All posts filed under: Art

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 …

By Seeking ‘Safer Spaces’ for Actors, We’re Creating a Hostile Environment for Art

It was a difficult time with a difficult actor. I was directing one of my own plays, and the lead actor wasn’t acting. Yet I knew he was more than capable of executing the part. Finally, I confronted him. “Why aren’t you giving anything in the scene?” I asked. The actor was exasperated: “You know, when you gave me this play to read, I was hoping for once I wouldn’t have to play a screwed-up character. Why are all the characters you write so screwed up?” That was the last time I hired him. What kind of play do you want me to write? Drama emerges from conflict. And I honestly have no idea why any actor would want to appear in a serious play featuring protagonists who are not, in some way, “screwed up.” I mean, aren’t we all just a little bit screwed up? And isn’t that what we need to see on the stage: reflections of our deeply conflicted, neurotic selves? What I didn’t know was that this actor was ahead of …

Create Dangerously: Albert Camus and the Power and Responsibility of the Artist

On December 14, 1957, only four days after he had delivered his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Albert Camus gave another speech in Sweden, this time at Uppsala University, called “Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist,” in which he argued, “To create today means to create dangerously. Every publication is a deliberate act, and that act makes us vulnerable to the passions of a century that forgives nothing.” Exchange century for internet and you’ll know why Vintage has just rereleased this speech as its own pocket book in a new translation by Sandra Smith. These are dangerous times to create art. Which is also to say, these are the best times to create art. But what makes these times dangerous anyway? After all, Camus gave his speech only a decade after WWII when fascism had almost conquered Europe, and the Soviet Empire was just beginning its rule over half the continent that would last the next half a century. In today’s West, this idea of “danger” seems—to use one …

On Gender, Blurring the Line Between Dogma and Farce

Everyone has heard of Charlie Chaplin. Less widely recognized is the name of his older half-brother Sydney (often called Syd), who was a gifted comic actor in his own right. Unlike his younger brother, who invented his own kind of comedy, Syd relied on the established comic tropes of the day, which often were nothing more than feature-length versions of boys-school dress-up sketches. This included the 1925 version of Charley’s Aunt, in which Syd starred as an Oxford student who pretends to be a wealthy middle-aged widow as part of a hoax aimed at helping his friends Jack and Charley propose to their paramours Amy and Kitty. Predictably, this “aunt” attracts the romantic attentions of the villain, a penniless former grandee who seeks to plunder the aunt’s fortune. As this clip shows, the brilliance of Syd’s acting is expressed not by succeeding as a lady (as Nathan Lane did during portions of The Birdcage in 1996), but rather by failing in the nearly complete way that this kind of comic role requires: His feminine pretenses …

Experiments in Nurturing Classroom Curiosity

Last semester, I was asked to teach a class about “socially engaged art” for the University of Colorado Denver, where I am an adjunct professor for the studio arts program. I was both surprised—did they know I gave a lecture at the University of New Orleans titled “Against Political Art” in 2017?—and delighted, because it was my first opportunity to teach an upper level discussion course, instead of introductory drawing and painting classes that focus on technical skills. The structure of the course was two-part, with half our time spent in class discussions and the other half as studio hours for students to create their own socially engaged art. Because my goal was to prepare the students intellectually to create such work, their opinions about sociopolitical issues were central to the course. And because university campuses have developed a reputation for intellectual intolerance, I suspected that this class would become either an echo chamber or a powder keg. After the students shared their interests, I placed my bets on the powder keg: their views ranged …