About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Saturday, June 10, 2006
TT: Words to the wise (Washington edition)
Charlie Victor Romeo is playing through June 25 at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C. I reviewed the original New York production a couple of years ago in The Wall Street Journal:
Forget reality TV. If you want to watch raw slices of real life—and death—transformed into the highest possible drama, go see “Charlie Victor Romeo,” a performance piece based on transcripts of the black-box recordings of six airplane crashes. (The title is military alphabetic code for “Cockpit Voice Recorder.”) “Charlie Victor Romeo” holds you in a hammerlock for 90 unforgettable minutes. It’s the most frightening show I’ve ever seen….
“Charlie Victor Romeo” was created by Bob Berger, Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory of Collective: Unconscious, a Manhattan-based experimental theater group. It’s a low-budget, unabashedly unglamorous affair. You stroll into a grubby black-box theater (talk about ironic!) in which a nondescript mock cockpit is placed at center stage. The house goes dark and a slide flashes on a screen overhead, telling you the flight number and date and how many people were on board, followed by a stark description of what went wrong: ICING. EXPLODING ENGINE. MULTIPLE BIRD STRIKES. Then the lights come up and all hell breaks loose.
Not always at once, though. Instead, you might find a pilot and co-pilot chatting away agreeably, flirting with a flight attendant, griping about this or that minor nuisance. But sooner or later—always without warning—something terrible happens, and in an instant the theater becomes a sweatbox. You watch in horror as the crew scrambles to save the ship while alarms beep and buzz, the radio crackles urgently and passengers scream on the far side of the cockpit door. Sometimes the crisis is protracted, sometimes shockingly brief (one flight lasts for just a minute and a half). Then the theater is filled with the clamor of a crash landing, abruptly cut off by a sharp click as the house goes black. After a seemingly endless pause, the slide shown at the beginning of the flight is flashed on the screen again, this time with an additional line at the bottom: NO SURVIVORS. NO SURVIVORS. 4 SURVIVORS. NO SURVIVORS.
If any of this sounds gimmicky—or, worse yet, exploitative—be assured that “Charlie Victor Romeo” is deadly serious from takeoff to landing. The transcripts have not been altered in any way. We learn nothing personal about the men and women who are fighting for their lives, not even their names. All we see is what happens when they are plunged into chaos. Once or twice they panic. (In one hair-raising sequence, the pilot and co-pilot quarrel furiously over what to do next.) More often, though, they conduct themselves coolly, even heroically. And though the clipped dialogue is as unpretentious as a conversation overheard on a crosstown bus, it’s full of lines that stick in your head like bloody thorns….
I have a special perspective on “Charlie Victor Romeo”: I became afraid of flying a few years ago, and went into psychotherapy in order to cope with the problem. Not surprisingly, I found the first part of the show so alarming that I wanted to hide under my seat. But as I watched each flight unfold, I found myself drawn ever more deeply into the drama of brave men and women doing their best to buck the odds. Sometimes they did, more often not. Yet at evening’s end I felt oddly reassured by the knowledge of how hard they had tried. So will you.
I’m no longer afraid to fly, but I still can’t recommend Charlie Victor Romeo strongly enough. If you’re anywhere near Washington, go see it.
(To read a Washington Post profile of the show’s creators, go here.)
Founded in 1935 by Angus Bowmer, a local college teacher who presented “The Merchant of Venice” and “Twelfth Night” in a rundown old Chautauqua theater, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has since blossomed into a full-scale operation with an eight-month season, a staff of 450 and an annual budget of $22.5 million. Each year’s productions are presented in rotating repertory, making it possible to take in a lot of theater in a short span of time (I saw five plays in two and a half days). Add in the natural beauties of the Rogue River Valley, which offers visitors to Ashland endless opportunities for outdoor fun, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a stage-oriented vacation.
None of this would matter if the shows weren’t worth seeing, but the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which won a Tony Award in 1983 for outstanding achievement in regional theater, turns out to be well worth the time and trouble it takes to get there….
No link, so if you care to read the whole thing—of which there’s much, much more—pick up a copy of today’s Journal at your local newsstand, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to the complete text of my review, plus other reviews and art-related stories.
In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I take a look at the Arnold Friedman retrospective currently on display at Hollis Taggart Galleries, along with several other recent museum-quality gallery shows. Why were these important exhibitions presented by commercial art galleries instead of major museums? Partly because America's great museums have become too money-conscious—and partly because their curators are locked into narrow-minded "narratives" of art history that leave no room for mold-breaking mavericks of genius.
To learn more, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.
I lost my once-considerable fondness for the National Spelling Bee when I read the first two paragraphs of this column by Larry Elder:
"These aren't nerds, they are intellectual athletes. They're all incredibly likable kids that you're rooting for."
So spoke ABC's executive vice president for alternative programming, Andrea Wong, on the network's decision to air the finals of the 79th Scripps National Spelling Bee—in prime time. The kids received the "American Idol" treatment, with hair and makeup handled by professional stylists. The show included interviews with the contestants, reaction shots of parents and background pieces on some of the finalists. How soon before contestants show up with their own agents and publicists? How long before one of them drops out of the eighth grade to "turn pro"?
I might add that Elder's column was a favorable account of the National Spelling Bee. Those last two sentences, he explained, were meant as a joke. Alas, ABC’s decision to use “professional stylists” to turn the young contestants into Pretty Pod People was all too unhumorously true.
Stories like this never fail to remind me of a remark George Orwell made to a friend: “This age makes me so sick that sometimes I am almost impelled to stop at a corner and start calling down curses from Heaven.”
New Yorkers with cars go crazy when it rains, which it did all day Wednesday. It took me well over an hour to drive the thirteen miles from my Upper West Side apartment to the Louis Armstrong Archives, located on the first floor of the Queens College library. I sedated myself by listening to an advance copy of If You Have to Ask, You Ain’t Got It, a three-disc Fats Waller anthology coming out later this summer from Bluebird/Legacy, but I still experienced periodic flashes of road rage along the way. Accidents, construction sites, vicious cabbies, psychotic bike messengers, suicidal pedestrians—you name it, I saw it, and in several cases barely missed it.
No sooner did I arrive at the Armstrong Archives, though, than I forgot my troubles. I spent the whole day going through three of Louis Armstrong’s scrapbooks. He started keeping them in the late Twenties, right around the time that his career was taking off. They’re a mixture of snapshots and newspaper and magazine clippings, and anyone with the slightest interest in his life and work would find them fascinating. I effortlessly uncovered one nugget after another, including his first appearances in Walter Winchell’s column and The New Yorker. (If you should ever have occasion to use The Complete New Yorker for research, by the way, be warned that the anonymous compilers neglected to include “Goings On About Town” in their computerized index!)
Not surprisingly, the scrapbooks are perilously fragile, and they have yet to be scanned, so anyone who uses them has to put on a pair of protective white gloves and handle them with the utmost care. I found it impossible to type with the gloves on, meaning that I had to take them off in order to make notes, then put them on again each time I turned a page. It was a nuisance, but it was also a small price to pay. To be sure, microfilm and its successor technologies are (mostly) unmixed blessings, but any scholar can tell you that there’s no substitute, emotionally speaking, for handling the thing itself, be it a scrapbook or a holograph manuscript. Though constant use has drained the word awesome of much of its meaning, I don’t know any other way to describe what it feels like to turn the crumbling pages of the personal scrapbooks of the greatest of all jazz musicians. How amazing that such things exist—and that they've been made accessible to researchers.
The archive closes at four p.m., so at 3:55 I reluctantly packed up my iBook, unfurled my umbrella, and headed for the parking lot to collect my Zipcar and return to Manhattan. The traffic was even worse going back, but it didn’t bother me nearly as much the second time around. I was too busy thinking about how fortunate I am to be spending my spare time, such as it is, writing the biography of a man who was both good and great.
An hour and a half later I dropped off the car at the neighborhood garage, then met a friend for dinner at Calle Ocho, just around the corner from my apartment. We ate and talked and enjoyed ourselves enormously, and when we were done I walked back to the tiny little apartment-museum in which I live, somewhat soggy from the day-long downpour but happy all the same. I put on a Louis Armstrong record to warm myself up and beamed at the familiar sound of his sunny, gravel-choked voice:
Boy, you the lucky guy.
