Friday, October 31, 2008
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
There is usually much disagreement in Goethe Girl's household when it comes to movies, but last night we both enjoyed the film All My Good Countrymen, made by the Czech director Vojtech Jasny back in 1968. Since it concerns the changes wrought in a Moravian village in the decades after World War II, in particular the Sovietization of life, it was immediately banned right after it was made. Jasny himself, like a million of his countrymen, left for the West after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Hard to believe, but the Prague Spring was 50 years ago
The film was in the "New Wave" style of European movie-making (or La Nouvelle Vague) of the 1950s and 1960s, what Wikipedia refers to as filmmaking linked by its self-conscious rejection of classical cinematic form. Translated, that means the films can be unbearable to watch (Jean-Luc Godard), but there are exceptions, Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut being among my favorites. I particularly like Rohmer's talky movies of contemporary social manners.
The movie was visually captivating. Jasny has said that he had the paintings of Breughel in mind. The scene of a dance in the village seemed directly taken from "The Wedding Dance" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The hero of the movie, the villager who will not go along with the communists and whom they continually try to break, is often seen in his fields scything, as in the Bruegel painting "Harvesting."
All My Good Countrymen takes place over the course of ten years, beginning in 1945, and concerns the creeping destruction of social bonds, the selling out and the betrayals among a group of friends as they seek to survive communist rule. We know that there are still people who believe the communist dream can be salvaged, and Jasny confirmed in an interview that the Italian film director Luchino Visconti initially declined to recommend All My Good Countrymen for viewing at Cannes because of its negative view of communism. No doubt about it, communism exercised a reverse Midas touch. The first thing the comrades do is appropriate the farmstead of the richest farmer in order to turn it into a cooperative farm. Naturally it fails.
For me the movie was of interest for the view it offered of a now-disappeared way of life, which one could still see when I was a student in Germany in the 1960s. In a way it allowed a measure of how far the world had "progressed" in the last fifty years, by which I mean become materially affluent. Much has been lost, no doubt about it. In a sense, affluence has made us less adult-like.
Picture: Radio Praha
Friday, October 24, 2008
I've been meaning to post for days, but preparation for the paper I am to give in November in Pittsburgh, at the conference of the Goethe Society of North America, is taking precedence. Still, as I was leaving the Metropolitan Museum today, leaving by the underground entrance, I encountered these boxes and could not resist posting the pictures below.
They are the packing cartons for the Jeff Koons installation "Balloon Dog (Yellow)." I would definitely say that Jeff Koons does not take himself too seriously, though it is clear that lots of work has gone into this piece. Note that each body part -- right ear, tail, snout, neck and nose knot, and so on -- has its own carton. Afterward, I went up to the Roof Garden and took a picture of the work before it was disassembled. (The installation closes on Sunday.) And naturally I did the tourist thing and had a picture taken of myself.
Friday, October 17, 2008
The above work of art, an 18th-century Italian porcelain sculpture depicting the River Nile, is one of the reasons I so love the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spend a lot of time there, as a consultant, but sometimes I have only a few minutes to spare to for the art: we modern people are always running to our next appointment! But at the Met you do not have to look far to find an object that puts your heart at rest, drives all other concerns from your mind, and also gives you pleasure. Such is the effect of this allegorical work, which you can see in a really professional photograph and also read about here. I was particularly delighted by the 16 little babies climbing all over the river good. The number 16 refers to the ideal height of 16 cubits that the Nile rose annually, ensuring the fertility represented by the cornucopia.
I mentioned in my earlier posting ("Subprime Art?") Schiller's concept of Spieltrieb (the impulse to play), which seems to me well evoked by the small detail of the alligator. You can see the alligator's teeth and the god's big toes. Are these detail necessary? No, but they add to the pleasure you feel when viewing this object, much as the little guys tormenting the alligator seem to feel.
Now, according to Schiller, pictured here in a very noble representation by Gerhard von Kügelgen, modern man (and woman, too!) is divided in his essential nature: civilization (work, raising a family, all the responsibilities of life) is at odds with our desire to escape from responsibility. Our reason tells us we have to make the necessary accommodations to live in the world, in order to keep a roof over our head, gas in the car, and food in the refrigerator. Our sensuous nature urges us to escape the frustrations and irritations that such responsibilities induce in us. Some people watch TV all the rest of the hours of the day; some indulge in pornography or shop until they drop. Obviously some people lean more toward one side than the other.
