All posts filed under: Art

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 …

In Praise of Renoir’s Male Gaze

Renoir took such presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at naked women. ~Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker The Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir faces stern moral criticisms in Peter Schjeldahl’s recent New Yorker essay “Renoir’s Problem Nudes” for paintings deemed to be too adoring of women as soft fleshy creatures. On this basis, Schjeldahl argues, Renoir should be dismissed from canonical art. The evident pleasure Renoir took in painting female bodies represents his moral failure—the sexist and unethical “male gaze.” Renoir’s patriarchal attitudes, Schjeldahl writes, “may be worse than misogyny, which at least credits women with power as antagonists.” The scandal of Renoir’s nudes is that his canvases express his love of women’s bodies: “Sex and art figured for him as practically interchangeable rewards for living. An argument is often made that we shouldn’t judge the past by the values of the present, but that’s a hard sell in a case as primordial as Renoir’s.” The man evidently enjoyed the female form, and thought that sex and art were good things. What a monster. Schjeldahl’s description …

“Unsex Me Here’ and Other Bad Ideas

“Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.” This, one of Lady Macbeth’s most famous lines, is cited by Elizabeth Winkler in her recent Atlantic essay, “Was Shakespeare a Woman?,” as a thrilling instance of a woman’s resistance to femininity. Winkler then goes on to compare Lady Macbeth’s anger to women’s #MeToo “fury.” “This woman,” Winkler says of Lady Macbeth, woke her out of her “adolescent stupor” by “rebelling magnificently and malevolently against her submissive status.” Of course, what Lady Macbeth is actually about to do is help her husband murder an innocent man, the king, in cold blood while he sleeps under her own roof. Unless one aligns female empowerment with sociopathic behavior, this isn’t really a triumphant moment for women’s liberation. Nor would any reading of the text other than a willfully perverse one count her as one of Shakespeare’s admirable characters. When she celebrates Lady Macbeth as one of Shakespeare’s heroines simply because Lady M has the desire to do something horrific, there is indeed something adolescent about …

Coming Together to Honor a Dead Rock Star—And Ward Off Our Own Demons

In May, 2018, Scott Hutchison, singer/songwriter/guitarist for the indie rock band Frightened Rabbit was found dead on the banks of Scotland’s Firth of Forth after having gone missing a day earlier. The final dispatches from his Twitter account indicated that this was not an accident or a case of misadventure. His suicide cut to the heart of the band’s fan community, a refuge for people struggling with mental illness, substance abuse and heartbreak. Scott’s songwriting delved deep into the dirty facts of living, but was also marked by a tender optimism housed within an envelope of pain. Scott’s disappearance and then death caused fans to ask: What does this mean? If he couldn’t save himself through his music, how can it help the rest of us? In the months leading up to the news, I was in a bad place. Nothing in life felt right, and every day was a fight against hopelessness—to the point that even when good things happened, I would remain afraid or numb. During a visit to Montreal, I walked from …