When you consider the highest bidder
Can’t buy the gleam in your eye,
You the lucky guy.
That I am.
P.S. The next time you need a fast-acting dose of good cheer, listen to Fats Waller's "Loungin' at the Waldorf." It's infallible.
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.
CLOSING SOON: • Awake and Sing! (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes June 25)
• Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here, closes July 2)
• The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, reviewed here, closes July 2)
"Communication is everything to you artists. You can't look at a landscape or a bowl of fruit without thinking how you will put it on a canvas so that somebody else will see it as your landscape or your bowl of fruit. That is the inescapable vulgarity of art."
I have nothing to say, wise or otherwise. I spent most of Tuesday writing a “Sightings” column for the Saturday Wall Street Journal, and by the time it was finally done I wasn’t good for much beyond listening to some undemanding music and watching Only Angels Have Wings.
On Wednesday I plunge back into the world of Louis Armstrong. I’ll be spending the day going through the scrapbooks Armstrong kept in the Twenties and Thirties, followed by dinner with a drama-critic friend. I’ll check in with you thereafter. Meanwhile, onward and upward with the arts!
"Oh, yes, they made a beautiful couple, Frank and Eliza, Gibson boy and Gibson girl, standing like newlyweds in an insurance poster to represent all the brave new things that life seemed to offer. I could not help but be a bit disgruntled; the sexual happiness of others has always had an excluding effect."
At the Coudal Partners site, they've posted their first set of 2006 Field-Tested Books, wherein writers write about the experience of reading a particular book in a particular setting. Terry and I both contributed entries this year, and mine is now up and available to read (Terry’s will be posted in another batch later this week). My place is North Whitefield, Maine. My book is...well, you'll just have to hop over and see, won't you?
When last we spoke, I was seeing two plays a day at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and trolling for really good restaurants in between shows. I found an amazing one, Amuse, where I ate a meal so fine that I could easily have closed my eyes and imagined myself at a table in New York, spending at least twice as much money for food not nearly so tasty.
On Saturday morning I started home for New York, a tedious but blessedly unscary process that went on, all told, for eleven hours. Since then I’ve done the following:
• I slept really, really late on Sunday.
• I opened a bagful of snail mail.
• I rehung one wall of the Teachout Museum in order to make a place for my new Arnold Friedman lithograph.
• I went to a press preview of Neil LaBute’s new play, Some Girl(s).
• I sat slackjawed in front of my TV after coming home from the theater and pretended to watch His Kind of Woman. (I was too tired to sleep.)
• I got up first thing Monday morning and wrote my drama column for Friday’s Wall Street Journal. It took me a lot longer than usual, suggesting that I hadn't quite recovered from my transcontinental travels.
• I read the page proofs of Hitchcock’s Music, a forthcoming book about the use of music in the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
What now? Today I’ll write my “Sightings” column for the Saturday Journal, go to the gym, get a haircut, and pick up my laundry. Tomorrow I’ll spend the entire day doing research at the Louis Armstrong Archives in Queens. On Thursday I’ll write up my research notes, fill out a couple of expense reports, work on my schedule for July, and go to a press preview of Spring Awakening. On Saturday I’ll go to New Jersey for the opening of Paper Mill Playhouse’s new revival of Hello, Dolly! In between I’ll visit a few art galleries, see a few friends, and maybe—just maybe—blog.
"'Havistock is a bit of an ass,' Jowett later told a blunt Yorkshire lad who bluntly repeated it to me. 'And an American ass at that. But a dinner party is pleasanter for his company, and how many men can you say that about?'
"How many indeed? I should like his encomium on my tombstone."
Whenever I see J. Smith-Cameron's name on a cast list, I smile, knowing that whatever horrors may await me, I can count on seeing at least one worthwhile performance. The real-life wife of playwright-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, who is directing her in his second movie this fall, Ms. Smith-Cameron is one of those actors who never fails, as theater people say, to deliver the mail. She's smart, sharp, and possessed of the bull's-eye timing that can turn a fair joke into a killer. She plays three widely varied roles in “After the Night and the Music,” the Manhattan Theatre Club's triple bill of new one-act plays by Elaine May, and does it so well that she almost fools you into thinking the show is better than it really is….
Playwrights Horizons wraps up an uneven season with Julia Cho's flawed but promising “BFE.” (I wish I could tell you what the initials stand for, but the Journal is a family paper.) Centered on a Korean-American family living in an unnamed Arizona city, “BFE” is a hodgepodge of variously interesting ideas about postmodern American life, directed by Gordon Edelstein with a speed and fluidity that keep most of Ms. Cho's dramatic balls in the air for longer than she had any right to expect. Though I wasn't convinced by the touches of fantasy, much less the climactic swerve into melodrama, I was never bored….
No link. The alternatives are as per usual: (A) Buy today's paper and read the whole thing. (B) Subscribe to the Online Journal by going here. (A) is cheaper, (B) the better deal.
"Like a city in dreams, the great white capital stretches along the placid river from Georgetown on the west to Anacostia on the east. It is a city of temporaries, a city of just-arriveds and only-visitings, built on the shifting sands of politics, filled with people passing through. They may stay fifty years, they may love, marry, settle down, build homes, raise families, and die beside the Potomac, but they usually feel, and frequently they will tell you, that they are just here for a little while. Someday soon they will be going home. They do go home, but it is only for visits, or for a brief span of staying-away; and once the visits or the brief spans are over ('It's so nice to get away from Washington, it's so inbred; so nice to get out in the country and find out what people are really thinking') they hurry back to their lodestone and their star, their self-hypnotized, self-mesmerized, self-enamored, self-propelling, wonderful city they cannot live away from or, once it has claimed them, live without. Washington takes them like a lover and they are lost."
Apologies, but I drove off the road somewhere between the three pieces I wrote from scratch on Monday and Tuesday and the performance I heard last night (maybe it was during the hour-long subway ride I took to the Brooklyn Museum
yesterday morning to see the Basquiat retrospective). Whatever the reason, I decided that going to bed was the better part of not cracking up, so I temporarily suspended blogging service. Now I'm getting ready to catch a Metroliner to Washington to visit the Phillips Collection and see Arena Stage's production of Anna Christie, which leaves me with just about enough time to take a shower and say hello.
I'll be back in New York some time on Friday, with lots of stories to tell. In the meantime, here are some quick words to the wise:
• Jack Jones is singing at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room through June 11. Go. Tony Bennett already has—he was sitting across the room from me on Tuesday night.
• Luciana Souza is singing at the Jazz Standard through Sunday. Go. I was there last night, and so were what seemed like half the musicians I know.
“There is nothing
like desire for preventing the thing one says from bearing any
resemblance to what one has in one's mind. Time presses, and yet it
seems as though we were seeking to gain time by speaking of subjects
absolutely alien to that by which we are obsessed.”
Here's my main trouble in life: I'm a morning person and a night owl. I think I never really got over the sense of injustice and deprivation all children harbor about having to go to bed—the certainty that they'll miss out on something, the slight skepticism that another day will really dawn and the whole cycle will start over again, and the instinctive resistance to endings of any kind. When you're eight, bedtime feels like a life sentence.
In my ostensible adulthood, I still have a romantic attachment to the small hours of the night; they feel like the temporal equivalent of mad money, to be used however one pleases—not to put too fine a point on it, to be pleasantly wasted. As an adult, I know morning will come, and with it a renewed sense of possibility, not to mention the day's best light. So I'm jealous of that time as well, and if I sleep past eight or nine—which I usually do when I don't have to be anywhere—I feel profoundly cheated. Trouble is, if I indulge on both ends, I'm left with about four hours of sleep per night, not a quantity on which I function well. I know, I know—you say nap. Alas, I'm the world's worst napper (it leaves me groggy for the rest of the day), and I hate to miss all of the other times of day, too.
So it's going on 2:00 now, my alarm will ring in less than five hours, my eyelids are fighting to hold at half-mast, and yet here I sit. Tonight is not the ideal example, since I'm blogging the time away rather than merrily frittering it. But it's close enough.
