“It’s not an ‘argument’ to suggest that anyone who advocates selling off the DIA’s masterpieces is an art-hating philistine. Even if they’re wrong, as I think they are, the sell-the-art crowd is making a morally serious case that can’t be countered by name-calling. How best can it be opposed–and who should be doing the opposing? Any argument to keep Detroit’s masterpieces in Detroit has got to make sense to Detroiters who think that pensions are more important than paintings…”
Archives for August 2, 2013
In today’s Wall Street Journal I review two back-to-back festival productions of King Lear at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Here’s an excerpt.
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“King Lear” is to theater what Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is to chamber music, an all-encompassing, all-but-unperformable super-drama that is as challenging to the audience as it is to the performers. Sometimes it comes off, sometimes not: I’ve reviewed seven “Lears” prior to this week, one of them sublime, two preposterous and the rest variously problematic. All of them, even the bad ones, taught me things I didn’t know about Shakespeare’s harsh tale of a vain old king who goes mad when his greedy daughters betray him. The passionate playgoer can never see enough “Lears,” so I saw two more in July, one on the East Coast, the other on the West. It’d be hard to imagine two less similar stagings, yet each is true in its own fashion to the unswervingly honest masterpiece of which George Bernard Shaw rightly said that “no man will ever write a better tragedy.”
Terrence O’Brien’s Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production, my first outdoor “Lear,” takes place under a tent pitched on a wooded bluff overlooking the Hudson River, a sublimely apposite location for a drama whose centerpiece is a storm scene set on a lonely heath. Unlike the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s elaborately designed version, it’s simple and matter-of-fact, a plain tale played in traditional costumes on a dirt-floored stage decorated only by the shadow of Storm King Mountain at sunset. Nothing could be more apt, and Mr. O’Brien knows it: He leaves it to Shakespeare to set the scene, and his actors respond with a performance that is all the more eloquent for its understatement.
Stephen Paul Johnson’s Lear is a not-so-old greybeard who, it appears, has retired too early for his own good. Wesley Mann, his coarse, sturdy Fool, gives us the clue: “If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time.” Not only is he still physically vital, but he’s inclined to physical violence, which makes his vertiginous descent into lunacy all the more shocking….
Bill Rauch’s “Lear,” as befits a director known for his embrace of the present moment, is a modern-dress version set in “a kingdom, now” and staged in the round in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 360-seat arena-style theater, the smallest of the company’s three performance spaces. On occasion I bristled at his up-to-the-nanosecond imagery, which sometimes struck me as ingenious to the point of glibness. Does it really illuminate Shakespeare’s text to show us Lear relaxing after hours in a La-Z-Boy, or Cordelia (Sofia Jean Gomez) decked out as a tattooed goth chick? But Mr. Rauch is an artist of quality, so I put my reservations on ice and did my best to go where he went, and by evening’s end I was fascinated, if not fully persuaded, by the rigorous, even ruthless consistency with which he has transposed Shakespeare’s play into a modern key….
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Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s King Lear:
In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I offer my thoughts on the citywide financial crisis that threatens to swallow up the Detroit Institute of Arts. Here’s an excerpt.
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By now, everybody in the world knows that the city of Detroit has finally filed for bankruptcy–and everybody in the art world knows that its museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, is in deep trouble.
• Detroit owes roughly $18 billion that it doesn’t have.
• The 60,000-plus works of art in the DIA’s collection are owned by the city, not the museum (as is normally the case).
• According to the Detroit Free Press, the 38 most important pieces have a market value of about $2.5 billion.
What next? Rembrandt’s “The Visitation” and van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” might not wind up on the auction block. Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, has not yet said that he plans to sell any art. Steven Rhodes, the bankruptcy judge, can’t force the DIA to sell specific assets in order to settle the city’s debts. Neither can Detroit’s secured creditors, who have first dibs on the proceeds from any such sale. And Bill Schuette, Michigan’s attorney general, claims that it’s illegal for the city to sell art because the DIA is holding it in the public trust. But it’s Judge Rhodes, not Mr. Schuette, who’ll make that call. Every asset is up for grabs in a bankruptcy hearing–and in a town so cash-strapped that 40% of the streetlights are out and it takes an hour for the police to show up when you call 911, the pressure on Mr. Orr to gut the DIA will be brutal beyond belief.
Enter the pundits. National Review’s John Fund and Bloomberg’s Virginia Postrel believe that the city should start selling masterpieces. “It’s hard to justify letting the current decay of Detroit worsen while so many of its assets are counted as untouchable and kept off the bankruptcy table,” Mr. Fund wrote last week. Ms. Postrel agrees, adding that “the cause of art would be better served if they were sold to institutions in growing cities where museum attendance is more substantial and the visual arts are more appreciated than they’ve ever been in Detroit.” (She’d like to see the DIA’s best paintings hanging in Los Angeles or Fort Worth.)
Mr. Fund and Ms. Postrel are right-of-center commentators, but you’re going to start hearing similar arguments from the left before long….
Anybody who doesn’t want Detroit to sell its art must be prepared to go up against arguments much like these. What’s more, the counterarguments will have to persuade locals who know how it feels to call the cops and get a busy signal. In my experience, art lovers aren’t accustomed to making that kind of argument, any more than they’re accustomed to living in a city without streetlights. Too many of them believe that the value of high art should be self-evident to all right-thinking people. It’s not an “argument” to suggest that anyone who advocates selling off the DIA’s masterpieces is an art-hating philistine….
Any argument to keep Detroit’s masterpieces in Detroit has got to make sense to Detroiters who think that pensions are more important than paintings. Fortunately, such arguments do exist….
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Read the whole thing here.
“The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic ‘ideas’ and looks life in the face, realises that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth–that to live is to feel oneself lost–he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life.”
José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses