Danto on the Whitney Biennial

Arthur Danto on the 2006 Whitney Biennial, “Day for Night”, in The Nation:

The Biennial 2006 is in one sense exemplary: It gives a very clear sense of what American art is in the early twenty-first century. American art has been increasingly autonomous in recent times, and in large part concerned with the nature of art as such. To be sure, it has explored issues of identity politics and multiculturalism, and sometimes worn its political virtues on its sleeve. But gestures like Serra’s reflect artistic decisions, not something in the culture that the art passively mirrors. Even at its most political, the art here does not project much beyond the conditions of its production.

It would thus be a mistake to look to “Day for Night” for a reflection of the spirit of our time, much less a critique of what is wrong with the state of the world. By raising such expectations, “Day for Night” sets itself up for failure–through no fault of the art on view. Much of the work is smart, innovative, pluralistic, cosmopolitan, self-critical, liberal and humane. It might not aspire to greatness, or take much interest in beauty or in joy. But in general, the art in the Biennial mirrors a better world than our own, assuming, that is, it mirrors anything at all. Indeed, if contemporary art were a mirror in which we could discern the zeitgeist, the overall culture would have a lot going for it. The art doesn’t tell us that it is not morning in America, and we don’t need it to. We know that by watching the evening news.

Bellini’s Portraits of the Ottoman Sultan

In the Guardian, Orhan Pamuk writes about Gentile Bellini’s portraits of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II.

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…Gentile Bellini’s “voyage east” and the 18 months he spent in Istanbul as “cultural ambassador” that is the subject of the small but rich exhibition at the National Gallery. Though it includes many other paintings and drawings by Bellini and his workshop, as well as medals and various other objects that show the eastern and western influences of the day, the centrepiece of the exhibition is, of course, Gentile Bellini’s oil portrait of Mehmed the Conqueror. The portrait has spawned so many copies, variations and adaptations, and the reproductions made from these assorted images have gone on to adorn so many textbooks, book covers, newspapers, posters, bank notes, stamps, educational posters and comic books, that there cannot be a literate Turk who has not seen it hundreds if not thousands of times.

No other sultan from the golden age of the Ottoman empire, not even Suleyman the Magnificent, has a portrait like this one. With its realism, its simple composition, and the perfectly shaded arch giving him the aura of a victorious sultan, it is not only the portrait of Mehmed II, but the icon of an Ottoman sultan, just as the famous poster of Che Guevara is the icon of a revolutionary. At the same time, the highly worked details – the marked protrusion of the upper lip, the drooping eyelids, the fine feminine eyebrows and, most important, the thin, long, hooked nose – make this a portrait of a singular individual who is none the less not very different from the citizens one sees in the crowded streets of Istanbul today. The most famous distinguishing feature is that Ottoman nose, the trademark of a dynasty in a culture without a blood aristocracy.

Darcy’s Secret Society

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society has been receiving more attention, in Time Out New York and The New York Times. Having seen them a few times, all I can say is if you haven’t, you should. You can finding listings of their next gigs, and recordings of some of the pieces, over at the Secret Society blog. From the Times:

DARCY JAMES ARGUE’S SECRET SOCIETY (Tuesday [April 18th]) As the name implies, this 18-piece big band is calibrated for maximum intrigue, with a sound that suggests Steve Reich minimalism as well as orchestral jazz in the lineage of Bob Brookmeyer (one of Mr. Argue’s mentors). The ranks of the band include such hale improvisers as the trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, the tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin and the trombonist Alan Ferber. 10 p.m., Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery, between Houston and Bleecker Streets, Lower East Side, (212) 614-0505; cover, $12. (Nate Chinen)

big bang

Cosmologists like big ideas. After all, their chosen subject is nothing less than the universe itself – how did it start, what is it made of and how will it end? Some of these big ideas have catchy names, such as the big bang, but others are more prosaic. However, these names can be misleading. Cosmic inflation, for example, might sound dull, but it is actually one of the boldest ideas in the history of physics and astronomy.

