hope you'll tell your friends about us!
TT: And here I am again
Amtrak deposited me at New York's Penn Station exactly one hour ago. I was three hours late, having left Chicago's Union Station three hours late, so in a sense I suppose I was on time. The good news is that the train ride back to New York was as beautiful as you'd expect. It was snowing all the way into Ohio, and there was snow on the ground all the way to Albany. Yes, Amtrak sleepers can be a nuisance (not least because the berths in the Viewliner Standard Bedroom are coffin-sized, with mattresses of a consistency closely resembling pig iron), but the food is pretty good and the views are pretty amazing.
I just this minute saw Our Girl's report about our hectic but happy weekend doing the art thing in Chicagoland. My own personal opinions of the events in question must remain on ice for a bit longer. You can read about Rose Rage and Man from Nebraska in this Friday's Wall Street Journal, and I'm planning to blog about "Manet and the Sea" as soon as I unpack, take a shower, get some dinner, and answer all my e-mail, which may take several weeks. For the moment, I can say the following:
(1) OGIC is soooooooo cool.
(2) I want her Eames chair.
(3) If I couldn't live in Manhattan, I think Chicago might do quite nicely.
Now, everybody send Our Girl an e-mail ordering her to come to New York as soon as possible. Sweeney Todd opens March 9 at New York City Opera, hint hint hint....
Sunday, January 4, 2004
OGIC: Alone in snow city
After a day spent dashing through the snow in my two-door Chevrolet, we deposited Terry at Union Station a few hours ago and poof, he was gone. His train was following the snowstorm eastward, so it promised to be a memorable journey. God knows Chicago is beautiful tonight, heaped with the kind of snow that piles itself high on the tree branches—the twigs, even—in shapely blobs and somehow balances there, despite very much outweighing what supports it. Every tree is a wonder right now, and I'm a little reluctant to go to bed. The morning will surely look more mundane.
Tallying the weekend's attractions, we saw 3 plays, 1 art show, and a few Frank Lloyd Wright houses, doing slow drive-bys in Oak Park (it almost felt like we were stalking the houses, and the unfortunate "No Tourists" signs that abound around the Wright Home and Studio do nothing to dispel that impression). My personal score sheet? A Little Night Music fabulous; Rose Rage riveting (I'm still under its dark spell, and won't shake it soon); Manet and the Sea pleasing overall, with certain highlights that were extraordinary (one Courbet, several Morisots, and a couple of smaller Manets that hailed from private collections). The play at Steppenwolf today, Man from Nebraska? Glossy, polished, and false. But I had to be happy with my batting average, especially considering that Rose Rage amounted to almost three plays. Newest New Year's resolution: see more Chicago theater. And more Terry. Not necessarily in that order.
Happy trails, Terr…and tell us all about it tomorrow.
TT: Still at it
OGIC and I just got back from seeing Rose Rage, Chicago Shakespeare's five-and-a-half-hour marathon performance of all three parts of Henry VI (abridged, and complete with an hour-long dinner break). Still on the menu are one more play, Steppenwolf's Man from Nebraska, plus a visit to "Manet and the Sea" at the Art Institute of Chicago. We're really hitting the culture hard, thank you very much. And yes, we're having fun yet, not least because we haven't seen each other face to face for a year, which was way too long. Now I have to get her to come to New York to see Sweeney Todd!
I'll be boarding a train for New York Sunday night, and the weatherman says I'll be plowing through several inches of snow en route. I'll be home when I'm home. Should I get stuck along the way, Our Girl will tell you all about it. Otherwise, expect extensive postings tomorrow.
ABOUT LAST NIGHT
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