Don't get me wrong: I'm a big fan of sleep. It's my favorite remedy for any ailment and a particular temptation since I bought my first new mattress set a couple of years ago after a decade of sleeping on futons and castoffs. I didn't really know what I was doing when I shopped for the mattress, but I did something right—it's heavenly. So nope, I don't want to give up any sleep at all; I want the sleep, the late nights, and the bright mornings—24-hour days plus 8-hour nights. But the one thing that would seriously throw a wrench into my contentedness is insomnia.
Which is all a circuitous way of recommending a book to you. A little while back, a reader wrote asking me for summer reading suggestions. I have a few in mind, and the first is Robert Cohen's smart novel about insomnia, Inspired Sleep. The book's protagonist, Bonnie Saks, is a single working mom and longtime ABD student in search of slumber. In desperation, she submits herself to a sleep study. In this passage, set in a lab, the experimental treatment she undergoes seems to work:
She closed her eyes. She could feel her tension rising up, as it did every night, to do battle with her exhaustion. Vague sounds of traffic swished by in the distance. Night people, headed home. She thought of the young man next door, somber and alert, bathed in light, monitoring every flicker of response on the scrolling screen. Up and down: it seemed all her nocturnal complexities could be reduced to that. Patiently he had explained the many exquisite functions of the recording equipment—how they tracked the alpha and delta waves, the eye movements, the muscle convulsions, K-complexes, oxygen saturation, and sleep spindles. What had he called them? The deepest mechanisms of the self. It was a comfort to know they were at work, minding the store in her absence.It gave her a pleasant feeling of security. She began to feel very far from things, and at the same time oddly imminent, on the verge of a salient truth.
She'd been wrong—it was not sleep but the waking life that was the interlude between the acts, the bright but meandering intermission. Because now, with the lights off, that whole state of being simply collapsed, as crumpled and disposable as a coffee cup. She had been lingering out in the lobby much too long. Now the intermission was over. Now she was back, facing the stage where all her heart's noisy operettas were playing and playing, forever trying to complete themselves. And now the house lights were going down, and the curtains drawing open, and she was being ushered in, and all the separate players in night's continuous orchestra were rising up in concert with their finely tuned instruments, getting ready to welcome her, the errant maestro, back to the podium at last.
Inspired Sleep is available in a trade paperback edition. More recommendations down the road. For now, sweet dreams.
It lives. I haven't been much in evidence around here lately, I know. There was an impromptu visit home for the long weekend, which came as a surprise to some—my mother nearly fainted dead away—a writing deadline, and very, very little sleep since I left Detroit a day and a half ago. Going to bed right this minute is the only sane thing to do, but I hope to post a couple of things Wednesday night and then resume my scheduled weekend bloggifying.
Last Friday I paid my first visit to the Barnes Foundation, the museum and art school in suburban Philadelphia that is home to Paul Cézanne’s Large Bathers
and Henri Matisse’s Joy of Life. (I was escorted by my old friend Mark Obert-Thorn, the sound engineer whose double-barreled name is known to everyone who collects CD reissues of classical 78s.) The Barnes has been much in the news in recent months, so I won’t recapitulate its widely reported travails save to say that it will be moving at some point in the not-too-distant future from its original site to downtown Philadelphia. If you aren’t familiar with the history of the Barnes Foundation, you can read all about it here and here.
Fortunately, you don’t have to know anything about the convoluted history of the Barnes to be fascinated by the place itself. Dr. Albert Barnes, a man far too peculiar to be sufficiently described by the word "eccentric," spent the better part of a half-century buying paintings and devising the unusual ways in which they are now displayed in the gallery he built in 1925 to house them. I don’t know any other museum quite like the Barnes, whose walls are tightly packed with hundreds and hundreds of works by the likes of Cézanne, Daumier, El Greco, Klee, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, and such early American modernists as Maurice Prendergast, Charles Demuth, and Alfred Maurer, all of them hung without identification save for a tiny tag bearing the artist’s last name. (To see photographs of the gallery, go here.)
Like everyone seeing the Barnes for the first time, I was flabbergasted, not merely by the number of masterpieces it contains but also by the sheer acreage of canvas on display, and it took me the better part of an afternoon to sort out my complicated responses. Here are a few verbal snapshots from my visit, scribbled into my notebook on the spot and amplified at leisure:
• I found the excessiveness of the Barnes Foundation to be central to its total effect. Seeing a dozen paintings at a single glance may not be the best way to appreciate any of them individually, but it's certainly exciting, even overwhelming, and there's nothing wrong (to put it mildly!) with being overwhelmed by art.
In addition, I was delighted by the absence of wall labels. As I wrote in this space a couple of years ago, apropos of a visit to “Gyroscope,” an exhibition at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum:
As those of you who know me personally are all too aware, I have reached that unhappy age when I am sorely in need of bifocals. Alas, I’m too stubborn/vain/lazy to go to the trouble of getting a pair, so I continue to do without. I noticed for the first time at the Hirshhorn on Friday that I can no longer read the wall labels at museums without taking off my glasses. At first I found this to be irritating, but before long I realized that it was liberating.
Confession time: I have another little problem, which is that my eyes reflexively go to the labels in a group show, very often before I’ve taken in the works of art they identify. I can’t help myself—I’m a slave to the printed word. Only I can’t do it anymore. To read the labels, I now have to pull off my glasses and move in close, which takes away all the fun. As a result, I looked at "Gyroscope" the right way, meaning what first and who second, and not infrequently, I didn’t even bother to find out who. (In addition to a reasonably generous helping of good stuff, "Gyroscope" contains more than its fair share of crappy art.) Dr. Albert Barnes, who deliberately hung the paintings in the Barnes Collection without labels in order to force visitors to think harder about the art they were there to see, would have been proud of me….
I've just admitted to a naďve-sounding disability which I’m sure will make some of you smile. I came late to the visual arts, and I still fall on my face with humbling regularity. I’m no connoisseur, just a guy who likes to look at paintings, though I trust my eye and my taste. On the other hand, I don’t trust them far enough to be absolutely sure I’m always seeing paintings, not reputations, which is one of the minor reasons why I think I’ll put off getting that first pair of bifocals for a little while longer.
Now that I’ve finally broken down and started wearing bifocals, I find myself tempted once again to read before looking. You can’t do that at the Barnes. So much the better. It keeps you honest.
• Barnes hung his paintings in non-chronological groupings intended to help the novice viewer see the similarities between the compositional devices employed by different artists from different periods. Alas, most of his painstaking arrangements struck me as naďve: I quickly tired of their rigid pyramidal symmetry, and the picture-to-picture "rhyming” rarely seemed other than obvious (though I'm sure students find it instructive, which of course is what Barnes had in mind).
The only juxtaposition that I found eye-opening was the wall on which watercolors by Cézanne and Charles Demuth are hung side by side—along with two Japanese fans. That taught me something. (I hadn't realized, by the way, that Barnes collected Demuth
in such depth. Never before had I seen so many of his marvelous watercolors in one place.)
• I was surprised by how many paintings I saw on my second pass through the galleries that I'd failed to notice the first time through—including more than a few of the ones I ended up liking best. (I actually mistook one postcard-sized Daumier for a switchplate.) The problem, I think, is that Albert Barnes' taste for high-key color was so pronounced, even exaggerated, that the collection as a whole, with its relentless emphasis on the intense reds and oranges of his beloved Renoirs, has the unintended effect of swallowing up smaller and/or less brightly colored paintings of great excellence.
• The Barnes contains 181 Renoirs, most of them late and most of them awful. (Here’s a typical example.) Indeed, a day at the Barnes Foundation is almost enough to persuade you that Renoir was a minor painter. You have to flee its stifling atmosphere and remind yourself anew of what a really good
Renoir looks like in order to recapture your perspective.
• Barnes was as smart about Cézanne and Matisse as he was silly about Renoir. Granted, you can "know" Cézanne without having gone to the Barnes Foundation: it's a great, great collection, but it doesn't tell you anything about him that you can't find out elsewhere. Not so Matisse. Even after a decade of serious and sustained exposure to his work, a single visit to the Barnes significantly heightened my understanding of Matisse's language and my appreciation of his achievement.