In a nutshell, inflation is the term used to describe an extremely short period of turbocharged expansion that happened immediately after the big bang. Moreover, after years of trying, astrophysicists have just reported the first experimental evidence that inflation actually happened. Charles Bennett of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and co-workers made the breakthrough after a painstaking analysis of three years of data from the WMAP satellite.

more from The Guardian here.

sorta realism

Kuspit451s

F. Scott Hess appears in many of his paintings — perhaps most provocatively in The Painter and His Daughter (2003) and Riverbed (2004) — suggesting that they are all self-portraits in principle. In Time, Mind and Fate (all 2005), the mature, hard-eyed Hess appears in softer surrogate form, without his Mephistophelean goatee and moustache, as though he were a callow youth just starting his career as a painter (the clean-shaven painter pictured is, in fact, Hess’ student) and thus innocent as to the ways of the art world rather than a seasoned veteran of its wars, holding his own in it. Hess has described himself as a “reluctant realist,” and realism is not a fashionable position, suggesting that Hess casts himself as an alienated outsider, all the more so because his realism is grounded in Old Master craft and intelligence. And, even more subtly, in an Old Master formalism — more complicated, devious and expressively insinuating than modernist formalism — that informs the narratives which mask it. For Hess is as much a formalist — and a not-so-reluctant one, as I hope to show — as a realist. Like Old Master realism, Hess’ realism speaks in symbolic tongues and formal paradoxes, which is not exactly to speak plainly.

more from Donald Kuspit at artnet magazine here.

population bomb?

For decades, the world has been haunted by ominous and recurrent reports of impending demographic doom. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s neo-Malthusian manifesto, The Population Bomb, predicted mass starvation in the 1970s and ’80s. The Limits to Growth, published by the global think tank Club of Rome in 1972, portrayed a computer-model apocalypse of overpopulation. The demographic doom-saying in authoritative and influential circles has steadily continued: from the Carter administration’s grim Global 2000 study in 1980 to the 1992 vision of eco-disaster in Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance to practically any recent publication or pronouncement by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

What is perhaps most remarkable about the incessant stream of dire—and consistently wrong—predictions of global demographic overshoot is the public’s apparently insatiable demand for it. Unlike the villagers in the fable about the boy who cried wolf, educated American consumers always seem to have the time, the money, and the credulity to pay to hear one more time that we are just about to run out of everything, thanks to population growth. The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s disaster tale both sold millions of copies. More recently, journalist Robert D. Kaplan created a stir by trumpeting “the coming anarchy” in a 2000 book of the same name, warning that a combination of demographic and environmental crises was creating world-threatening political maelstroms in a variety of developing countries. Why, of all people, do Americans—who fancy themselves the world’s pragmatic problems-solvers—seem to betray a predilection for such obviously dramatic and unproved visions of the future?

more from The Wilson Quarterly here.

old radicals

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Taken together, the works selected by Verso embody the creation and development of a dissenting tradition that set out to question and subvert the established order. Yet while this was once the prin-cipal strength of these thinkers, it has become something of an Achilles heel. A collective reading exposes all that has gone wrong with radical thought in the 20th century. Traditions, and intellectual traditions in particular, rapidly ossify and degenerate into obscurantism. They have to be constantly refreshed, renovated and reinvented. It is time that radical thought broke out of its confining structures. It is time to put Adorno’s anxieties about mass culture and media to rest; to move forward from Baudrillard’s and Derrida’s postmodern relativism to some notion of viable social truth; and for criticism to stop messing about with signs and signifiers, and instead confront the increasing tendency of power towards absolutism.

more from the New Statesman here.

The Agony of Defeat

From Science:Swimmr

The summer Olympics only come around every four years, and for elite athletes vying for a spot on their national teams, failure to qualify can be crushing. Now, researchers have taken a look at how the brain deals with dashed Olympic dreams. Their findings hint at a possible explanation for why athletes who’ve suffered tough losses often have a hard time getting back on top of their game.

Not surprisingly, the swimmers rated their own videos more wrenching to watch. And their brains showed signs of their emotional pain, with heightened activity in the parahippocampus and other emotion-related areas that have been implicated in depression. (None of the swimmers had a prior history of depression). Moreover, the premotor cortex–a region that plans actions such as the arm and body movements needed to swim–seemed to be inhibited when the swimmers watched their bad race, the researchers reported here 9 April at a meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. To Davis, this suggests that bummed out athletes might perform poorly because their premotor cortex isn’t sufficiently fired up.

More here.

