Tuesday, February 24, 2009

'80s antiquities and other dated punchlines

Richard Prince, for a while, combined cartoons with different punchlines and produced artworks that were nothing but detached antique jokes.

So it is now appropriate that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting, from April 21 through August 2, "The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984," a most odd historical cutoff point, since 1984 was roughly when that generation of New York artists began to be copied by the rest of the country. I suppose that is the snide point of this historical survey; when the rest of the country has learned how to copy it, it is over. (One of my mentors said many years ago regarding an essay on deconstruction he was writing at the request of a publication that will remain nameless because I do not remember what it was, "When the nuns and the Republicans want you to explain it to them, you know it is over.")

Of course, copying a generation of self-conscious copyists offered the potential of metacopying, and I did a fair amount of that in my time. I also produced an artwork in which I critiqued one of my own artworks and offered a rebuttal by the artist.

Monday, February 23, 2009

footnotes to foregoing posts

I have corrected a couple of errors in my previous post about the now-closed show of Tibetan contemporary art from the Rubins' personal collection. I wish I had time and information to write more about what Norbu is doing in Nepal, or Tsering Nyandak in Lhasa. Like Gade, he seems to be commenting sincerely on contemporary situations (though Gade's "new Buddhas" using Spiderman et al are also eminently salable in London, creating an undecidable situation). Tsering Nyandak returned to Tibet after being educated in exile, and this alone makes me want to know more.

Friday, February 20, 2009

and a last chance for Atlantans to see contemporary Tibetan art

Jhamsang's Birth of the Buddha is less startling than his Century of Change but there are few readily public images of the works actually in the exhibition from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Collection currently at Oglethorpe University (through Sunday February 22).

The latter painting of the Buddha Amoghasiddhi is painted in a 14th century technique but overlaid with gold computer chips and accompanying circuitry that are not immediately apparent when viewing the painting. Like the century of change itself, the painting (which also contains "stone pigment, acrylic, soy sauce and black tea") finds innovative ways of incorporating new technologies into old spiritual traditions. The two are blended so adroitly that it is clear which has the upper hand (the circuitry doesn't do anything, and it is implied that the tangka of the Buddha is or was a "technology of the sacred"), but not so clear whether the positions could be traded comfortably. A digital reproduction of the painting would complete the parallel, but I couldn't find one and don't believe in photographing and posting work without permission, which I never found time to get.

Fortunately, reviews of the exhibition have appeared online and in print publications. It is indisputable that the exhibition deserves a full-fledged contextualization and analysis. Gade's multi-culti "Scriptures" (the quote marks to indicate "so-called" and the italics to indicate the title of an artwork) are masterworks of incoherent narratives written on successive pages in Chinese, English, and Tibetan, as well as in Gade's own made-up script and fictitious language. (One features a King of Clubs on which the kings are Buddha and Ronald McDonald.)

The show indicates the condition of twenty-first century Tibet, caught now as in past centuries between larger cultures that have left their imprint on the stubbornly autonomous cultural zone of the Tibetan-language peoples. Shelka's paintings of Buddhas and of sunglasses-wearing locals demonstrate the meeting points of the forces that today are in sharp contention as well as in a harmony that is up for discussion.

What form successive syntheses will take is a matter that the artists leave open. What makes this exhibition of particular interest is that it incorporates as much tradition as it does into work intended to challenge the expectations of viewers from all cultures, their own included.

I hope someone has found the time to give this exhibition the serious study it deserves. Those within driving distance should consider seeing it for themselves since there is no catalogue and catalogue essay to document its accomplishments.

counterforces? I wouldn't recognize a counterforce if it came up and made me trip over it

Or at least that is what one would suppose from my failure to write about "The FriendSHIP Project" currently at MOCA GA (in a gallery space adjacent to the main gallery space). For this collaborative group of women artists has done all the things that counterforces did back in the day: they have encouraged one another's different art practices while creating a new thematic whole and reaching out to a community that could make use of their shared information.

In other words, they worked together on uncompleted pieces from their individual studios, and produced a new wall piece based on the metaphor of the ship as a place where individuals come together on a collective journey to a new location.

That metaphor was contributed by Corrina Mensoff, who brought the group (which includes Terri Dilling, Amandine Drouet, Alison Weldon, Mary McCarthy, and Susan Ker-Seymer) together; the other major metaphor has been the quilt, suggested by the presence of a woman who spent much of her life in Gee's Bend, Alabama. (The members of the FriendSHIP Project call their collaborative drawings "patchworks.")

And on Saturday February 21 (tomorrow, if you're reading this blog on a daily basis) they will offer a workshop for community members to produce individual works that will be sewn together in a wall piece that will also be a patchwork, which will be celebrated at the exhibit's Closing Reception on March 5, from 6-9pm.

Participants are invited to come between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. for about 30 minutes of printmaking. They may bring photocopied (not digitally printed) images relating to "friend" or "ship" or learn to make a relief print.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

a recollection deeply embedded in a discussion of a quotation about a game of chess

I ought to tackle Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation again, since I haven’t read it since the late Robert Detweiler’s senior seminar in literary criticism (Bob taught us to approach individual topics via the largest framework possible).

I have no idea whether there is any validity in Koestler’s half-century-old data on the various types of creativity and their physiological, psychological, and social bases. I’ve written somewhere recently, either on joculum or Counterforces, about Koestler’s ability to render his judgments suspect through his fascination with unfashionable topics.

But it is obvious that someone needs to update the blurry understanding of the interior transformation of abstract and concrete topics of fascination: the right arrangement of words is in many ways so different from the right arrangement of shapes and color, and the capacity to combine the two with the right kinds of abstract categorization is a skill that itself is utterly unrelated to the capacity to combine and rearrange numerical relations.

And possession of any of the foregoing does not guarantee any capacity to make practical use of any of it, or even to present it in public comprehensibly.

One might note George Steiner’s sneering aside in a lovely paragraph regarding chess, in an essay found both in his Extraterritorial and in Robert Boyers’ recent anthology George Steiner at the New Yorker:

“To a true chess player, the pushing about of thirty-two counters on 8x8 squares is an end in itself, a whole world next to which that of mere biological or political or social life seems messy, stale, and contingent.” [And hence, “…normal creatures otherwise engaged” such as Vladimir Lenin or George Steiner have pursued chess in “siren moments”:] “Not for gain, not for knowledge or renown, but in some autistic enchantment, pure as one of Bach’s inverted canons or Euler’s formula for polyhedra. There, surely, lies one of the real connections. For all their wealth of content, for all the sum of history and social institution vested in them, music, mathematics, and chess are resplendently useless (applied mathematics is just higher plumbing, a kind of music for the police band). They are metaphysically trivial, irresponsible. They refuse to relate outward, to take reality for arbiter. This is the source of their witchery. They tell us, as does a kindred but much later process, abstract art, of man’s capacity to ‘build against the world,’ to devise forms that are zany, totally useless, austerely frivolous. Such forms are irresponsible to reality, and therefore inviolate, as is nothing else, to the banal authority of death.”