• My favorite individual room in the Barnes was Gallery 10, devoted almost entirely to small paintings. Dominated by Matisse, it’s one of the few galleries that contains nothing by Cézanne. I could live in that room.
• It goes almost without saying that the single greatest painting in the Barnes is "The Large Bathers.” (I almost hate to admit it, but I don't really care for "The Joy of Life"!) But my personal favorite—the one I'd most like to hang in the Teachout Museum—is a late Cézanne, undated and very likely unfinished, called "Two Pitchers and Fruit." It reminded me strongly of the Phillips Collection’s Garden at Les Lauves
and is of exactly comparable quality.
Not coincidentally, seeing the Barnes for the first time redoubled my appreciation of the Phillips. While Albert Barnes and Duncan Phillips were both great art collectors whose underlying sensibilities were very similar, Barnes was both obsessive and provincial in a way that Phillips was not. Phillips spent a lifetime cultivating his eye and mind by engaging with the ideas of others; Barnes seems to have listened only to himself, eventually going so far as to create a closed system of aesthetics whose sole purpose was to justify his own prejudices, unleavened by the kind of broadening experience that ultimately led Phillips in such surprising directions. For all his self-evident passion and seriousness, Barnes was incapable of the kind of interior growth that made it possible for Phillips to embrace Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn in his old age.
• I'm glad I waited so long to go to the Barnes for the first time. It’s not a place for the casual museumgoer. That’s why it will be a crime to move it elsewhere. I’m not talking about the complex legal and fiscal issues at stake in the planned move—I’m not competent to assess those. I’m talking about purely aesthetic matters. The Barnes isn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but it’s unique, and that's the point of it. Putting aside the distracting effects of the thousands of visitors who will start flocking to the new Barnes the day it opens its doors, the sense of pilgrimage is an essential part of the experience of visiting the Barnes Foundation. You can’t just drop by on the spur of the moment—you have to make a reservation in advance and go well out of your way to get there. That contributes enormously to its special quality. Once the Barnes pulls up stakes and moves downtown, this quality will be lost forever, even if the existing galleries are reproduced exactly in its new quarters (which I’ll believe when I see it).
"People of taste and refinement tell us nowadays that Renoir is one of
the great painters of the last century. But in so saying they forget
the element of Time, and that it took a great deal of time, well into
the present century, before Renoir was hailed as a great artist. To
succeed thus in gaining recognition, the original painter, the
original writer proceeds on the lines adopted by oculists. The course
of treatment they give us by their painting or by their prose is not
always agreeable to us. When it is at an end the operator says to us:
'Now look!' And, lo and behold, the world around us (which was not
created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an
original artist is born) appears to us entirely different from the;
old world, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different
from what they used to be, because they are Renoirs, those Renoir
types which we persistently refused to see as women. The carriages,
too, are Renoirs, and the water, and the sky: we feel tempted to go
for a walk in the forest which reminds us of that other which when we
first saw it looked like anything in the world except a forest, like
for instance a tapestry of innumerable shades but lacking precisely
the shades proper to forests. Such is the new and perishable universe
which has just been created. It will last until the next geological
catastrophe is precipitated by a new painter or writer of original
"The world of art is a world which has been made by human beings for the direct satisfaction of their wishes. It is the real world stripped of what is meaningless and alien and remolded nearer to the heart's desire."
I looked at my calendar for the coming week—three deadlines, two performances, a day trip to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and an overnight trip to Washington, D.C., to see Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie at Arena Stage—and decided that what I needed was a day off. So instead of revving up my iBook first thing Sunday morning, I slept late, met a musician friend for brunch, then took her down to Lincoln Center to watch New York City Ballet dance Jerome Robbins' The Goldberg Variations and George Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto, both of which were new to her. I chose the program as being particularly suitable for a musician, and also because I feel especially close to both ballets, albeit in different ways.
As readers of All in the Dances will recall, I place Stravinsky Violin Concerto very high on the short list of Balanchine's masterpieces:
Balanchine later told [Karin von] Aroldingen and [Patricia] McBride that Stravinsky Violin Concerto was the best ballet he had ever made. To a friend he expressed himself only slightly more modestly: “It is very good! My other ballets?…Okay, but not so good.” Had the composer lived to see it, he might well have echoed the tribute he paid to Movements for Piano and Orchestra: “To see Balanchine's choreography of the Movements is to hear the music with one's eyes; and this visual hearing has been a greater revelation to me, I think than to anyone else. The choreography emphasizes relationships of which I had hardly been aware—in the same way—and the performance was like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans but never explored the result.” Thirty years later, the significance of Stravinsky Violin Concerto is clearer still, for in no other ballet, not even Liebeslieder Walzer, did Balanchine fuse the modern and romantic sides of his personality more indissolubly. It is the ultimate expression of his black-and-white style, and though it may not be his greatest ballet, it is his most perfect one.
The Goldberg Variations isn't quite on that exalted level, but my special feeling for it has a similarly exalted cause: it was while watching it, and immediately afterward, that I had what has been the only mystical experience of my life to date.
This experience took place some fifteen years ago, and I later had occasion to describe it in print in an essay written not long after 9/11:
It had been a fearfully long day at the office, and I was drained and dry when I took my seat in the theater. I actually thought about skipping the performance, but something kept me in my seat long enough to be drawn into it, and soon I was experiencing Bach's crystalline notes and Robbins' heartfelt steps more intensely and completely than I have ever experienced any work of art at any time in my life, before or since. When it was over, I felt a surge of benevolence toward everyone on stage. I left the theater and stood for a long time on the steps leading down to the street, taking deep breaths of the cold night air, filled with a warmth that seemed to buoy me up. Then I flagged a cab, and as we drove down Broadway, I experienced an astonishing sense of release reminiscent of the ecstatic muscular exhaustion you feel after hard physical labor. It was as if all the cares of living in New York City, all the strains of my life, were slipping from my shoulders. The world around me appeared numinous, and I accepted everything in it, even the bright blue graffiti on a passing truck. It occurred to me that this was how a person might feel in the midst of the act of dying….
Grand Central Station came into view. The facade was brightly lit and the clock and the lettering carved into the granite were as crisp and clear as the printing in an expensive book. I drank it all in as I got out of the cab and walked slowly into the main lobby. A three-piece combo was playing some old standard I didn't recognize. I dropped a dollar bill into the trumpet player's open case. I noticed that I had a minute and a half to catch my train, so I ran all the way to the track, plopped down in a seat in the last car, and hardly felt out of breath at all.
W.H. Auden had a similar experience in 1933. As he described it many years later, he felt as though he had been “invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself.” Surely any ballet capable of making you feel that way deserves to be taken very seriously indeed (though no doubt Bach had a hand in it as well!).
While I had no such experience on Sunday afternoon, my friend and I were both moved to tears by what we saw and heard. Yet even though it was my day off, I'm never completely off duty, and as I watched the dancers, I caught myself trying to sort out in my mind exactly what it is that makes Balanchine's ballet better than Robbins'. The closest I could come was this: The Goldberg Variations is a piece of plotless theater, a complicated, carefully staged drama in which the dancers are playing "roles" of various explicable kinds, whereas Stravinsky Violin Concerto is a pure phenomenon, a visual poem whose ultimate meaning is impossible to convey in words. Even though it requires the intercession of dancers and musicians in order to be made manifest, it feels as if it is taking place in your mind, not on a stage—an experience, in short, not quite of this world.
My friend and I parted after the performance, both of us in a state close to ecstasy, embracing under the immense blue sky and reveling in the amazing fact that we were both alive and capable of receiving such beauty. John Lukacs has described the way we felt better than I possibly can:
This is the knowledge that the mystery and the reality of our lives consist in the understanding that we are coming from somewhere and that we are going somewhere, and that between these two mysterious phases God allows us to live and to know that we live while we live. Out of what is darkness to our imperfect minds, for sixty or seventy or eighty years we are living in the light, in the open.
“Order seems to come from searching for disorder, and awkwardness from searching for harmony or likeness, or the following of a system. The truest order is what you find already there, or that will be given if you don't try for it. When you arrange, you fail.”