The Man Behind Bovary

From The New York Times:Bovary_1

Novelists should thank Gustave Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it begins again with him. He is the originator of the modern novel. Take the following passage, in which Frédéric Moreau, the hero of “Sentimental Education,” wanders through the Latin Quarter, alive to the sights and sounds of Paris: “At the back of deserted cafes, women behind the bars yawned between their untouched bottles; the newspapers lay unopened on the reading-room tables; in the laundresses’ workshops the washing quivered in the warm draughts. Every now and then he stopped at a bookseller’s stall; an omnibus, coming down the street and grazing the pavement, made him turn round; and when he reached the Luxembourg he retraced his steps.” This was published in 1869, but might have appeared in 1969; many, perhaps most, novelists still sound essentially the same. Flaubert scans the streets indifferently, it seems, like a camera. Just as when we watch a film we no longer notice what has been excluded, so we no longer notice what Flaubert chooses not to notice. And we no longer notice that what he has selected is not of course casually scanned but quite savagely chosen, that each detail is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness. How superb and magnificently isolate the details are — the women yawning, the unopened newspapers, the washing quivering in the warm air. Flaubert is the greatest exponent of a technique that is essential to realist narration: the confusing of the habitual with the dynamic.

More here.

Friday, April 14, 2006

And Still More on Mearsheimer and Walt

The responses and counter-responses to Mearsheimer and Walt’s controversial LRB piece on “The Lobby” (AIPAC) continue. This week’s include ones from Alan Dershowitz, Frank Solomon, and Robert Pfaltzgraff. There is also a comment on the affair by the editors of the London Review. (Mearsheimer and Walt are scheduled to respond next week.)

[The Editors]:Besides those published here and in the last issue, we have received a great many letters in response to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s piece – not all of them edifying, though we haven’t received any death threats, as one correspondent from New Jersey feared we would. There have been a number of accusations of anti-semitism, as Mearsheimer and Walt predicted, and some very unpleasant remarks about Arabs, but also dozens of messages praising the article. Most readers understood that Mearsheimer and Walt were writing about US foreign policy and its effects on the Middle East, though there have also been a few congratulatory messages of an anti-semitic nature. The letters accusing Mearsheimer and Walt of having written an ‘anti-semitic rant’ and those congratulating them for having exposed a ‘secret Jewish’ – or, as one individual felt the need to spell it, ‘J E W I S H’ – ‘conspiracy’ have something in common: they come from people who appear not to have read the piece, and who seem incapable of distinguishing between criticism of Israeli or US government policy and anti-semitism.

We don’t usually publish letters of simple praise, which meant that only letters putting the case against Mearsheimer and Walt appeared in the last number of the LRB. This led one correspondent to write: ‘Your obvious slant in the letters you have chosen to publish regarding the Israel Lobby establishes, once again, that Israeli apologists are alive and well and living at the London Review of Books.’ It may be impossible to write or publish anything relating to Israel without provoking accusations of bias.

What to Do About Jammu and Kashmir

In Frontline (India), Praveen Swami on the stagnating Indo-Pakistani dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir.

LITTLE pamphlets fluttered down into the small Pakistani towns of Wana and Miranshah in March, exhorting local residents to support the armed forces in their struggle against a resurgent Taliban. “This war is against foreign terrorists and their harbourers who are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Jews and Hindus against the state of Pakistan,” the air-dropped leaflets read.

What do leaflets in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the India-Pakistan dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir have to do with each other? A good deal. In recent weeks, it has become clear that the dialogue process is starting to reach that place so familiar to its participants – impasse. Confidence-building measures like the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service seem to be running out of steam. In March, the first bus service in a month attracted just four passengers from Jammu and Kashmir. On the political front, Islamist terror groups are yet to join the dialogue. And while both India and Pakistan support out-of-the-box solutions, neither side can seem to agree on exactly what these innovations might be.

All of this has made General Pervez Musharraf’s calls for the demilitarisation of parts of Jammu and Kashmir hugely attractive. A grand Indian gesture, demilitarisation advocates argue, would breathe life into the dialogue, compel terrorist groups to declare a reciprocal ceasefire, and enable the Pakistani President to shoo away the Islamist hawks who are circling the skies, waiting to prey on the remains of the peace process. Should India fail to do so, some experts have warned, the uniform-wearing Islamists who prepared the pamphlets could seize power, and bring a summary end to detente with India.

Is demilitarisation, then, the sensible next step ahead on the road to peace?

A Profile of Ségolène Royal

Der Spiegel profiles Ségolène Royal, quite possibly the next President of France.