Steiner’s September 1968 essay (and what a month in which to be writing such a paragraph!) misses the distinctions between types of abstract art, but Minimalism is indeed the chess of the art world, and it is unfortunate that Steiner seemed, like so many literary types of that moment, to be operating in total ignorance of what was going on in the galleries. (But then, the galleries were operating in blissful ignorance of what was going on in the streets, much less in the university classrooms.)

And Steiner knew less than nothing about pop music or about the serious types who combined art-school intellectualism with pop-music interests. (One knows “less than nothing” about a topic when the opinions one offers are not only ignorant, but ass-backwards.)

But this brief passage is one of the best summations of the post-WWII world’s problem and promise as it appeared circa 1968: for as the inheritors of Sartre and Camus and Gabriel Marcel would have observed, the only way to “keep it real” is precisely and always to acknowledge “the banal authority of death.” Horace’s antique “I shall not wholly die” seemed irrelevant for thinkers who were painfully aware of how easily the inheritance of a civilization could go up in collateral-damage flames and/or be subjected to systematic extermination. “More lasting than monuments of bronze”? Ha. The manuscripts of antiquity that contained such noble sentiments had barely made it to the Renaissance past the century of the great invasions, and the monastery-burnings of Europe’s wars of the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, such lessons could be forgotten in a single generation; despite the disparity of war in Asia, by 1968 the generation born in the wake of the world war was basking in unparalleled prosperity, and its most famous version of irresponsibility to reality was to throw money on the floor of the Stock Exchange, watch the brokers scramble to pick up the pittances, and point out that in an age of abundance it made more sense to automate the means of production and guarantee everyone fully paid unemployment. There was nothing “austere” about that performance-art “frivolity.”

The vision was completely ridiculous; but so was the pursuit of abstract counters for the sake of having the biggest quantity of abstract counters with which to do nothing except acquire still more abstract counters and occasionally trade in a few for the toys of status, with which the acquirers did not have time to play. (And yet that pointless pursuit would eventually destroy entire interlinked economies, and do so more than once.)

A mathematician relative of an artist friend once calculated how many dollar bills would have to be lying on the sidewalk to make it worth the while of one of the world’s richest entrepreneurs to bend down and pick them up. He calculated that the quantity that would justify the time engaged in scooping them up would be astonishingly huge…since only that amount would equal the amount of money the guy acquired by other means of effort.

“Only a mathematician would say that,” I answered. “The correct answer is, one dollar bill. Because that is a dollar that does not yet belong to this guy. And, well, that is just plain unsatisfactory, now isn’t it?”

I tried a few times in childhood and adolescence, but I never could memorize the rules for playing chess.

the third blog

We are, all of us, increasingly talking to ourselves. And fewer and fewer people are overhearing the conversation.

I could cite numerous examples of blogs that I enjoy when I read them, but I seldom read them, and frequently find no point of entry at which I could start a conversation with them even when we share subject matter.

Part of it is as simple as methods of categorization (that being one reason I retain my unfashionable interest in Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose place in the social pecking order of multicultural Austria-Hungary led him to be unusually sensitive to cases of mutual incomprehension and missed social clues). A former editor of my acquaintance once established a number of new columns and then spent inordinate amounts of time trying to decide whether a given topic fitted into one column heading rather than another column heading.

I have tried (not always successfully) to keep Counterforces and Other Little Jokes an art blog (with a certain amount of specific Atlanta-centric content) and joculum an everything-else blog, but I find myself wanting to write a growing number of autobiographical notes that don’t spin off into thousand-word essays about the human condition, or if they do, they are too anchored to personal experience to count.

Any suggestions as to which host might be most useful for a hypothetical third blog that only the truly me-obsessed would read? (I suppose I could establish it as a very specific friends-only subsection on joculum, since LiveJournal allows for infinite subcategorization of subscribing readers…the problem being that they do have to have their own LJ usernames, which Rodger Cunningham, for example, doesn’t. But Rodger Cunningham—the other RC—wouldn’t be interested in this subsection, anyway.)

In the interim, I shall try to shoehorn the occasional recollections into larger topics. (Does anybody use shoehorns anymore? I don’t, but then I never liked them.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

a book review imitative of George Steiner's habit of embedding the title very deep in an essay seemingly about something else: in re Gary Monroe

There is a book remaining to be written that the world is still not ready to accept.

Actually, there are many such books, but the one I have in mind is one that involves a topic which global society, and Anglophone-academic even more than global society, is unlikely to contemplate without the effort being derailed by prior assumptions.

The book would involve some of the worse mythicizations of relationships of art and power and money and human behavioral mechanisms. The mythicizations in question are usually perpetrated by academic theorists, but the issues stir up passions and oversimplifications among all levels of education and temperament.

The book would be about the role played by art-school-educated artists in reviving traditional arts, or in creating new schools of largely self-trained artists.

Parts of the topic shade off into the preservation of never-extinguished forms of traditional art, and that preservation is as much a matter of creating foreign markets as it is one of stirring fresh interest among artisans who no longer find much purpose in replicating the old ways. Anthropologists and missionaries (and missionary anthropologists or anthropologist missionaries) have revived such basically extinct forms as Palauan storyboards, and have revivified practices that were in the process of transformation, such as Asmat carvings, in need of repurposing after they no longer served their original function.

We can exclude from our hypothetical book any cases in which the community itself, or the artisans/artists in it, find their own ways of transferring from tradition to the marketplace.

Even there, the structural similarities between unrelated transactions would be of interest. Several recent and no-longer-recent books on locally generated conduits for the sale of contemporary and semi-traditional African art deserve to be contemplated and written about in tandem. It would be even more interesting to write about them in conjunction with the studies of traditional African-American and white Appalachian folk artists who negotiated their own self-generated points of entry into the ways of global marketing.

It is the “self-generated” part that is in contention. “Outsider artists” who figure out by themselves how to become artstars have been judged by the romanticizers as lacking “authenticity.” Others are deemed to have been contaminated by the proddings of patrons, or worse, taught how to do things “the right way” by certain graduates of art schools.

But we have a desperate inconsistency here that remains too touchy to be discussed.

Community involvement has been all the rage for a full generation now; you aren’t really grant-worthy if you aren’t teaching all sorts of folks how to use art processes, and then keeping hands off and letting the genius of the individual have its way. And sometimes, wonderful things happen as a result of this.