Fairfield Porter, letter to Claire Nicholas White (April 13, 1972)
I posted last year apropos of the publication of Ronald Reagan’s letters:
I’ve been looking through Reagan: A Life in Letters, a book whose publication will no doubt startle a lot of people unaware that Ronald Reagan was the most prolific presidential correspondent of modern times. I’m not talking about the kind of "letter" produced in batch lots by a team of secretaries equipped with autopens, either. Of the 1,100 letters in this 934-page book, some 80% were written by hand, another 15% dictated. The editors had "over 5,000 genuine Reagan letters" to choose from, and they estimate that another 5,000 or so have yet to surface.
Put aside for a moment your opinion of Reagan (either way) and think instead about the implications of those numbers. Speaking as a biographer, I can assure you that this is an extraordinarily large number of letters to have been written by any public figure, much less one who wasn’t a professional writer—though Reagan, as it happens, spent a number of years writing his own speeches, radio commentaries, and syndicated columns, and would also have been perfectly capable of writing his own memoirs without assistance had he been so inclined. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other 20th-century president who left behind so large a body of informal writing, and few who wrote as much in any medium. Theodore Roosevelt, probably Nixon, possibly Calvin Coolidge (who was, believe it or not, the best by-his-own-hand presidential prose stylist in modern times), and…who else? Nobody comes to mind….
"Communism is neither an ec[onomic] or a pol[itical] system—it is a form of insanity—a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature. I wonder how much more misery it will cause before it disappears."
Ronald Reagan, Reagan, In His Own Hand (written 1975, collected 2001)
I was too sick to do any playgoing last week, so my drama column in this morning’s Wall Street Journal is divided between speculation on this Sunday’s Tony Awards and a brisk pan of Chinese Friends:
Overheard on the street immediately after a performance of "Chinese Friends": "That’s the worst play I ever saw! What the hell happened to Jon Robin Baitz?" Beats me. Mr. Baitz is, or was, a talented playwright, but you wouldn’t guess it from watching this preposterous mess, which runs through June 13 at Playwrights Horizons. I’m not quite prepared to call it the worst show I’ve ever seen—I survived "The Look of Love"—but it’s worse than "Prymate," which is saying something.
"Chinese Friends" is all the more disappointing because it’s based on an interesting premise. What might the U.S. look like after the Red America-Blue America political split finally resolves itself? In Mr. Baitz’s dystopian fantasy, set in 2030, the big bad Bushies gave way to a group of tough-minded liberal policy wonks who lost patience with the soft-headed electorate and opted for a stealthy form of fascism they called "soft power." When that didn’t work out, Dr. Arthur Brice (Peter Strauss, made up to look like Donald Rumsfeld), the gray eminence of the Killer Humanists, withdrew to a remote New England island to hide from his enemies and await his second coming.
Enter his estranged son Ajax (Tyler Francavilla), who unexpectedly turns up on Brice’s doorstep with two hippie-type friends (Bess Wohl and Will McCormack) in tow. At first it appears that the arrival of this motley ménage ŕ trois is a mere pretext to set in motion a symposium on politics in postmodern America. But in order to write a play of ideas, you have to have enough to go around, and Mr. Baitz runs out roughly 20 minutes into the first act….
No link, so if you want to read all about my Tony picks, go out and buy a Journal. It’s worth it, even without me.
"It is my theory to like vulgarity—to think well of it, to champion it, to gird myself to always fight on its side. It is my theory to think nothing can come to pass without a pinch (or more than a pinch) of vulgarity."
Percy Grainger, quoted in John Bird, Percy Grainger
I spent much of Thursday trudging from one end of Manhattan to the other, and so had little time for art other than a half-dozen Isaac Bashevis Singer stories gulped down in transit. (Singer is ideal for long subway rides.)
I do, however, want to tell you about Honeysuckle Rose (Living Era),
the terrific new CD to which I listened before bedtime. It’s a two-disc anthology of 51 Fats Waller recordings issued in honor of the centenary of his birth, and it’s extremely well-chosen—most of the big jukebox hits of the Thirties, plus lots of lesser-known gems like "S’posin’," "I Wish I Were Twins," and "Oh, Susannah, Dust Off That Old Pianna!" The overlap with Fats Waller: The Quintessence (Fremeaux), the other great Waller anthology, is surprisingly modest, and the two sets contain between them most of his finest 78s.
If you’re feeling blue, be it indigo or merely sky, buy ’em both and listen regularly. I guarantee results!
I hung a caricature by Max Beerbohm on my living-room wall late yesterday afternoon—and thereby hangs a tale.
To begin with, please don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know who Max Beerbohm was. He liked to claim that there were only 1,500 people in England and another thousand in America who understood and appreciated his work. I don’t know whether he would have admitted me to their rarefied ranks, but he’s certainly one of my all-time favorite writers, an essayist of uncommon elegance and wit who was also a wickedly funny drama critic, the greatest parodist who ever lived, and—this is where it starts to get interesting—a caricaturist of lethally comic exactitude.
I can think of more than a few distinguished artists, musicians, and choreographers who have also been very good writers, but the list of distinguished writers who were also distinguished artists is short to the point of invisibility. James Thurber qualifies—if anything, his drawings are better than his essays—and so, needless to say, does Max. (He signed his caricatures with his first name only, and as a result is customarily referred to in that manner by his admirers.) Being a superior writer, it stands to reason that Max should have left behind this typically lucid explanation of his artistic method:
The most perfect caricature is that which, on a small surface, with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment, in the most beautiful manner….The whole man must be melted down in a crucible and then, from the solution, fashioned anew. Nothing will be lost but no particle will be as it was before.
No verbal description can begin to suggest how well Max practiced what he preached. You have to see for yourself, so go here, here, and here to look at his caricatures of three eminent Edwardians, Oscar Wilde, John Singer Sargent, and Frank Harris.
I’ve seen reproductions of hundreds of Max’s drawings, but I don't know the last time his work was exhibited in this country. Most of his best-known caricatures now belong to museums and other public institutions in England. I’ve never seen a Beerbohm on display in any American museum, major or otherwise, and the only one I’ve seen in private hands was hanging in Whit Stillman’s Greenwich Village living room when I interviewed him in 1998 for an article about The Last Days of Disco (it’s reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader). It seemed almost too good to be true that Whit should have owned one—he is, like Max, something of a dandy—and when I saw it on his wall, I found myself in the grip of an attack of envy so powerful that I feared I might have to take up grand larceny on the spot.
It never occurred to me, then or later, that I, too, might someday own a Beerbohm, so I was astonished when I looked him up on eBay last month and found that one of his lesser-known efforts, a 1913 drawing of Percy Grainger playing piano for a group of society ladies, was being offered for sale by an auction house in Dallas. A quick scan of my bookshelves confirmed that it was a rarity: Grainger is nowhere mentioned in N. John Hall’s Max Beerbohm Caricatures or Lord David Cecil’s Max: A Biography, nor is Max’s name to be found in any of the various books about Grainger that I own. At the same time, I thought it more than likely that they had met at one time or another. Max, after all, was one of Edwardian London’s most inveterate diners-out, while Grainger first made a name for himself as a society pianist who played regularly at the fashionable soirées musicales where Max often found himself after dinner, hobnobbing with Sargent and Henry James. In any case, the photographs posted on eBay (including a closeup of the tiny signature) left no doubt that this was the real right thing.
Aside from the intrinsic attraction of owning a Beerbohm—any old Beerbohm—I was bowled over by the prospect of acquiring this particular one, since Percy Grainger happens to be one of my all-time favorite musicians. Like Max, Grainger was a switch-hitter. Though he’s best known as the composer of such delightful folk-flavored orchestral miniatures as "Shepherd’s Hey," "Handel in the Strand," "Molly on the Shore," and "Irish Tune from County Derry" (that’s "Danny Boy" to you), he was also one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. A pupil of Ferruccio Busoni, he performed the music of Bach, Chopin, and Debussy in a lively, extroverted style, and his 1927 recording of Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen bears eloquent witness to Harold C. Schonberg’s description of his playing:
He was one of the keyboard originals—a pianist who forged his own style and expressed it with amazing skill, personality and vigor, a healthy, forthright musical mind whose interpretations never sounded forced and who brought a bracing, breezy and quite wonderful out-of-doors quality to the continuity of piano playing.