220pxsegolene_royal_1Until recently, the idea of having a female president would have been inconceivable in France. But popular Royal, 52, could very well succeed in becoming the first woman to lead the country following next spring’s elections. One of the arguments in her favor is the conservative administration’s ongoing problem with its “first-time employment contract” for young people entering the work force. President Jacques Chirac’s authority is diminished, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has been publicly humiliated and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to use the situation to capitalize on his role as a mediator. The fact that the government withdrew the law last Friday and will now have to draft new legislation has hurt the entire conservative movement. This makes life easier for the opposition, and Royal is practically guaranteed an automatic boost to her popularity.

Despite her excellent prospects, Royal is an extremely unlikely contender for the country’s highest office. She is the unmarried mother of two sons and two daughters. She has been a member of the Socialist Party (PS) since 1978, and yet she has never managed to put together her own team. She has spent years gathering experience in the Ministries of the Environment, Education, Family and Childhood and the Handicapped, and yet she was considered a political lightweight until only recently.

She also happens to have a personal handicap. Her life partner and the father of her children, Socialist Party leader François Hollande, is also a potential candidate to succeed current President Jacques Chirac.

Implications of the “Gospel of Judas”

Hitchens’ take on Judas Iscariot in light of the new gnostic text, in Slate:

The Judas gospel would make one huge difference if it was accepted. It would dispel the centuries of anti-Semitic paranoia that were among the chief accompaniments of the Easter celebration until approximately 30 years after 1945, when the Vatican finally acquitted the Jews of the charge of Christ-killing. But if Jesus had been acting consistently and seeking a trusted companion who could facilitate his necessary martyrdom, then all the mental and moral garbage about the Jewish frame-up of the Redeemer goes straight over the side.

Remember that Christians are supposed to believe that everybody is responsible for the loneliness and torture of Calvary, and for the failure to appreciate the awful blood sacrifice until it was too late. In living memory, the Catholic Church invoked the verses where the Jews called for this very blood to be, not just upon their own heads, but upon their every succeeding generation. (This sinister fable occurs in only one of the four authorized Gospels, but it was enough—and Mel Gibson recently coined himself 40 million pieces of silver by attempting to revive it.)

Now ask yourself, why did the church take so long to exculpate the Jews as a whole from the collective and heritable charge of “deicide”? It ought to have been simple enough to determine that the Sanhedrin of the time, whatever it may have done, could not have bound all Jews for all eternity. The answer is equally simple: If Christianity had to excuse one group of humans from everlasting blood-guilt, how could it avoid excusing them all?

When TV goes DVD

Sam Anderson in Slate on watching TV shows on DVDs.

Over the past few years, however, we have witnessed the end of simultaneity: everyone lives in different cultural time zones. Retro-watching has become big business. TV on DVD (can we agree to call it “TVD”?) has boomed into a $4 billion industry. And since 2000, when the first full season TVD came out—Season 1 of The X-Files, seven years after it originally aired—the show-to-disc lag has been steadily shrinking. HBO DVDs used to trail their shows by at least two years—now they come out before the next season airs. Falling behind isn’t a minority position anymore, it’s a legitimate first-time viewing strategy. Thanks to TVD (along with newer technologies like DVR and on-demand cable), the first broadcast of a show has lost its old magic—around 60 percent of The Sopranos’ DVD audience, for instance, doesn’t subscribe to HBO. Most of my friends are still scattered, with little sense of cultural loss, throughout Six Feet’s first four seasons.

But (to adapt Six Feet’s ad copy), everything everyone everywhere ends—at least eventually. After eight months, my Six Feet gap finally closed: Last week, the final season reached its second-wave DVD audience. I took full advantage of the medium shift, tearing through the entire season in three days—15 times faster than its original viewers.

western blues

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Many people claim that Peckinpah did not understand what Sergio Leone was doing in languorous Westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West, but Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid proves that assessment wrong. It is a Western set at a slow blues tempo in which melancholic introspection is paced by vengeful or offhanded violence. Garrett takes his time hunting the Kid, hoping the fugitive will leave the United States for Mexico but knowing that’s doubtful. Frustrated and progressively alienated from everyone, Garrett builds up and focuses his rage incrementally. James Coburn, in perhaps his most impressive performance, portrays him as a lonely man whose doubts are drowned in alcohol. Full of painful guilt and self-disdain, Garrett finally does the bloody deed and rides away alone, with a child throwing rocks at him. He’s mournfully resentful of his circumstances and his choices, having taken the assignment from men for whom he had no respect and called “big pecker heads” to their faces.