But Tim Rollins was widely condemned for turning K.O.S. into a moneymaking art collective with himself as its head. And in general, artists who take too much interest in the financial success of their protégés are regarded as somehow poisoning the wells of authenticity.

But authenticity is where you find it, and it is one of life’s interesting ironies that the globally successful Shona sculptors of Zimbabwe had their origin in an art school that encouraged the use of a medium that was not part of their uninterrupted inheritance. (I omit vexed questions of history here.) Once prodded, the artists encouraged and educated one another in an explosion of creativity that today is known to audiences throughout the world, including the transit passengers who use the moving sidewalk between concourses at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where there is a permanent installation of monumental work by a wide variety of Shona sculptors.

The passions and the politics still run too high to permit discussion of which of the community-oriented efforts to empower artists produced autonomous individuals who accomplished the creation of a set of aesthetics that would not have existed in that form without the initial intervention. (Something would have existed. But not exactly that, and that is where the controversy arises.)

I have used a variety of left-wing and right-wing shibboleths here (“empower artists,” “creativity,” “aesthetics,” “intervention,” “autonomous individuals,” “community-oriented”) to indicate why, to put a nuanced spin on Henry Kissinger’s familiar description of faculty politics, the passions run so high whether the stakes are low or not. The nature of the stakes is part of the problem arousing conflict.

The motivations of the young African-Americans who became known as the Highwaymen (fifteen years after they were no longer a group) were uncomplicated. They wanted to make money, and an artist was willing to teach them how to make it.

It is worth contemplating, in terms of our book that cannot yet be written, the fact that while we know the names and the work of the artists who arose from these initial interventions, we are seldom as familiar with the artists who served as the catalyst. In this case, it was Florida landscape painter A. E. Backus, who is well known to those who have visited his museum in Fort Pierce, but is famous only in specialized circles of the global artworld.

The photographer Gary Monroe has become the chronicler of the Highwaymen since their rediscovery in the 1990s. Scheduled for publication in late April, The Highwaymen Murals is the latest of his books published by the University Press of Florida. Its introductory essay provides a condensed overview of the story of this remarkable group of 26 largely mutually educated artists.

Although some painters now insist they were never really anonymous Highwaymen, the group that formed in 1960 was united by the techniques originally taught by their mentor, and by technical modifications developed by one or another group member and taught to the others. But they worked as independent artists who marketed similar forms of paintings together, sometimes signing their production, sometimes choosing not to do so.

Speed and quantity were the point, but composition and palette were controlled by what the market would bear plus their own creative impulses. The paintings evoked an older Florida that in 1960 was still readily visible from car windows on two-lane highways. Most of the marketing was done out of car trunks by the roadside of tourist-frequented routes. Flame trees, palms, lakes, cypress swamps, and egrets abounded in the paintings. (They also abounded on the main roads frequented by the tourists.) The luridly shaded or shadeless commonplaces of beach-town surf art were nowhere to be found, but idyllic scenes in a vivid yet surprisingly understated palette were de rigueur.

In other words, the paintings were meant to stir the emotions of souvenir-hunting passersby or wall-decorating newcomers, and they succeeded brilliantly on that count. Before the decline of consumer interest in scenes of subtropic and rural Florida during the Disneyfied 1980s, the various Highwaymen artists created upwards of two hundred thousand paintings.

What distinguishes their readily recognizable productions from frame-shop offerings of the period, or from the more serious creations of such locally popular genre artists as E. B. Stowe—that is an art historical question that ought to be tackled by a formalist critic. It would raise the whole issue of what distinguishes good “bad art” from bad bad art, and from bad examples of what has been deemed to be “good art.” The Highwaymen have been rediscovered because their aesthetic strategies borrowed from but did not copy the shorthand techniques of the truly disposable and/or merely provincial painting of the Florida of those transitional decades.

But the Highwaymen unabashedly admit they were in it for the money, and the rise in aesthetic complexity was all part of the process of pushing product. Al Black was the most successful salesman of the group, to the point that he was forbidden to paint in order to devote his time to making visits to the offices of the professionals who sometimes allowed the group to hang their paintings in lobbies and waiting rooms. He regularly found buyers for the paintings left over from individual members’ selling trips.

Black apparently developed personal difficulties in the era of crack cocaine. Coming in the wake of the collapse of the Highwaymen’s art market, his difficulties earned him a prison sentence.

What happened next was the return of Black’s capacities as an artist. Asked to paint murals on undecorated walls (a practice that apparently is the rule rather than the exception in correctional institutions nationwide), he created evocative Florida scenes that returned inmates to the natural world from which incarceration had cut them off (in fact, it was a natural world that increasingly existed only in older tourist-brochure photographs).

Eventually Black was transferred to various facilities specifically for the purpose of producing new murals, and despite threats to the murals’ existence when less art-interested wardens took over, thus far none of the works have been painted out or destroyed in prison expansions. Monroe has presented them in situ rather than as isolated works of art, documenting their sometimes disconcerting juxtaposition with general prison architecture.

In 2006, Black was released from confinement, in time to enjoy the fruits of the renaissance of interest in the Highwaymen.

The issues that this seemingly simple book raises are, as I’ve indicated, entirely too numerous and complex to be dealt with in a single essay. These are diverse murals that, like the original Highwaymen paintings, were executed with astonishing rapidity. They were sometimes created in tones specifically intended to be soothing. These are among the reasons why large segments of the art world would be expected to treat them with contempt, or more likely, simply ignore them.

But they shouldn’t. Just as the Highwaymen transcended their original motivations, and created an oeuvre that elevates the category of “roadside art,” these murals are anything but “prison art.” And the problems that they, shall we say, problematize extend far beyond the cramped categories of “folk art.”

—Jerry Cullum, February 15, 2009

I used to write print-media reviews of exhibitions, back in the day before Lehman Brothers went under

Blogs exist to get thought into the world in a hurry. Whether the thoughts were worth thinking, whether they might not have been improved by the time taken for their maturation and slow reworking—well, that’s the question with almost any piece of writing.

It comes as a shock to realize that I am within a few weeks of the twenty-fifth anniversary of my first piece of art reviewing, of “Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years” at the High Museum. It was based on my research for a book idea that I soon abandoned, and I insisted it was a contribution to art history, not an exhibition review—when Xenia Zed convinced me to write an art historical piece about the “Demons and Angels” exhibition at the Center for Puppetry Arts some months later, I insisted that I didn’t have enough time to research the traditional masks and had no idea how to write about artists of whom I knew nothing and who had no secondary literature associated with them.