In addition, Grainger was also, as Danny DeVito says of another character in L.A. Confidential, "a powerful behind-the-scenes strange-o." John Bird revealed in his excellent 1982 biography that the composer of "Country Gardens" was in private life a violent sadomasochist who liked to photograph himself after his whipping sessions…but that’s another story.
I knew, of course, that no drawing by Max would fit neatly into the Teachout Museum, which is mainly devoted to prints by American modernists—but what of it? To pass up a once-in-a-lifetime chance to acquire a caricature of one of my favorite musicians, drawn by one of my favorite writers, would have been scrupulous to a fault, and then some. Besides, the auction house's estimate was so absurdly modest that I took it for an omen. Accordingly, I placed an absentee bid for slightly more than the high estimate, then received in due course an e-mail informing me that I’d been outbid by what for me was a stiff sum. I shrugged, chalked it up to experience, and moved on.
Two weeks later, I received a second e-mail from Dallas, this one saying that the original purchaser had changed his mind, and might I possibly be interested in buying the Beerbohm at the price the other fellow had offered? I came dangerously close to saying yes on the spot, but having read Phil Schiller’s Buy What You Love: Confessions of an Art Addict, I knew better than to obligingly reply, "Jeepers, I’d be more than happy to fork over all that money." Instead, I took a deep breath, left the auction house hanging for a day, then lowballed them mercilessly. Three days later, they agreed to sell me the caricature at a price lower than my own original bid. No sooner was the deal done than I fired off an e-mail to my friend Joseph Epstein, an essayist of Beerbohmesque charm who is also a Percy Grainger fan, informing him of my coup. I knew the author of Envy wouldn’t be at a loss for words, and he wasn’t. An hour later, Joe replied, "I regret to inform you, sir, that our friendship must cease forthwith."
Which brings us to yesterday afternoon, when the UPS man knocked on my door and handed over a medium-sized box whose contents didn’t disappoint me in the slightest. In the description of his style that I quoted earlier, Max makes a point of saying that a caricature should be executed in "the most beautiful manner," and while it’s true that his Grainger caricature is very funny—especially the society ladies clustered around the piano, who range in size from wasp-waisted to preposterously portly—it’s also quite beautiful indeed. The composition is cunningly balanced, the line deft and clear, the light touches of watercolor wash miraculously subtle.
One last question remained: where to hang my prize? Beerbohm’s caricatures are too pale in color to read well from across a room, so I knew I should try to hang this one fairly close to the couch where I usually sit when reading or listening to music. Alas, that would place it cheek by jowl with a pair of abstract-expressionist prints by Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Max wouldn’t have liked that at all—he hated modern art—but I assured myself that he would at least have been amused by the incongruity. I hung it on the north wall, curled up on the couch, took a long look, and emitted a soft sigh of satisfaction at the sight of a lifelong dream come true at last.
That’s the story of how I acquired my very own Max Beerbohm caricature. It isn’t the most expensive piece of art in the Teachout Museum, nor is it the most beautiful, but I think it might well be the most special thing I own, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up loving it best of all. Believe it or not, I’ve already given some thought to where I’d like it to go after my death. Assuming that Joe Epstein predeceases me, I suppose I really ought to leave it to one of the two Grainger Museums. (One is in Melbourne, Australia, the city of his birth, while the other is in the suburban house an hour north of Manhattan where he lived between 1921 and his death forty years later.) It might also be appropriate to give it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, unless they already own a good Beerbohm. I suspect they don't: Max has never been fully accepted as a Truly Serious Artist, and I wouldn’t want my caricature to go to an institution that didn’t properly appreciate its significance. Nor do I want it to end up in England, where there are already more than enough Beerbohms to go around.
What, then, to do? For the moment—and for many more moments to come, God willing—I plan to do nothing whatsoever. Instead, I expect to gaze lovingly at my Max several times each day, and show it with pride to everyone who visits the Teachout Museum. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll go into the living room right now, put on a Percy Grainger CD, sit on the couch, and revel in the magical chain of coincidence by which a Max Beerbohm caricature drawn in 1913, the year in which Marcel Proust published Du côté de chez Swann and Igor Stravinsky composed Le Sacre du printemps, has made its circuitous way from Max’s hands to mine. How lucky am I? Very, very lucky indeed.
UPDATE: Joseph Epstein writes:
The thought of you gazing upon the Maxian caricature while listening to the music of its subject is almost enough to becalm my envy. If only I could draw, I would do a sketch of Teachout listening to Grainger while gazing upon Beerbohm, with of course a sketch of the caricature itself in the drawing.
Since you often blog about the process, I'd be interested in how you accumulated the almanac quotes. And I bet some of your other regulars would like to know, too.
Glad to oblige. I noticed long ago that the standard books of quotations didn’t contain very many of my favorite quotes (other than the obvious ones that everybody likes). It used to be my practice to dogear the relevant pages of my copies of the books in which those quotes appeared, but that was both inefficient and aesthetically displeasing. Then, fifteen years ago, I purchased at more or less the same time my first personal computer and a copy of H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, a wonderful book about which I wrote as follows in The Skeptic:
[Mencken] had long kept a card file of quotations for his own use, and in 1932 he had gotten the idea to expand it into a full-scale dictionary; Charles Angoff worked on it with him for two years, after which he carried on alone. Though not generally recognized as such, it is one of his major achievements, comparable in scope to The American Language and no less personal in its method. "The Congressman hunting for platitudes to embellish his eulogy upon a fallen colleague will find relatively little to his purpose," he warned in his preface, and many readers have thus concluded that he compiled the New Dictionary of Quotations with tongue in cheek. Like Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, it is wrongly remembered for its eccentricities, among them an extensive selection of invidious remarks about the Jews and a sprinkling of unattributed "proverbs" that sound as though they had been coined by the editor himself. In fact, it contains a vast number of well-chosen, well-organized, accurately attributed and dated quotations on every imaginable subject, ranging widely among both familiar and arcane sources. The only important author missing from its 1,347 pages is Mencken himself, who told Time that "I thought it would be unseemly to quote myself. I leave that to the intelligence of posterity." Yet the New Dictionary bears the dark stamp of his skepticism on every page, and at least one critic, Morton Dauwen Zabel, was quick to grasp the fact: "The impression soon becomes inescapable that what Mencken has produced as a ‘Dictonary of Quotations’ is really a transcendent ‘Prejudices: Seventh Series,’ a ‘Notes on Humanity,’ or more expressly ‘Mencken’s Philosophical Dictionary, Written by Others.’"
The New Dictionary gave me the idea to use my computer to keep a searchable electronic commonplace book, organized by topic. My thought was that if I was scrupulous about sourcing each entry as I added it to the file, I’d someday have a book-length manuscript ŕ la Mencken that would require no further research to be publishable. Since then, I’ve piled up some 31,000 words’ worth of quotations that have caught my eye, each one sourced and filed under such Fowler-like subject headings as "Be Careful What You Ask For," "Kisses, Two (And a Variant)," "Opening Lines, Great," and "Right Between the Eyes." On average, I add a quote or two to my commonplace book each month, and I use it in my own work at least once a week.
When I started "About Last Night" last August, it occurred to me that it might be amusing to post a quotation each day, which is how the almanac came into being. At first, the quotations were all drawn from my commonplace book, but in recent months I’ve also started to post snippets from whatever book I happen to be reading at the time. In addition, the readers of "About Last Night" occasionally send me favorite quotes of their own, and if they’re sourced and checkable (and sometimes even when they’re not), I post the ones I like.
I hasten to point out that the authors of "About Last Night" do not necessarily agree or disagree, in whole or in part, with each day’s almanac entry. To be sure, I usually do, at least up to a point, but not always. (Our Girl in Chicago has nothing to do with the almanac, by the way. Instead, she posts her own "fortune cookies.") Similarly, the almanac is occasionally meant to provide oblique commentary on current events, but not normally. As a rule, my sole purpose in posting each entry is to give you something to think about—and to let you do your own thinking. Judging by my incoming e-mail and the comments that pop up from time to time in the "About Last Night" referral log, I’d say the almanac is one of this blog’s most popular features. I know I like it.