Writing in The Aesthetic Letters, Schiller proposed the idea that art could help us to bring the two sides of ourselves into a more rewarding harmony. Art, in the form Schiller envisioned, should not be about reality, much as the sculpture of the Nile River god is not about any reality that has ever been experienced. Thus, when you look at that sculpture, if only for a few minutes, you are not being reminded of politics or of the war in Iraq or of the inequities of the world. Instead, the Spieltrieb comes into play, so to speak. It reminds us that, for the moment anyway, we are free of those burdensome duties. It is a great place to escape to. Applied often, it makes us more appreciative of life, despite its shortcomings. Of course, there are artists who believe it is their role to make us aware of contemporary realities, but the art they produce is a form of propaganda, made with color or plastic or whatever. Pleasure is the furthest thing they want us to feel, for it makes us forget that the world (so they think) is really a terrible place.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Annie Dillard is one of my favorite memoirists, even if American Childhood, evoking a rather patrician coming of age, is misnamed. So, I thought I would try her new novel, The Maytrees, out on the book group.
The novel is about a couple, Lou and Toby Maytree. The story begins when they fall in love shortly after World War II. The place is Provincetown on Cape Cod. They marry, have a child, and love grows year by year. After fourteen years, however, when Toby is forty-two, he runs off with another woman. His leaving Lou is novelistically under-motivated, and the twenty years he spends with the other woman is in the nature of a "moral correction" since he had not really stopped loving Lou. He had just underestimated the hard work of loving. Such are the bare bones of a story that is as much about the natural world of the Cape as it is about Lou and Toby. The larger backdrop is that of time and eternity, as the dunes on which they spend their time are constantly besieged and reformed by the sea .
As I read, I couldn't help thinking of the writings of Virginia Woolf and of Marilynne Robinson, author of the cult novel Housekeeping. Both are what I would call "women writers."
What do I mean by that? In place of emotions -- say, anger, when Lou is abandoned by Toby, or "Maytree" as he is called throughout -- we have contemplation. After a visit from a friend, Cornelius, she decides to stop "poisoning herself" with anger. We have to take Dillard's word for it, however, since we never see Lou reacting with anger:
"After Cornelius left she climbed the steep street to Pilgrim Monument. She mounted the monument stairs in her camel's hair coat and red earmuffs. From the top she look at flat sky, flat sea, and flat land. She was ready to stop this. Thereby she admitted -- barely -- that she could choose to stop. For one minute by her watch, she imagined liking Maytree impartially. For only one minute by her watch she saw him for himself. That day, having let go one degree of arc only, for one minute, she sighted relief. Her was something she could do. She could climb the monument every day and work on herself as a task. She had nothing else to do. Their years together were good. He was already gone. All she had to do for peace was let him go."
And that's what Lou works on doing -- letting go -- for the next twenty years. She paints a little, lets go her ties to people she doesn't like. She imitates Diogenes "who shaved half his head so he would stay home to think. ... She took pains to keep outside the world's aceleration. ... A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail."
Pretty, yes, but the emotional life on view here reminds me of the brain scans of people on life support. This is what I mean by saying that Toby's abandonment seems so under-motivated; we don't see what drives him into the arms of the other woman. This is the only insight we have into his emotions: "Had he stopped loving Lou? Not at all. His abiding heart-to-heart with Lou merely got outshouted." This is a very high-minded sensibility, accompanied by lots of words to substitute for the portrayal of emotions. They are interesting words (shims, alewife, kapok, thigmotropic, spicules, zebus, pauciloquy, epistomeliac, to name a few), along with arresting imagery ("He failed to still his bilge. He could replace its slosh with only more slosh"), particularly of the sea and heavens. This method is Woolf's and Robinson's, too.
One of the first attacks on the sexism of modern male novelists and on the so-called patriarchy was that of Kate Millett in a book called Sexual Politics. It made quite a stir when it appeared in 1970. Among the male writers she criticized was D.H. Lawrence. In Sons and Lovers, however, you know how the woman feels about things, her disappointment, her bitterness, her love for her son. There is an empathy you feel with characters like the mother, something you also have in novels by Jane Austen or George Eliot. The writings of Virginia Woolf have introduced something weak in the portrayal of human emotion.
More on this perhaps later. In the meantime, Carol Iannone has a view concerning the "woman's perspective in literature."
Christine de Pisan picture credit: Ellen Moody
Saturday, October 11, 2008
When I started this blog, I intended it to focus on my own writing and scholarship. Instead, art seems to have taken over. Well, I guess that is okay, since Goethe, after all, initially dreamed of being an artist. It was only when he was in his mid-30s, ten years after the success of The Sorrows of Young Werther, that he finally realized that he would have to give up that dream. This occurred during his years in Rome (see picture at head of this blog), when his closest acquaintances were German artists. He remained all his life an Augenmensch, which I think probably describes me, too. I notice everything. The above pictures show one of the reasons I go to the galleries: to see the interesting people, including "King of Fashion" Prince William III. But I am also interested in the ethos of our time, in what engages people. Some of it is represented in the Chelsea art scene, or what passes these days for art.