My first attempts to write about art, on request from artist friends years earlier, had been even more awkwardly literary. But most working critics have had a steep learning curve. Few of them decided in high school that they really wanted to be art critics someday.

I soon realized I had better learn how to produce some of the works of art I wanted to see that weren’t already in existence, if only to get the processes firmly in mind and thus remember what any given artist was up against. (The thought was an extension of a remark in a letter by my mentor Robert Detweiler, who had said that all literary critics should be required to write a certain number of short stories, poems and/or novellas—all of which should then be destroyed as an act of kindness to the world.) But I ended up making only the art I wanted to make, except when an auction deadline pushed me to create something. When I didn’t like the results, I sold them cheaply, once to the woman who today is the director of the Walker Art Center. (Well, actually, Marcia Wood sold that one on my behalf, out of a group exhibition called “The Shrine Show.”)

I feel like a complete troglodyte when I recall that my first published essay and that first published piece of art writing were both marred by entire lines omitted by the typesetter and names misspelled by the proofreader. Today we are required to submit copy ready for electronic composition, but editors and proofreaders still do their dirty work, and an unnoticed highlighting plus a random keystroke can wipe out a phrase as effectively as the eye of a tired typist ever did.

Almost all of my newspaper reviews, some of which I am now in the process of posting to a wiki in their original rough-draft format, bore titles for which I bore no responsibility. Headline writers are as prone to cutesy misunderstandings as reviewers themselves are.

And the format is murderous. There is always more to be said, except when there is even less to be said because one has no idea where to start. After a few years of paring down and discarding paragraphs, one learns to think in five-hundred-word segments, then in three hundred fifty words, and then two hundred fifty. There is no point in delving deeper because it will all have to be dumped in favor of the next deadline.

Blogs allow for two thousand or ten thousand words, but there is no deadline and sometimes the words never get written. Other times, they ought not to have been.

Friday, February 13, 2009

a footnote to reviews not yet written

I have more posts about accidental overlaps in recent Atlanta exhibitions than I have time to write. So I shall instead report that the touring "Dinosaurs" exhibition opening tomorrow at Fernbank Museum of Natural History is an extraordinary piece of exhibition design as well as a thoroughly informative update on recent thinking regarding the great saurians and their demise and/or continuation.

Leaving aside the biomechanics of motion, which is explained succinctly in a manner calculated to entertain adults and educate children, I wish to comment upon the remarkable diorama of a Chinese landscape of 130,000,000 years ago:

You will notice the look of this creature, which appears in close proximity to this one:

Now, those who read the Science Times closely will know all about the proliferation of recent discoveries of previously unsuspected species of feathered dinosaurs and such. Anyone over the age of twenty-five who last checked into the status of paleontology in their childhood is woefully misinformed.

Even those who read the National Geographic updates more than a few years ago are woefully misinformed. The exhibition presents not only the changing opinions of how fast dinosaurs could move, it lists the hypotheses for their extinction that have now been definitively disproved or rendered so improbable that they may safely be dismissed.

This has set me to thinking again (well, actually, reading Gary Indiana's Utopia's Debris concurrently with George Steiner at the New Yorker and the new issue of the New York Review of Books has set me to thinking again) of the necessity of re-presenting and rethinking the entirety of human culture every ten to twenty years. (Ten years or thereabouts for rethinking, twenty for simply re-presenting.)

Anyone who has witnessed the fortyish Old School thinkers being vituperative about the sixtyish Older School thinkers will feel rather grateful for the examples of such deceased worthies as Susan Sontag, who had no difficulty discarding her early opinions if she decided they were wrong. As she said late in her life, and I quote Gary Indiana's essay from memory, "You become old when you start acting like an old person."

We are now at the far side of a fundamental shift in everyday perception, and it is in the process of bringing about the demise of such venerable institutions as the daily newspaper, the weekly newsmagazine and at least the throwaway species of hard-copy book. (Kindle and its kinfolk won't obliterate the lovelier versions of bound volumes any more than the compact disk wiped out vinyl or paperbacks destroyed hardcovers.) Magazine distributors are shutting down abruptly and new economies of scale are appearing throughout all the media of information creation and retrieval.

But what is more significant is the shift in habits of language, the quick transformation of traditions, the disappearance of some forms of social gathering and the rise of alternative ones...it all affects how or even whether we read, say, the epigrams of Martial, regarding which the NYRB publishes a lovely critical review of Garry Wills' gracefully pornographic renderings.

The review of Wills' reinvention of the Romans' less respectable species of writing (which has inspired generation upon generation of gleefully adaptive transgressions) is followed in the issue by Zadie Smith's lecture regarding those who switch easily among many different vernaculars from the different communities...of which she finds President Obama's Dreams from My Father a particularly instructive example.

The idea that there might not be only one way of keeping it real is germane to my topic: writers and cultural information fall out of fashion if they are not constantly updated or rediscovered. Eventually even the oldest interpretations take on a fresh relevance, but if there is not an attempt made to interest each successive generation, or even the generations that have gotten tired of thinking about the stuff, the result is akin to letting data sit on modes of information retrieval that don't work on the newest generation of data readers.

Think of older critical surveys as the equivalent of eight-inch floppy disks...perfectly readable by legacy equipment, but unintelligible to newer models. The challenge, and it is a daunting one, is to find ways of transferring the inherited information of the world's many cultures into modes that fit the world of 2009.

Especially when so many books based on the assumptions of, say, 2003 have suddenly turned quaint-seeming, whereas texts from 1930 take on a new air of contemporaneity.

Monday, February 9, 2009

coming attractions

I am pondering the implications of the review of the museum show on Robert Williams and the Juxtapoz Factor. I am also thinking there need to be reviews of recent, not so recent, and forthcoming books on aspects of folk and visionary art and architecture, reviews which would fruitfully complexify the Juxtapoz review. So I am reluctant to do anything until I know what I am doing (which is usually a recipe for total inaction). Watch this space for developments.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

In the Land of Retinal Delights: Robert Williams and His Juxtapositions

In 2000, the late Robert Rosenblum staged a monumental exhibition titled 1900, accompanied by an equally monumental catalogue.

A survey of international art circa 1900, it was designed to show that the shape of art was still very much in play, that a lively variety of trends were afoot, and that the shape of art as art history would later define it was then far from obvious. 1900 gave no clues at all as to what would emerge in the pivotal years just prior to the First World War (a war that no one saw coming, incidentally; in 1900, recently resolved or ongoing colonial conflicts from Samoa to Morocco would have suggested the potential for a European war, but not the one that Europe got in 1914).

However, Rosenblum mischievously stacked the deck in his version of 1900; he picked the most resolved and stimulating work by the numerous now-forgotten artists who were winning international awards in 1900, and some of the worst work by those who a dozen years later would emerge as the pioneers and eventual icons of canonical twentieth century art.