If you feel the same way, I encourage you to send me your favorite quotations (plus sources), in particular those having something to do with the world of art. Your contributions, like your e-mail, are and will always be greatly appreciated.
At the risk of inspiring God of the Machine to further parody, I checked a little while ago and saw that "About Last Night" was being read in fourteen different time zones. I believe that’s an all-time record for worldwide ubiquity. Hello, everybody!
(I know, I know—what’s the deal with the other ten?)
I didn’t realize it until after the fact, but I spent ten straight hours writing yesterday—first my Commentary essay on the life and music of Sir Edward Elgar, then my "Second City" column for this Sunday’s Washington Post. I'd say I'm healthy again, wouldn't you?
• When it was all over, I needed a change of pace, so I tottered out to find myself a leisurely evening meal, a copy of the bound galleys of Just Enough Liebling (a new A.J. Liebling anthology forthcoming this September from North Point Press) tucked under my arm for dinnertime reading. No comment—I’ll probably review it—but Liebling has long been one of my favorite authors, which is no secret. (The very first magazine piece I ever published, way back in 1981, was a review of a Liebling biography.)
• After dinner, I decided to watch an unchallenging movie to cool off my brain, and settled on The Longest Day, a Darryl Zanuck film about D-Day that I’d previously seen only in disconnected fragments. It turned out not to be very good, so since I’d stored it on my DVR, I found myself doing a little personal editing, in the process chopping at least a half-hour off the overly protracted running time. Dull, dull, dull, but at least it helped ease me out of the mental tunnel vision produced by Tuesday's writing marathon, my first since I got sick last week.
• I listened to Benjamin Britten’s marvelously intense 1971 recording of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (currently out of print in the U.S., alas) while writing my Commentary piece. In addition, I was inadvertently exposed over dinner to Norah Jones’ first CD, which has been taken up with a vengenace by Upper West Side restaurants, sigh.
Today’s workload shouldn't be nearly so burdensome: I’ll be finishing up my drama column for Friday’s Wall Street Journal, then hauling myself across town for a doctor’s appintment. No show tonight, thank God—I’ll spend an hour or so back at my desk figuring out what plays I’ll be seeing over the weekend, followed by TCM’s Cary Grant special, which I recorded last night. Further blogging is possible, but not certain.
In case you didn't drop by yesterday, I'm back from the dead, and I blogged a lot. Take a look!
If you already did, I don't think I'll have much time to blog today. I have a piece-and-a-half to write, and I'm only hitting on about five-and-a-quarter cylinders. As soon as I have some spare time, though, I'll be right back at you.
Yesterday's only consumable, by the way, was the Criterion Collection DVD of Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, starring Barbara Stanwyck (mmm), Henry Fonda, and a whole bunch of terrific supporting players. I think it's probably the best of Sturges' films, though not my personal favorite (that would be Sullivan's Travels). At any rate, I watched it in ten-minute chunks in between working on yesterday's piece, and loved every second of it.
"I know that there are many people—and very intelligent people, too—who love this kind of fast-action movie, who say that this is what movies do best and that this is what they really want when they go to a movie. Probably many of them would agree with everything I’ve said but will still love the movie. Well, it’s not what I want, and the fact that Friedkin has done a sensational job of direction just makes that clearer. It’s not what I want not because it fails (it doesn’t fail) but because of what it is. It is, I think, what we once feared mass entertainment might become: jolts for jocks. There’s nothing in the movie that you enjoy thinking over afterward—nothing especially clever except the timing of the subway-door-and-umbrella sequence. Every other effect in the movie—even the climactic car-versus-runaway-elevated-train chase—is achieved by noise, speed, and brutality."
Pauline Kael, "Urban Gothic" (a review of The French Connection), 1971
Alex Ross, the New Yorker's music critic, launched a Web site of his own not long ago. He swore he'd only use it to post links to his print-media pieces, but I warned him that it'd turn into a full-fledged blog if he wasn't careful.
Sure enough, Alex wasn't able to resist the temptation to start posting regularly, and so I've moved The Rest Is Noise to the top section of the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column, where all the other artbloggers live. Take a peek, why don't you?
All in the Dances, my brief life of George Balanchine, is now available for preordering on amazon.com. Don’t hang by your thumbs—it won’t be published until November. Still, it’s fun to look at the amazon.com page of a book I haven’t finished editing yet!
"Towards the end of my time in London I began to feel as strong a hatred of London as I used to have when I lived there. When first we arrived in London, the place only seemed to me ridiculous and (having to be tolerated only for a couple of months or so) tolerable; but presently it began to oppress me, and the relief of being away from it is immense. All the chatter and clatter and hustle and guzzle—not one single person having a good time, and not one single person thinking of anything but the having of a good time."
I think—I hope—I learned a thing or two from my unexpected illness, which was all too clearly the result of my having fallen off the workaholism wagon in mid-May. My body thereupon informed me that it was time to take a week off, like it or not, so I did. Now I feel more or less myself again, minus much of my normal stamina but at least capable of doing a reasonable amount of work. A good thing, too! I wrote a piece yesterday and have three more due this week, all deferred from last week. Once they’re done, June should prove more reasonable (two of my regular writing commitments are to monthly magazines that don’t publish in August). I mean to make it so.
What did I do all week? Mostly I watched movies, ranging in specific gravity from Dazed and Confused to Joseph Mankiewicz’s excellent 1953 screen version of Julius Caesar, the latter in honor of Sir John Gielgud (he plays Cassius), whose collected letters were rarely far from my nightstand. In addition, I bid successfully via e-mail on a new piece for the Teachout Museum, about which I'll be rhapsodizing in this space when it arrives on Thursday. I listened to the rough mix of Paul Moravec’s new CD, out later this year from Arabesque, which will contain Tempest Fantasy, the piece that won him this year’s Pulitzer Prize for music. I saw a couple of foolhardy friends who stopped by to see how I was doing. And that's pretty much it. Except for my inescapable Wall Street Journal drama column, I didn’t write, didn’t blog, didn’t talk on the phone (I couldn’t—I lost my voice for three days), didn’t go out to see anything or anyone. Instead, I slept as much as I could, ate a lot of soup, and sat on the couch, looking longingly at the spring sunshine through my window.
Toward week's end I felt tempted to throw caution to the winds and go back to work. I felt it all the more strongly when the postman brought me the copyedited manuscript of All in the Dances, my Balanchine book, at which I hadn’t taken a single peek since I sent it off to Harcourt two months ago. I’m pleased to say, though, that I left the MS. in its package for two full days. No sooner did I open it up than I sat down and read the book through from end to end, an interesting and scary experience. It’s unsettling to read your own writing after it’s had time to cool down, and I found an embarrassing factual error in the very first chapter (yikes!), but for the most part I was quite happy with the way it turned out.
Did I learn anything from being out of the loop for six whole days? We’ll see. I can’t honestly say it was fun—I felt crappy, after all—but there were moments when I caught a glimpse of how it might feel to put down the reins and really take some time off. I’m no good at that, but I’m trying to become so.
Did I miss you? Very much. I didn’t dare to peek at my blogmail until the weekend, but when I did I was heartened and comforted by your get-well messages. It’s nice to know that "About Last Night" is an important part of so many people’s lives. It’ll be a few more days before I’m back up to speed, but I’m eager to start posting regularly. I may not have done much last week, but I thought about a lot of things, and I look forward to sharing some of them with you.
In the meantime, I’ve updated the right-hand column with fresh links and Top Fives, and I also exhumed an old piece of mine that recent events have made newly relevant (see below). I’ll post as much as I can in between writing those three pieces. Well, maybe not as much as I can—that’s part of what got me in trouble, after all! But "About Last Night" is also an important part of my own life, and I can’t wait to get it up and running once more.
Incidentally, Our Girl in Chicago wants me to assure you that she’s not dead, either, and you can expect her to be back at the same old blogstand as soon as she cleans up her accumulated holiday mess. In the meantime, we both thank you for your patience and forbearance. You mean a lot to us.
