All posts filed under: Art

Commemorating Mary

I’ve seen several interesting discussions about the controversial new Mary Wollstonecraft sculpture recently unveiled at Newington Green, the London community where the pioneering feminist briefly operated a school for girls. On the whole, I have seen more criticism than praise. Rachel Cooke of the Guardian called the little female figure at the top of the sculpture, “A Pippa doll with pubic hair.” A few reviewers have praised the sculpture and taken a faintly condescending tone toward philistines like me who don’t “get” it. “[M]ight [the nudity] be understood as a metaphor for Wollstonecraft’s vision of personal authenticity?” asks Eleanor Nairne in the New York Times. She describes the controversy as a “fuss,” and points out that there is a full-length statue of Wollstonecraft’s son-in-law, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in Oxford, which leaves nothing to the imagination. Nudity in pubic—pardon me, public art—is part of our Western cultural tradition, surely. An article by scholar Vic Clarke posted on the History Workshop website at least corrects the common misconception that the little naked woman emerging out of the …

What We Owe to ‘The Boys in the Band’—and Other Classics of Gay Film

Ryan’s Murphy’s new Netflix production of The Boys in the Band is a time capsule of gay life in New York City, 1968. A group of friends, all but one closeted, get together for a birthday party that makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a strawberry social. Shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing rip through a night of pills, alcohol, and panic attacks, ending with the lines, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much… If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”  I was 18 when I saw the original production, alone, and 19 when I saw the 1970 film adaptation, also alone. I furtively entered and exited the theatre both times, terrified that someone I knew might see me at a show about gays. Would they wonder if I was gay, too? If they guessed, then what? I could end up like those characters, cast off by friends and family, no hope, …

Time and Perceptions of Trustworthiness—the Row over a Novel Study

So here you are, head down, truffling along cheerfully towards your morning flat white at the local, lost in thought, wondering what kind of poem Catullus might have written about you, had fortune arranged it so, when some geezer calls out, “cheer up, love, it may never happen.” So infuriating. We make fast and frugal snap judgements about each other all the time and they are often wrong. Much pain in human life is caused by our being over-confident about what she/he meant, intended, thought, or felt. We don’t have direct access to each other’s minds. What we have is language—a frosted or sometimes stained-glass window on to others’ minds—and behaviour. Behaviour includes facial expressions. But their interpretations are error prone. A paper interpreting facial expressions has sparked a recent rumpus. A September 2020 paper in the prestigious journal Nature Communications has been savaged on Twitter. Small potatoes to those who don’t use the platform, but the authors received tens of thousands of hateful, jeering, or abusive comments that attacked their work, intentions, and characters. The …

Then They Came for Beethoven

This week, Vox published an article titled “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music.” “Since its 1808 premiere, audiences have interpreted [its opening progression] as a metaphor for Beethoven’s personal resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness,” write Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding. But “for some in other groups—women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color—Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.” In the article, and an accompanying podcast, the two men ask “how Beethoven’s symphony was transformed from a symbol of triumph and freedom into a symbol of exclusion, elitism, and gatekeeping.” The article has been widely mocked on social media—in part because the authors (both white men, from what I can tell) offer no real evidence for their claim. That’s odd given that they are purporting to redefine the cultural meaning of what is arguably the most well-known, widely performed, and beloved composition known to humankind. Hundreds of millions of people have fallen in love with this symphony over the past two centuries—many …

At the Intersection of Art and Science: Revisiting EO Wilson’s ‘Consilience’

I first read EO Wilson’s Consilience in the late 1990s when I was a student in a contemporary literary theory class. The class was taught by a poet, Gerald Locklin, who assigned it as a counterpoint to the postmodern theorists we’d be reading that semester. Wilson makes the case for the unification of knowledge—in the convergence of diverse disciplines such as the sciences and the arts, he says, there is an important story to tell, “about where we came from and why we are here: Neither science nor the arts can be complete without combining their separate strengths. Science needs the intuition and metaphorical power of the arts, and the arts need the fresh blood of science.” As someone who writes poetry, novels, and short stories, I have often drawn inspiration from science and its “fresh blood.” When I teach creative writing classes, I tell my students that aspiring writers not only need to read novels if they want to be a novelist, or poems if they want to be a poet, they need to …

Denunciation Staged as ‘Dialogue’: A Review of Claudia Rankine’s ‘Help’