Otis College of Art and Design gallery director Meg Linton has done something similar with In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor, the 2008 exhibition at Laguna Art Museum, and hence with the long-awaited 2009 catalogue of the same name published in association with Gingko Press, which reproduces most of the work from the show.

The exhibition takes its title from Robert Williams’ confrontational painting from 1968, a visually overcrowded rebuke to Marcel Duchamp and to the whole cerebral-conceptual approach to art. Coming out of the world of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s custom car shop and studio (“a hotbed for all sorts of irreverent, iconoclastic types,” as Laguna Art Museum director Bolton Colburn puts it), and emerging at the same time as the creators of the infamous Zap Comix, Williams championed a type of art that would eventually find its expression in his magazine, a publication he declared was meant to “stay below everyone’s dignity.”

There would be notorious and influential museum and gallery shows along the way to the birth of Juxtapoz in 1994. In 1987, Beyond Illustration: The New Pop, a portion of a category-breaking Tokyo museum exhibition, came to Otis Parsons College of Art and Design (which has since lost the “Parsons”). Featuring Robert Williams, Todd Schorr, Mark Mothersbaugh, Gary Panter and sixty-some others, it was an indication that the West Coast in particular was spawning a type of art that had little enough to do with the self-importance of the German return to figurative painting, or with Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger or Julian Schnabel, for that matter. Whether it was Anselm Kiefer’s darkly imagistic confrontation with history or Kruger’s sarcastic appropriation of old-school advertising photos, L.A.-and-environs was having none of it. (Cal Arts, of course, was a very different story, and yet a story that was conversant with word on the street alongside concept-laden theory—and it shows in the artists that Cal Arts turned out, then and now.)

In 1986, Billy Shire opened La Luz de Jesus Gallery of folk, fetish, and underground art on Melrose Avenue, and the rest is history. The appearance of Billy Shire Fine Arts in 2004 in Culver City certified the arrival of a movement that has acquired a permanent artworld place in tandem with what Shire calls his mission “to bring underground artists and counter culture to the masses”—and more importantly, to monied collectors.

Juxtapoz itself has evolved in pursuit of a diverse eclecticism, and Linton’s show is meant to show that the showy art that Juxtapoz has influenced is itself too diverse to be embraced by any single name or aesthetic school. But she mischievously chooses not to identify the superstars who appear alongside the ne’er-do-wells and the “mere illustrators,” and indeed in her selection it is impossible to sort out who is the sentimental illustrator, who the isolated self-taught visionary, and who the Whitney Biennial superstar. Who knew that Margaret Keane produced at least one painting that is scarier than many of the ones produced by her Pop Surrealist imitators?

Linton provides some of the key quotes from Williams’ many successive manifestoes: “Juxtapoz is made up of every loose nut and bolt that has fallen through the cracks of the formal art establishment, and if you look through the pages of this magazine you will find everything from sticker peddlers to cigarette-lighter salesmen, pin stripers to pornographers, high strung illustrators to wall defacers. What we are short on is conformity.” “It’s not a matter of good or bad. ‘Good or bad’ is over. It is now a matter of relative interests, the energy and pleasure (or pain) you get from interests relative to you. Whether you like it or not, we are all participants in a gaseous thought plasma of abstract modern art. How you react to it is all important, and you must understand if you get depressed over the nebulous lack of structure in the modern art world, you haven’t come to enjoy the freedoms that now exist in art. Just as it is now possible to declare body waste as art, there also exists a forum for very beautifully done meticulous works that can be free of otherwise liberal prejudices. All art is great—all art is shit. … Juxtapoz is simply trying to come up with art you won’t see in a more policed environment. We will deal with art that is considered meretricious, tawdry, sleazy, and commonly referred to by the name of the greatest architects of the 20th century, ‘Gaudy.’”

Linton wisely doesn’t put “[sic]” by the plural “architects” (which may not be Williams’ fault, since we find a reference to “Santa Moncia” in the catalogue) and lets the Anglicization of Gaudi for the sake of a pun slide by just as silently. Nor does she contextualize Williams’ frantic race to stay ahead of the curve of pleasurable offensiveness; for ever since the declaration of the age of pluralism in the 1970s, art has been engaged in a quest for high-style bad taste and trendiness, and the joke behind Manzoni’s canned excrement of the artist has long since been lost. For nearly two decades, critics and dealers and collectors have not only looked for gold in the outhouse, they have found it. And it has had genuine exchange value.

And Left Coast art led the way in that department. Systematic transgression has been the received piety of the world of art for so long that it took a Robert Williams to rouse protests against the gender-related political incorrectness of his paintings in the generally transgressive 1992 exhibition Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s.

Perhaps (or perhaps not) Linton’s parentheses should be noted in her description of the magazine’s pages as “filled with strong art: figurative, narrative imagery teeming with references to cartoons, animation, television, hot rods, pulp fiction, pornography (primarily heterosexual), rock posters, album covers, pin striping, tattoos, science fiction, fantasy, graffiti, propaganda, advertising, film, toys, and other pop culture paraphernalia from the urban street and the suburban cul-de-sac.”

Linton’s checklist of her chosen “artisans” (her word choice) gathers up work by Kara Walker (a shout-out, please, to the regrettably defunct Atlanta College of Art), David Sandlin, Thomas Woodruff, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jeff Soto, Manuel Ocampo, Masami Teraoka, Sue Coe, Liza Lou, Laurie Hogin, Wangechi Mutu, Coop, Shag, Dalek, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Christina Vergano, Gajin Fujita, Margaret Kilgallen, Raymond Pettibon, Savage Pencil, Kenny Scharf, Andres Serrano (one of the few photographers in the show, along with Witkin), Enrique Chagoya, and among the hundred and twenty or so artists not yet named in this list, Kevin Ancell, represented by Aloha Oe’s “motorized cast resin figures [of hula dancers] with weapons.”

Going from Roth’s bloodshot-eye cartoon to Tiffany Bozic’s Walton-Ford-like Untitled (Egrets and Fox), one feels like playing “which of these do not belong to this group.” But in this case, the range of representational diversity is the family resemblance, to borrow Wittgenstein’s antique category.

But as with family gatherings that range from siblings to kissin’ cousins, these are artists that may or may not play well together. They reference popular culture of one century or another, but that means everything from naïve portraiture from the Spanish Colonial period to 1930s margarine ads to J. J. Audubon’s Birds of America. It is all vivid, it is all narrative, but it varies in intent and in complexity from passing silliness to provocative philosophizing.