So I was working out at the gym under the eye of my trainer (about 35, black, born in the Bahamas). The music, which is usually hiphop or rock, switches to jazz, of a recent, inoffensive variety. He says he likes jazz; likes it better than hiphop, and all the other things kids are into. And then he adds, as a plain statement, with no sense of making a point, "For jazz, you have to play an instrument."
My friend thought I needed to laugh. I did, and I did.
The news that a London warehouse fire destroyed more than one hundred works of art belonging to Charles Saatchi promptly set chatterers to chattering, though rarely in an edifying way. One of the few sensible things written to date about the fire and its aftermath came from the pen of Eric Gibson, my colleague at The Wall Street Journal:
Among the works destroyed in the fire were Tracey Emin's "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995," a tent embroidered with the names of her lovers and other friends, and "Hell" by Jake and Dinos Chapman. The brothers had departed from their usual idiom—life-size statues of naked children with genitals where their noses should be—to create a sprawling installation of custom-made toy soldiers committing atrocities.
Art disasters normally have a visceral impact. Such incidents as the looting of the Baghdad Museum last year and the ravaging of Florence's art treasures by floods in 1966 set the mind reeling at the thought of pieces of man's cultural patrimony permanently lost or damaged.
This time, though, I was strangely unmoved. It's not that I think incinerating art is a good thing. It's just that the work of these artists—as of all contemporary artists—is too new and untested to have acquired the cultural heft that makes it seem an indispensable part of one's existence. I regret the fire happened, but I can't quite see it as a body blow to civilization.
Listen to the wailing that followed the conflagration, however, and you'd think the world had come to an end….
It's assumed that because these YBA [Young British Artists] works are trendy and outlandishly expensive (Mr. Saatchi reportedly paid $72,000 for Ms. Emin's tent and almost $1 million for "Hell"), they must be important. These critic-promoters give their pronouncements a veneer of respectability by specious comparisons between contemporary artists and the Old Masters.
All of which makes Monday's disaster not so much a cultural catastrophe as a kind of bonfire of the vanities….
Gibson's essay, and the disaster (so to speak) that inspired it (ditto), reminded me that at least one of the works of art that went up in smoke, "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With," was included in Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibition that caused such a ruckus back in 1999. I reviewed that show for the Washington Post, and it occurred to me that what I said about it then might possibly be worth repeating now.
* * *
The cheery brunette dressed in the livery of the Brooklyn Museum of Art
looked at me as if I were the answer to her wildest dreams. "Would you like to
take the audio tour with David Bowie?" she chirped, headphones in hand. Just
above her head was a small yellow sign that read Warning: This exhibition
includes works of art that some viewers may find objectionable.
This is "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection," the
biggest news in blockbuster shows since the National Gallery was overrun by
hordes of Vermeer lovers. You've probably read all about it—Damien Hirst's
giant shark and bisected pig floating in formaldehyde-filled cases, Chris
Ofili's elephant-dung-covered portrait of the Virgin Mary—and about how Rudolph
Giuliani, New York's mayor and scold-in-chief, tried to stop it from opening by
withholding $7 million in annual funding from the museum, which promptly sued
the mayor and the city in order to get the money back. As of today, "Sensation"
is open for business, and business it will surely do, even at a cool $9.75 a
head, not counting audio tours or any of the various knickknacks for sale in the
gift shop, including stuffed sharks, lunch boxes and official "Sensation" toilet
"Official" is the right word for "Sensation," and not just because David
Bowie likes it, either. Every imaginable Establishment type in New York is
backing the museum, not to mention the hundred-plus fancy folk—Annie Leibovitz,
Norman Mailer, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner and Tim Robbins among them—who signed a
full-page ad in yesterday's New York Times announcing that they were "united in
support of the principle that freedom of expression must include the artistic
freedom to challenge and offend."
No, you aren't absolutely required to like "Sensation"—though failure to
appreciate the transgressive subtleties of such objets d'art as Tracey Emin's
"Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995" or Mark Wallinger's "Race Class Sex"
automatically renders you terminally unhip—but you'd damned well better voice
unequivocal agreement that the show must go on, Rudy or (preferably) no Rudy, if
you want to keep getting asked to the right cocktail parties.
Me, I don't go to cocktail parties, and I also don't much care for the odious
smugness displayed by the likes of Glenn Scott Wright, the London representative
for Ofili, painter of "The Holy Virgin Mary," who claims that Giuliani's
determination to shut the show down "is both totalitarian and fascist, a
reprisal of the Nazi regime's censorship of the contemporary art of its time
which it labeled 'degenerate art.' " I suppose it's possible that Ofili has been
arrested by the New York branch of the Gestapo and shipped off to a prison camp
on Staten Island, but if so, nobody told me about it.
On the other hand, what do I know? I'm just a critic who went to the press
preview of "Sensation" on Thursday, and except for one work by Rachel Whiteread,
a prettily colored neo-minimalist installation called "Untitled (One-Hundred
Spaces)," I found it a great big bore. To be sure, most contemporary British art
is boring, and has been for as long as I can remember. (One of the very few
redeeming qualities of "Sensation" is that it makes Anglophiles look silly.)
British novels and plays are still about class war, British composers are still
trying to figure out minimalism, British choreographers are still into
angst—and British artists, as "Sensation" reveals at stupefying length, are
still trying, poor dears, to be outrageous.
I hasten to assure Jake and Dinos Chapman, for example, that fabricating a
fiberglass sculpture consisting of a crowd of naked women in sneakers with
penises where their noses ought to be, then calling it "Zygotic acceleration,
biogenetic, de-sublimated libidinal model (enlarged x 1000)," isn't going to
shock anybody in New York, except maybe Cardinal O'Connor. Nor can any amount of
fawning catalogue verbiage—"The revival of formal figurative sculpture ushered
in a quirky mix of children's clothing-store innocence stunted by a sprouting
adult imagination"—conceal the fact that such art is strictly adolescent stuff,
Marcel Duchamp for dull 12-year-olds.
No doubt with this in mind, the anonymous author of the captions accompanying
the works in "Sensation" has couched them in the form of condescending little
catechisms all too clearly intended to raise the consciousnesses of their
benighted viewers. Thus Hirst's "This little piggy went to market, this little
piggy stayed at home" is "explained" to the great unwashed public as follows:
"Does this work condemn eating animals? In referring to a childhood rhyme, does
its title hint at our loss of innocence when we kill animals? Or does Hirst
simply make a plain fact graphically clear?" Forget David Bowie: The museum
should have hired Mister Rogers to do the audio tour.
Note, by the way, that the aforementioned caption says nothing about the
artistic effect, such as it is, of Hirst's split-pig assemblage. Artistic
effects are not what "Sensation" is about; rather, the show is about ideas,
meaning that you don't have to like these works in order to "appreciate" them.
Once I've told you, for instance, that Marc Quinn's "Self" is a refrigerated
Plexiglass box containing a bust of the artist sculpted in his own frozen blood,
you know everything there is to know about "Self" that matters. Actually seeing
it is superfluous. That's the nice thing about conceptual art: Once described,
it need not be experienced.
You now owe me $9.75, but I won't sue you for it, just as I devoutly wish
the mayor and the museum weren't dragging each other into court. The only people
to emerge from this fracas unmutilated will be the lawyers, though the museum
has more at stake and may be likelier to lose, the First Amendment not yet
having been rewritten so as to stipulate that Congress shall make no law
abridging the absolute right of taxpayer-subsidized museums to spend public
monies in whatever way they see fit. It doesn't take an art-hating Philistine to
figure out that this is a fight the Brooklyn Museum should never have picked in
the first place—least of all over so pitifully lame a show as "Sensation."
* * *
It had been quite some time since I last looked at this piece, or thought about Sensation, but no sooner did I start to reread it than my memories of the show came flooding back, clear and specific—but not vivid, since the show itself wasn't in any way vivid. Instead, I remember it as drab, almost penitential.
Even so, Sensation would play an important part in my art-going life. It was the first time that I'd gone to see a large-scale museum exhibition that had no aesthetic appeal whatsoever, and as such it made a deep and lasting impression on me. Though I wouldn't start buying prints for another four years, seeing and writing about Sensation helped to clarify my sense of what I liked about art, albeit by negative example. It was, literally, an object lesson—and a valuable one. I'm just glad I didn't have to pay for it.