On March 10th, just days before the lockdown would shut down the theater business in New York City (and most other places), I had the opportunity to see the premier of Claudia Rankine’s new play, Help. Based in part on the acclaimed poet’s 2019 New York Times magazine article, I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked, the play was presented as an “investigation into whiteness.” Given the events that have unfolded since the death of George Floyd, it’s obviously a timely subject. And it’s unfortunate for Rankine and her venue, The Shed in Hudson Yards, that COVID-19 shut down her production until further notice. I know of no other artistic production that better captures the theoretical underpinnings of progressives’ well-intentioned but flawed approach to tearing down “whiteness.” “Help is a play in which the Narrator inhabits the category of the Black woman in order to be in dialogue with the category of the white man,” Rankine explained in a writer’s note. She is careful to say “category” because …

The Hagia Sophia Should Remain a Beacon to All

On July 10th, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan undid the symbolic roots of his republic by declaring that the Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century Byzantine structure, would be converted from a museum to a mosque. The first Islamic service in the building is scheduled for July 24th. The international response was a mix of shock, resignation, and near universal condemnation. Most official government statements were somewhere between the United States (“disappointed”) and Greece (an “open provocation to the civilized world”). If the furor over a single museum strikes you as mystifying, consider the central role the Hagia Sophia has played for the last 1,500 years. Even from the beginning, it was far more than just a pile of brick and marble. It was a statement. A vision, both sacred and secular, for several different empires. The Hagia Sophia was the brainchild of a unique figure in history. At birth, Justinian was a nobody among nobodies in a grindingly poor part of what is today North Macedonia. By his mid-40s, he was a Byzantine emperor. His appetites were …

Francis Bacon’s Very, Very Ordered Chaos

At least as recently as 1989, the catalogue for a traveling retrospective on the Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon could get away with referring to his lover and frequent model George Dyer as “a close friend.” More recent documentary portrayals, including a 2005 BBC Arena episode and Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence (2017), have dispensed with such discretion about Dyer and his suicide by barbiturates, which was timed perfectly to spoil the opening of Bacon’s 1971 retrospective at Paris’s Grand Palais—the second given to a living artist (after Bacon’s hero Picasso), and the first to a British one. Viewers learned that Dyer, a young tough from London’s East End whom Bacon met in 1963, turned out to be “rather reticent with the whip, so little by little Francis became disabused,” according to one friend. Bacon “wanted George to rape him, and George wanted to cuddle,” another friend confides. Yet another: “George was suffering from erectile dysfunction. It seems to me that Francis emasculated him.” Or as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston more tactfully puts …

The Balkanization of Art

Art is primal. Necessary. Emerging from some deep, ineradicable human need, art has been an integral part of human society from the time humans sought shelter in caves. And since that time, art has been a means of exerting social control in ways both subtle and bold. In ancient Egypt the architecturally marvellous pyramids were designed to strike awe in the hearts of the slaves lugging the bricks, thereby reinforcing their lowly place in the universe and making them more tractable in the process. The Renaissance popes conscripted into their service anyone who knew how to wield a paintbrush and put them to work exalting Christian cosmology. As for Stalin, he corralled every writer (a notoriously cantankerous group) who wanted to earn a living by the pen into the Soviet Writers Union, where their raison d’être became the glorification of the state. America was meant to be different, a beacon for people fleeing from dogma, a place where the collective project was that of creating a society where everyone could be an individual—nirvana for artists. …

Yale against Western Art

For decades, Yale offered a two-semester introductory sequence on the history of Western art. The fall semester spanned the ancient Middle East to the early Renaissance; the spring semester picked up from the High Renaissance through the present. Many Yale students were fortunate enough to take one or both of these classes while the late Vincent Scully was still teaching them; I was among those lucky students. Scully was a titanic, galvanizing presence, combining charismatic enthusiasm with encyclopedic knowledge. When the lights went down in the lecture hall, the large screen behind him, on which slides were projected, became the stage on which the mesmerizing saga of stylistic evolution played out. How did the austere geometry of Cycladic icons bloom into the full-bodied grandeur of the Acropolis’s Caryatids? Why were the rational symmetries of the Greek temple, blazing under Mediterranean light, replaced by the wild vertical outcroppings of the Gothic cathedral? What expressive possibilities were opened up by Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel? Such questions, under Scully’s tutelage, became urgent and central to …