Shepard Fairey is represented by a diptych obverse-and-reverse of a banknote, more conceptually convoluted than his posters and stencil art, even though it incorporates Andre the Giant and “Obey” into Two Sides of Capitalism: Good (Red), Bad (Green). Fairey’s version of street art is as Juxtapozable as it gets, but the look of this work makes it more juxtaposable with some of its visual neighbors.

And indeed, Linton acknowledges the epochal influence of Marcia Tucker’s 1978 show “Bad” Painting in terms of the collapsing of distinctions between high and low. And many of the artists in that exhibition produced work that would never be confused with Robert Williams’ version of Lowbrow, even though some of them would have fitted right into the pages of Juxtapoz if the magazine had existed then.

Just as canonical art covers an immense range of sensibility, global pop culture and the art that springs from it does the same. There are forces, and there are counterforces, all at play in the same field.

The Los Angeles artists included in the 1987 exhibition Bad Influences opined that unlike the Pop artists who only referred to popular culture, they themselves had emerged “FROM the popular culture,” and they declared their work “Anti-Vague, Anti-Elite, and Entertaining.” But not all of the work in In the Land of Retinal Delights fits that rubric, which makes Linton’s show vague, differently elite, and entertaining.

But that means we still have work to do, with permission to have fun to have while we are doing it.

Jerry Cullum
February 8, 2009

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Dusty Look at Art Rosenbaum's New Digital Offering: Resources for the Post-Post-Postmodern Era

Art Rosenbaum and the Birth of the Post-Post-Postmodern

Atlanta’s NPR station WABE today featured an extended report on the folk music fieldwork of the visual artist and musician Art Rosenbaum, who has been traveling far afield indeed from his home base of Athens, Georgia in quest of the last survivors of traditional folk music.

Rosenbaum has tracked down one particularly memorable 92-year-old singer and comparable octo- and nonagenarians across America who learned traditional ballads from their elders and have carried on an unbroken strand of transmission that is now at its end in the age of digitized globalization. Sexagenarians grew up with television and rock and roll, and septuagenarians remember their childhood spent listening to music on the radio.

But Rosenbaum is capturing the heritage at the last possible moment, and thus it becomes fresh data for the age of digitized globalism. His second compilation of The Art of Field Recording has just had its launch party in Athens (see http://artrosenbaum.org/).

And thus the last remnants of a vanishing past have been recaptured as we balance on the edge of a future that is more uncertain than it looked not all that long ago.

A century ago, the world was at a similar though less generally predicted tipping point, socially, economically, technologically, and artistically. The artists of Der Blaue Reiter, responding to tensions and possibilities the larger society had scarcely even begun to imagine, were on the verge of publishing a magazine that juxtaposed South German folk paintings on glass with masks and sculptures from the Netherlands East Indies. Across the Channel, artists were casting off Victorian representations to reinvent visual forms in terms borrowed from cultures across the planet, and recovering bits of histories that their elders had lost track of long before, along with ones that no one had known for millennia. (The same went for their other contemporaries on the Continent. It was an age of great archaeological discoveries; the Venus of Willendorf was uncovered in 1908, and the designs on the artifacts of Schliemann’s Troy were there to influence Gustav Klimt. But nineteenth-century Egyptomania had yet to be revived by the discovery of the tomb of Tutenkhamun, and a good thing, too; Egypt had laid a heavy hand on the fashions of post-Napoleonic Europe, but commingled more lightly with the styles of the Jazz Age.)

Hugh Kenner wrote, regarding Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier’s reinvention of lost histories, that societies forget that for which they can find no present use; poets and artists who re-create that past are establishing a different past to fit a different present. Historians do the same, of course; historiography varies in its emphases from generation to generation, and the fictional component is perceived differently also; we are past the naïve belief that we can write it all down or even intuit it wie es eigentlich gewesen. (No "ist" after "gewesen"; there is an online discussion of Ranke's original quote that discusses the grammar of his very famous formulation.)

What does not change is the raw material. Nobody knew in 1909 that by 1919 most of the kings of Europe would be gone, the economy of the continent would be sunk in postwar debt and devastation, and large parts of the optimistic avant-garde of 1909 swept away by the intervening cataclysm. But (unlike in the greater cataclysm a quarter-century later) the cultural materials of history and of that avant-garde were still available for later re-inventions and fresh instigations.

And thus we have gone through the collapse of the modernist impulse circa 1965, the birth of postmodernism circa 1979, and the rapid collapse of postmodernism as a period style in the age of globalization, so thoroughly that by 1991 I was already writing about post-postmodernism.

Now the economic era inaugurated by Reagan and Thatcher appears to be behind us, and digital technology is advancing at a pace so accelerated that flexible screens developed for the military are there to be used when print newspapers are succeeded entirely by websites (assuming that the controlling enterprises do not go out of business in the next six months, leaving nothing for the websites compiling news reports to compile).

The arts are confronted with a challenge comparable to the one faced by modernism a century ago, and what emerges will have a different name entirely; three “post”s are three too many, and we are already talking, albeit with an ironic edge, about the “post-contemporary” in art and style.

But thanks to ol’ Art Rosenbaum, we have some raw material to sample and remix that we would never have had otherwise. Good for him.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

a Leanne Shapton addendum

For those of you who don't care about reading things in the proper sequence, this is a passage I've just added to the Important Artifacts review, with no guarantees that I won't keep tweaking:

For the sake of the story, enough personal items have to be included to convey character as well as event. Some of the items do seem improbable (that is one source of the book's subtle but abundant humor); but then the auction is meant to represent all the things that are gotten rid of at the end of a painful relationship, and both parties will later regret having deaccessioned some of them so rashly.

Hence the inclusion in Shapton’s auction items of a good many small heirlooms and substantial library items along with the love notes and conversational exchanges written on theatre programs. If her fictional Doolan and Morris had been archivally inclined or pack rats, there would have been no story. (And if Shapton herself weren’t so knowing in the ways of material culture, there wouldn’t have been a story, either.)

The regular dispersion of personal and family possessions constitutes a problem for the new academic discipline of material-culture studies: between the mobility of global society (whether from war or economic migration) and the rise of eBay, the material is always getting sold or abandoned.

All this hopelessly lost stuff is precisely the pile of debris that the Angel of History contemplates with such dismay in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (or in Laurie Anderson’s spoken-word recycling of same on Strange Angels). Only in moments of our own catastrophe do we perceive the human and physical wreckage we have left behind in the relentless march of what, according to Benjamin, we are pleased to call “progress.”

Auctions, thrift shops, and eBay complete the process by finding new owners for the detritus, covering the tracks of the crime by removing the evidence and finding a new use for what has become refuse, if not emotional toxic waste.