more from Stanley Crouch at slate.com here.

rule number one was to kill. there was no rule number two

To call the child fighters of Africa “soldiers” is like calling Auschwitz a detention center: It’s factually true, but misses the point. Children have always been victims of war, and child soldiers are not a modern invention. But what we have seen in the recent civil wars in places like Uganda, Liberia, and Sierra Leone is something new. These wars are, first, fought almost entirely against unarmed civilians; they are marked by massacres, not battles. Second, they have no discernible political purpose, unless seizing power, stealing booty, and inflicting terror can be called political, which I don’t think they can. (I challenge anyone to define, or even discover, the political program of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front.) Most of all, tens of thousands of children, often in their teens but sometimes younger than ten, have been conscripted into these wars, stuffed with powerful drugs, and repeatedly forced to commit atrocities—including mutilation, rape, and murder—against civilians, other children, and even their own families. At the same time, child soldiers are often, themselves, victims of these crimes, with young girls in particular used as sex slaves by the adults for whom they fight. There is good reason why, given the West’s history of colonial exploitation and racism, we hesitate to use the word barbarism in relation to Africa. But in this case that hesitation shouldn’t last too long.

more from Bookforum here.

don and packer

Timothy Don: On page 448 of The Assassins’ Gate, you write, “The war was always winnable; it still is.” I’d like to ask you about each of those claims, starting with the second. What would winning look like, at this point? Is one of the fundamental principles of liberal democracy a separation of church and state? And if, as it increasingly seems to be looking, Iraq is going to end up with a theocracy of some sort, would that be considered a “win”? Would Kanan Makiya, for example, consider that a “win”?

George Packer: That’s a real problem. That is not liberal democracy; it is representative democracy, to an extent, probably more than anywhere else in the Arab world, which is also probably the best you can say about it. More Iraqis have been given a chance to voice their political desires than Arabs anywhere else, but for several reasons what they’re getting is an illiberal regime. And part of that illiberal regime is the role of religion, which is going to be very heavy, and part of that is the fate of women and minorities and part of it is simply the freedom of the individual, in all ways. That’s not on. That’s not going to happen for a long time in Iraq. Now, why is that? I’d say two reasons. One: it turns out that large numbers of Iraqis, especially younger Iraqis, are more Muslim than either Kanan Makiya or I or a lot of other people ever knew. There had been a huge, generational tidal pull toward the clerics and toward hard-line interpretations of Islam and its role in politics. I think that was largely a result of Saddam. He helped to create it and he helped to shape it. He shaped it among the Sunnis and he oppressed it among the Shia, so what we’ve ended up with is a young generation of fairly radicalized Sunnis and a new surge of Shia politics that is more theocratic certainly than the neoconservatives ever expected. That’s one reason. The other reason is chaos, and that is more our fault than the Iraqis’ fault.

more from a truly excellent discussion at Radical Society here.

whit

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‘Do you know the French film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie? When I first heard the title, I thought, finally someone’s going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie. What a disappointment! It would be hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.’ Metropolitan (1990)

The re-release by the Criterion Collection of Whit Stillman’s out-of-print début film, Metropolitan, appears to be the first step in restoring the witty and deeply unfashionable work of the director to the filmic canon. Alongside Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) Stillman’s small, perfectly crafted body of work forms a trilogy, if not in content then certainly in its unique sensibility.

more from Frieze here.

the new U

Are you U or non-U? By which I mean, are you a universalist or a relativist? Forget left and right; the defining political divide of the global era is between those who believe that some moral rights and freedoms ought to be universal and those who argue that each culture to its own. This new frontline of contemporary debate runs across issues as diverse as race, faith, multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, freedom of speech and foreign policy. In each instance, the argument eventually comes down to whether you have a universalist or relativist view of the world. Universalists argue that certain rights and protections – freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law – are common or, at least, should be available to all people. Relativists maintain that different cultures have different values and that it’s impossible to say that one system or idea is better than another and, moreover, it’s racist to try.

If all of that sounds a little abstract and theoretical, then a quick glance at government policy is enough to show that these contradictory principles underpin many of the most significant developments of recent years. For example, the interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and, most controversially, Iraq were predicated, give or take a few WMD, on the notion that the inhabitants of those countries should be extended the democratic rights that most people in the West take for granted.

more from the Observer here.