To my eyes there is little that I would describe with that ancient, hallowed word, though you occasionally come across a painter who possesses a high degree of craftsmanship. When you see such work, you think, "Yes, there is real artistry there." For the most part, however, the mediocrity of the works, the level of which doesn't even reach to that of art school, is what most strikes me, and I can only wonder what the galleries are getting out of the arrangement. What are the economies of scale here? Is anything actually being sold? I have yet to see an article, say, in the Village Voice (well, I haven't read it since the Dinkins administration) or The New Republic that addresses this issue. And even in the case of works that show craftsmanship, they are often tendentious and lack any aspiration toward beauty (I know that beauty is hopelessly outmoded these days) or any personal compelling vision. (My husband's cooking combines both beauty and craft.)
There is, however, one exception to the compelling vision thing, and it expresses itself politically. We saw two shows last night that were overtly political. One was hackneyed, which most such displays are; a lot of work had gone into the other -- and it exhibited craft as well.
Let me start with the second, at the Robert Steele Gallery on 511 West 25th Street. First off, it has to be said that the coolest people were at this gallery: good-looking girls, interesting types, and some nice clothes, too.
The gallery is brightly lit, and the walls were filled with almost identically sized drawings extending in a single row along the four walls. Right away I could see there was talent here, but I also sensed that something was being expressed here. But what? I couldn't put my finger on it, but I thought it might be political. Rick came up to me a few minutes later and said "Disaster, Republican landscapes."
Yes, I replied, that is what it suggests. Later I discovered that such was indeed the name of the show! Well, Republicans and the president have been so demonized for the last eight years that this is obviously a trendy theme for an artist, one that the rather young crowd in Chelsea (not book readers for the most part, I would bet) can "get" quickly.
Ed Smith was present. He looks like a manly man, in contrast to so many of the males one sees in the gallery scene. His work is good, too; it is above the level of pure agitprop. I didn't talk to him, however, for I really didn't want to know what compelled him to devote so much time to putting what appeared to be his rage on the walls. The rage is at odds with the good-looking people at the gallery. Rage, however, is part of the ethos of our time (but do people want to hang it on their walls?). It is an element of contemporary virtue.
The other political show, at the Charles Cowles Gallery, featured the most awful series of huge panels depicting (so the press release) "the leading administration officials and politicians involved in the various stages of justifying the invasion of Iraq to the world community." And there, when we entered, was Donald Rumsfeld getting ready for his date with the camera. Duh. The "artist," Xiaoze Xie, originally from China (the irony: he has left a country where he would go to jail if he exhibited such stuff), has traveled 8,000 miles to mount this colossal waste of effort. Who will be interested in this agitprop in 10 years? The current political "art" is simply an extension of the demonization of conservatism that occurs in the classroom. It is triumphalist and gives some people a sense of being in the know.
Thus, it was somewhat of a relief to turn to something whimsical, which was to be found at
the P.P.O.W. Gallery, which, as usual, had a huge crowd, this time for Thomas Woodruff's "Solar System" series, based (believe it or not, on Gustav Holst's The Planet Suite). I don't think I could bear to have any of these paintings (again, much craftsmanship here) hanging in my house, but people were having a good time.
Ten minutes there, and it was time to go elsewhere.
Fredericks & Freiser Gallery also has lots of cool people, but not the well-dressed types you see at Robert Steele. It featured a show called "Midnight in the Empire" (would that be the Republican/George Bush Empire?), with works by an artist named Zak Smith. Below is one of Zak Smith's works. I didn't meet him, but I suspect he is the pissed-off guy in the small photo to the left, since the beautiful girl beside him looks so much like the figure on the right in the painting below:
Okay ... what is it with all these tattoos? Unlike at the Robert Steele Gallery, Zak Smith's show was attended by lots of folks with tattoos.
Finally, here is one of those cool mirrors that I love, by Yuichi Higashionna at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Is it art? The artist calls it "an exploration of domestic kitch." I don't know, but it made me happy to see it. There is a lot of playfulness here, similar to that in work by Martin Puryear, who was featured in a large show last year at the Museum of Modern Art. When I saw Puryear's work, I thought of Schiller's ideas concerning the absolutely "free" nature of art: it serves no purpose, and reminds us of our own freedom. The only thing it calls attention to is its own making, and, as with Puryear, I was charmed by what Higashionna has wrought.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Here is an incipient mackerel sky, looking south from the Great Lawn of Central Park in Manhattan. It should mean we have rain tomorrow: "Mackerel sky, mackerel sky. Never long wet and never long dry." In German, however, it has a different name, namely, "sheep skies." Here is from a poem of Goethe's, from 1817, inspired by the cloud classifications of the English cloud watcher Luke Howard (born in London 1772):
And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father's breast.