It is the function formerly performed by the ragpickers of Charles Baudelaire’s famous poem, a poetic analogy that Walter Benjamin recycled as productively as he did the frantic winged creature of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus..

So Shapton has given us underlying issues to think about as well as a story to piece together.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

that was me, in case you were wondering

Since Leanne Shapton and her publishers may be (ought to be) websearching for references to her Important Artifacts book, I guess I had better let them know that that review was by Jerry Cullum.

Leanne Shapton, Important Artifacts (and all the rest of a very long title)

A Book So Innovative, It Had to Wait for a New Administration

Not literally. It was coincidence that Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux) arrived in my mailbox on January 21, 2009.

And Shapton has defied convention before often enough, in her own work and as co-founder of J&L Books, with its bias towards the experimental. But this is the first time I can recall a novel presented as an auction catalogue.

Christian Boltanski has presented catalogues of all the personal possessions of an average individual before, and plenty of pop photonovellas have told stories through posed photography. But no one I can think of has presented the tale of the breakup of a relationship by way of the photographs and accompanying description of personal objects that the couple has put up for auction. ("Strachan & Quinn Auctioneers, Saturday, 14 February 2009, New York")

It is up to the reader to piece together the biographies of Doolan and Morris, with ample quantities of family data via heirlooms, the evolution of the relationship via an array of tchotchkes and cards and letters, and everything from stolen salt and pepper shakers to bras and T-shirts.

I should perhaps emphasize again the innovative qualities of this book, which actually stands in the lineage of books with narrative supplemented by photographs first made familiar in the English-reading world through translations of the novels of W. G. Sebald, and continued by the translation of Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

But those novels don’t depend on the intimate blend of words and visuals to the extent that this one does, much less require the assembly of the story (which, truth be told, is an all too familiar one) from the available evidence.

There are textual parallels to this book in the French nouvelle roman of half a century ago, and in some hypertext image-laden fictions of a decade or so back.

But Shapton has done something genuinely new (as far as I know) with the format, and something that is simultaneously innovative and thematically appropriate. The story involves the trajectory of a relationship between a columnist for the New York Times and a photographer, and includes the books each of them has chosen to acquire…so print and the visuality associated with print are part of the tale. Although the format could be posted online, the implicit narrative involves the world of print-media professionals and their deeper discontents. There is a vintage typewriter (self-consciously retro) in the auction, but laptops, like cameras, must have been among the items withdrawn from the sale.

For the sake of the story, enough personal items have to be included to convey character as well as event. Some of the items do seem improbable (that is one source of the book's subtle but abundant humor); but then the auction is meant to represent all the things that are gotten rid of at the end of a painful relationship, and both parties will later regret having deaccessioned some of them so rashly.

Hence the inclusion in Shapton’s auction items of a good many small heirlooms and substantial library items along with the love notes and conversational exchanges written on theatre programs. If her fictional Doolan and Morris had been archivally inclined or pack rats, there would have been no story. (If Shapton herself weren’t so knowing in the ways of material culture, there wouldn’t have been a story, either.)

The regular dispersion of personal and family possessions constitutes a problem for the new academic discipline of material-culture studies: between the mobility of global society (whether from war or economic migration) and the rise of eBay, the material is always getting sold or abandoned.

All this hopelessly lost stuff is precisely the pile of debris that the Angel of History contemplates with such dismay in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (or in Laurie Anderson’s spoken-word recycling of same on Strange Angels). Only in moments of our own catastrophe do we perceive the human and physical wreckage we have left behind in the relentless march of what, according to Benjamin, we are pleased to call “progress.”

Auctions, thrift shops, and eBay complete the process by finding new owners for the detritus, covering the tracks of the crime by removing the evidence and finding a new use for what has become refuse, if not emotional toxic waste.

It is the function formerly performed by the ragpickers of Charles Baudelaire’s famous poem, a poetic analogy that Walter Benjamin recycled as productively as he did the frantic winged creature of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus..

So Shapton has given us underlying issues to think about as well as a story to piece together.

And it’s a lovely read, and an engaging, convincing look. If there weren’t a photograph of Shapton herself in the back to let us know that she cannot possibly be the protagonist, we would be tempted to read this as a roman à clef in spite of the incorporation of an adroit reference to Duane Michals’ “This Photograph Is My Proof” to remind us that, as Michals said, “Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be."

The many among us who have been involved in creating photographic and textual fictions for our own entertainment will be overjoyed to see this happy marriage of verbal and visual fictions (a happier relationship than the one experienced by the protagonists…not exactly a spoiler, since the book’s accompanying blurbs tell you that already).

Many of the photographs are by Shapton’s partner in L&J Books, Jason Fulford, whose work is well-known to many of the readers of this weblog, as are the books that both of them produce.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

y'all probably already know this site....

One of the People Whom I Choose Not to Name (except when he is named, misleadingly in passing, on my other blog) kept a file of news clippings labeled, if I recall correctly, “Monstrously Interesting.”

The label had nothing to do with a pun on monsters; he lived in England, and the combination of the two words was meant to convey no more than “instructively odd.”

I have to assume that all my readers already know the monstrously interesting http://www.internetweekly.org since it is the sort of thing that au courant web surfers would indeed know already.

I can’t say that I like the particular humor of the site’s heavy-handed political satire (however much I agree with its sentiments) but the overall quality and imaginative range of the visuality is illuminating, or at least instructive.

The art by others that this site features represents influences that bridge the gap between the Juxtapoz Factor (subtitle of a catalogue from the Laguna Art Museum, about which I hope to publish a book review shortly) and the new-romantic art that I have been seeing a lot lately. I’ve become increasingly interested in knowing how one gets from the art that cynicizes the sentimental big-eyed kids of Margaret Keane to the well-nigh unironic earnestness of Pop Surrealism’s Keanesianism, and from there to the eroticism-lite of the new-romantic work that seems to marry Pre-Raphaelite paintings to children’s book illustrations (there are, of course, earlier bridge figures such as Edmund Dulac who unite the two; see the exhibition catalogue for The Age of Enchantment). Without meaning to do so, this website looks like a source for answering the question of what strands of visuality are out there in the popular imagination.

This is a cultural-studies approach to what is in the alternative-space galleries, but since I haven’t seen any scholarly studies worthy of the name, you gotta start somewhere.

I am not sure that this is the place, or the way, to start; as an instructor wrote long ago in the margin of one of my college essays, "These sentences are grammatically correct, but awfully complicated."

jocularities, or Bosch and the crisis

I had been meaning to post to Counterforces (and still will do so, someday, I hope) at length regarding the concurrent collapse of American newspapers and the larger implications of Google Books' digitizing of the contents of the world's libraries, plus the relationship of both to the financial crisis that is depriving us of traditional methods of correlating information at the very moment when we most need to have information correlated, and action coordinated.

But since I haven't yet written that post (even if I have just written that very long sentence), I refer you to a related fragment on my other blog (joculum.livejournal.com), whereon I have also posted a review of Kurt Falk's problematic book The Unknown Hieronymus Bosch, which should be regarded critically in terms of its approach but which contains illustrations of Bosch's oeuvre that will delight many of the readers of Counterforces. Next question.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

in lieu of a review of art, a book review from joculum

It is going to take way longer to write a proper review of the Young Movers and Shakers show at MOCA GA than it did to write this off-the-cuff review of George Steiner at the New Yorker, so I offer it instead for the moment (from my joculum blog):

Encountering the collected essays of George Steiner at the New Yorker is a bit like arriving with friends at a restaurant famed for its dessert menu: one wants to sample all the options concurrently, and as just as with the desserts, one may end up feeling slightly ill from one’s excess of self-indulgence.

Robert Boyers’ not-quite-flawless-but-close-enough selection of Steiner’s thirty years of extended review essays is a rich reminder of the verbal felicities of which Steiner was capable, which have often forsaken him during his descent into querulous retrospective mea culpa’s. Damn, but Steiner knew how to write well!

And he still does, when he takes the time and the Muse possesses him.

Steiner at his best, of course, channels the best of the best, both stylistically and conceptually. (Slight rising-tone accent on the second “of.”) Reading not quite at random, one wants to imitate the beginning of his essay on the late Guy Davenport (not “late” when he wrote about him, though far from early either) by indulging in the pleasures of selective quotation:

On Bertrand Russell (in this case, on what Steiner calls the “sinuous empiricism” of Russell’s 1914 Our Knowledge of the External World): “The problems raised are as old as Plato; this means that solutions attempted are less vulnerable to fashion than in other branches of philosophy. We are an epistemological animal, asking both whence and whither but knowing neither, unable to prove that we do not inhabit a long dream.”

On Simone Weil (in a tour-de-force of an opening gambit with which I disagree heartily, even as I admire its stylistic strategies): “She inhabited her body as if it were a condemned hovel.”

One could go on, but aesthetic indigestion would set in. Steiner at his best is downright Steinerian, the which of which there is no whicher (to more or less quote Alan Watts). Steiner at his worst is best described by the words with which he opens a review of Claude Lévi-Strauss: “Certain sentences in the book were right from the outset objects of legend and of parody.” (Notice how crucial to the sentence is the grammatically optional second “of,” and how badly the sentence would collapse if “right from the outset” were to be moved to the end or the beginning. Wow.)

Sometimes, we suspect that Steiner is just funnin’ us, as when his incomparably eloquent put-down of E. M. Cioran accomplishes its demolition work in terms that approach Cioran’s own exquisitely rhetorical bathos: “The quarrel with this kind of writing and pseudo-thinking is not one of evidence. … It is conceivable that human greed, the enigmatic necessities of mutual hatred which fuel both internal and external politics, and the sheer intricacy of economic-political problems may bring on catastrophic international conflicts, civil wars, and the inward collapse of aging as well as immature societies. We all know this. … Nor is it possible to refute an intuitive sense, a persuasive intimation, of a sort of nervous exhaustion, of entropy, in the inward resources of Western culture. We seem to be governed by more or less mendacious dwarfs and mountebanks. Our responses to crises display a certain somnambular automatism.” (Steiner was writing in 1984.)

But Steiner, who says his “own instincts are only marginally more cheerful” than “Cioran’s funeral sermon” (and anyone who has read In Bluebeard’s Castle would have to agree with these sentiments), has always given the anti-devil his due. The prospects for cultural and political renewal that are inherent in the horizons of fresh discovery don’t allow him to concur completely with Cioran’s self-consciously mocking assertion that “history itself is running down.”

At the same time, he mostly hates what is coming, even if it turns out to have its good side. As a result, he has missed a good many prospective benefits even as he analyzes incomparably what it is that we are losing.

He is the sort of guy who has inspired later American critics to recover a serious philosophy from the defense of both Mp3 and vinyl. And we read those critics’ Steinerian moments with equal pleasure.

One might quote regarding Steiner the passage regarding Kafka that Steiner quotes from a letter of Walter Benjamin: “Kafka eavesdropped on tradition, and he who listens hard does not see. … Kafka represents tradition falling ill.” But one would then have to quote Benjamin’s further words about Kafka, as quoted by Steiner: “This much Kafka was absolutely sure of: First, that someone must be a fool if he is to help; second, that only a fool’s help is real help. The only uncertain thing is: Can such help still do a human being any good?”

Steiner has listened hard, and both detected and embodied the radical decay of the tradition that Benjamin discerned in Kafka. And he has, in his time, mourned it as rhetorically as the thinkers whom he excoriates. But in his tendency to self-regarding seriousness, he has overlooked the dialectical spin that Benjamin and Kafka put on the problem: if only a fool’s help is real help, we will get little enough help from George Steiner, for whom self-aware foolishness is an alien notion.

But we will get an immense amount of insight, and insight is the first step towards real help.

Steiner’s own minimalized playfulness seems to have confused the editor of the book on at least one occasion: The essay title “One Thousand Years of Solitude” appears in italics as though it were reviewing a book of almost that name, whereas the essay is actually about Salvatore Satta’s Il Giorno del Giudizio, a title that the essay cites both in italics and quotation marks. I suspect that the editor was tripped up by the old magazine habit of placing book titles in quotation marks. (I wonder if this habit began when one had to mark up italicized passages with clumsy bracketed instructions to the machine to “set in italic” and “stop setting in italic,” making it easier to substitute the two keystrokes of quotation marks for the seven keystrokes required to indicate “italics.” The compositor’s reach for the adjacent California job case (or other style of type tray before there was a California), in the days of hand-typesetting, was less likely to create errors than a single mistyped keystroke at the end of a command.)

By the way, “One Thousand Years of Solitude” is actually a review of The Day of Judgment, Patrick Creagh’s translation of Satta’s book, which to Steiner’s ear fails to reproduce Satta’s “marmoreal ferocity, the slow fire inside the stone.”

The quick, monosyllabically expressed metaphor that follows the heavy rhythms of its Latinate companion is a stylistic strategy best remembered from Shakespeare (the standard citation being “the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red”). It is a reminder that Steiner has gotten his chops from the greatest stylists of eight or nine languages (I am fairly certain as to seven of them), and it shows. Those of us who have mastered at most the several vernaculars of our one native tongue can only gasp with admiration. Those who have mastered all the languages in question may be in a position to imitate his example.